Teacher Education Left Behind

How NCLB harms the preparation of new teachers

By Doug Selwyn

Illustrator: Joseph Blough

Photo: Joseph Blough

At Antioch University’s teacher prep-aration programs we teach that students are unique and come to us with worldviews shaped by family, culture, and community.

We believe students learn and mature at different rates and that one size does not fit all. We help our students to understand that there is no one measure that can give an accurate picture of who someone is, and that teachers must use an array of teaching strategies so that each learner has the best chance to succeed. Our teaching is based on current learning theory, on educational research, and on years of practice in the classroom.

But No Child Left Behind (NCLB) undermines all of this.

The punitive, high-stakes testing environment of NCLB has changed the nature of our work in teacher education. Our mission at Antioch (a liberal arts university that has its central campus in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and operates on five sites throughout the country) is to prepare teachers to work for social justice, particularly in diverse urban settings. We work as hard as we know how to support new teachers to enter the schools as change agents, prepared to work against institutional racism and class inequities, but NCLB is making that work much harder.

Our teacher candidates experience an educational world that has changed dramatically. NCLB’s punitive nature has heightened fear, which in turn sends districts and administrators on single-minded missions to raise test scores.

When test-focused administrators arrive, veteran teachers may choose to leave. The veteran teachers are replaced by teachers willing to buy into the principal’s mission of raising scores. This has a direct impact on our Antioch students because these teachers will serve as mentors and will be modeling practices that help shape our student teachers’ attitudes about what education is and how best to carry it out.

Christie Kaaland, a colleague at Antioch who works with the bachelors completion and teacher preparation program, says student teachers in the Tacoma, Wash., district were unhappy working with reading programs adopted and required by NCLB. “The district had previously thrown out whole successful literacy programs, and spent millions of dollars on new, ‘scientifically based’ reading programs, which are strictly teacher-proof, scripted, phonics-heavy programs,” she added. “I had two students who said to me, ‘I’m not sure I want to be a teacher if that’s how I have to teach reading.'”

Placing Our Students

Gloria Matthews, Antioch’s placement specialist says it’s increasingly difficult to place student teachers because of schools’ concerns about test scores. Many schools now will not take student teachers at all for fear that it will compromise their test scores. At least four or five schools we’ve previously worked with have said that they can no longer “afford” to take student teachers because of the pressures of NCLB. They are not willing to risk having an inexperienced student teacher spend weeks working with their students because the students might score lower on the standardized test. I’ve talked with colleagues at other universities who have experienced similar reactions from the public schools they work with.

And schools that will still take on student teachers are very reluctant to take them at the fourth-, seventh-, or 10th-grade levels since those are the grades in which the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) tests are given. We are not sure what will happen when students are tested in grades three through eight, as mandated by NCLB.

Kathy Purcell, an administrator at Heritage College, a small program dealing primarily with underserved populations, said, “Principals are now middle managers totally focused on raising test scores. It takes a courageous principal to risk having a student teacher in place, because it could threaten test scores.”

She also says, “Principals are focused on whatever their own political realities are in their buildings. This business of bringing along new professionals is not very high on their lists right now.” They can’t afford to cooperate with schools of education as they once did.

Matthews says many Antioch students are reluctant to student teach in schools in neighborhoods that are predominantly low income or of color because those schools tend to have the lowest test scores. Schools failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) are adopting scripted test-preparation curricula in hopes that they can raise scores and avoid the increasing penalties. Gloria says that our student teachers come back disturbed by what they are seeing: 6- and 7-year-olds sitting absolutely still for hours on end, only responding to scripted prompts in prescribed ways, silently walking down the hallways hugging themselves tightly (a self-administered strait jacket) so that they won’t touch other students. They say this is not what they went into education to do.

As a result, Antioch sends more students to schools with higher percentages of students who are white, middle-class, and successful on tests. Those schools are more open to student teachers because their scores are strong, or because they are not worried about them for philosophical reasons. They are willing to take the time to nourish and support student teachers as they learn their craft, and they are more likely to model the kinds of teaching we value and advocate at Antioch. This has placed us in a bind; we want to prepare our students to serve the full range of students in our urban district, with particular attention to working with those who have not been well served. But we also want them to have the opportunity to observe and to engage in “best practice” approaches to teaching and learning.

The testing also affects the grades at which our students choose to teach. Anne* says WASL “influenced my decision on which grade to teach.” She says a friend had a difficult time student teaching in a fourth-grade classroom. “The WASL terrified her. . . . She feels that the WASL is very limiting to the depth and breadth that you can get into any particular subject and things are being squeezed out in order to make room for the WASL materials. And her class dreads the tests so the whole mood changes. It’s very difficult for her to combat it. Yup, I’ll stick with first graders for now.”

Jane agrees. “It’s intimidating. Do I really want to fight that battle? I think I’ll just teach at lower grades rather than deal with the pressures of testing.”

Of course, some Antioch students do take placements in fourth- or seventh-grade classrooms, and it does have an impact. Ken was in a fourth-grade classroom in a school that had failed to meet AYP the year before. He said there was tremendous pressure throughout the school, and that teachers and administrators felt like they were under a magnifying glass. Ken said his mentor teacher was reluctant to let him teach, for fear that kids would not learn enough, so he had to fight for time. She also pressured him to ignore the so-called “teachable moments” that arose during the day so they could cover the WASL curriculum in a timely way.

The demands of NCLB and WASL also affect the configurations and educational designs student teachers experience. Students have fewer opportunities to observe (or teach in) multi-age, multi-graded classrooms because of the logistical challenges that face those rooms around testing. I taught in a fourth/fifth grade classroom my last two years of public school. It was a wonderful arrangement that allowed my students to move easily to the appropriate level of challenge for their learning in the various subject areas, allowed those mature fourth graders and somewhat immature fifth graders to fit in with peers. It also meant that I had a group of students who knew my routines and the workings of the classroom each year and could serve as mentors to the new students coming in.

But multi-age classrooms are a challenge when it comes to preparing for and taking standardized tests. What do you do with your fifth graders while the fourth graders are spending weeks preparing for and then taking their tests? What do you do with the fourth graders when the fifth graders prepare for and take their tests, which are not scheduled at the same time? How do you pull the class back together after those many weeks of separation?

Many schools (including one of my former schools) have chosen to avoid the logistical difficulties by simply reverting to straight grade-level classes. The teachers and principal said that they hated to give up the multi-grade approach but the balancing act was driving them crazy; they were concerned that they were not preparing students adequately for the tests.

Enchanted and Confused

Students return from their school visits during their first quarter of student teaching enchanted by the children and confused about their futures. They notice that many schools have essentially eliminated social studies and arts at the elementary levels since they are not tested, and wonder whether they will be able to teach in those areas. Others are distressed at the decision to eliminate recess in Tacoma schools, a decision made in response to poor test scores and looming NCLB penalties. Many student teachers are concerned about the anger, fear, and frustration communicated to children by teachers in the schools where they observed and taught.

The pressures are not only on the students. Tina Dawson, former Antioch education center director, notes that this is becoming increasingly high stakes for education schools. Dawson says Jennifer Wallace, chair of the Public Education Standards Board (PESB), which now oversees teacher preparation in Washington State, told a meeting of administrators from teacher education programs that the evaluation of teacher certification programs will be linked to test scores and student performance. “[In the near future], we will have to keep track of all our graduates who enter the teaching profession and then monitor how their public school students do on test scores,” says Dawson. “This will determine whether we can continue as a program to offer teacher certification.”

Dawson wonders what that means for Antioch’s future. “We focus on social justice, on serving those who have not been well served, and help our students to work in schools with the most need,” says Dawson. “Those schools tend to have the lowest test scores, and that might put our program at risk. We are certainly not going to change our focus because of the tests, but it may affect our future.”

The standards board has made it clear that it is not necessarily committed to continuing to have teacher candidates educated at schools of education. It has threatened schools of education that have questioned the wisdom and requirements of NCLB by saying that we either must follow through with what is required by law or they will turn to the educational service districts (ESDs) located around the state to prepare teachers. ESDs are public agencies created by the Washington state legislature to serve school districts and state-approved private schools within specific service areas. The PESB offers various alternative certification programs, with some scholarship money provided by the state legislature, which fast-tracks business people (and others) into classrooms with a minimum of training.

Several Antioch administrators say they’re concerned that the standards board may look to phase out teacher education at colleges and universities, moving it to educational service districts and to the districts themselves. Teacher education may be viewed as less crucial as curriculum becomes more scripted, standardized, and “teacher proof,” thus making schools of education expendable.

Within Antioch and Beyond

Despite the current climate brought on by NCLB and high-stakes testing, Antioch still wants to help beginning teachers feel empowered and effective in their classrooms. We are taking some steps here at Antioch, and continue to talk about what else we can do.

First, we are re-examining our teacher certification program to make sure we help our students to function as change agents, and also help them to approach their children and their work in a sustainable manner. One way we are doing this is by putting more emphasis on the political environment of education and the need for teachers to be aware of NCLB, including what’s in the law and what is happening as a consequence. This leads to discussions about what teachers can do as political and community activists in addition to their work in the classroom.

We are considering how we can become more involved in the public conversation regarding education and specifically NCLB. We recognize that we have not been involved enough with the legislature, with the public schools, and, most importantly, with the children and families of our community. This leaves us in a passive position, figuring out how to deal with whatever the federal government and state bureaucracy throw at us. We realize we need to be proactive, to reach out to others and forge alliances. We are already overbooked with our current duties so we are looking at ways to reconfigure our university requirements to allow for more community outreach.

We are beginning to research grants that would enable us to support more people of color (paraprofessionals and others) and students from low-income families who are currently unable to enter the profession. Research shows that cultural matches between teachers and students can make a significant difference in student success, and the teacher corps has become whiter and more middle class, even as students in public schools are increasingly from low-income communities and communities of color. Because finances are a significant barrier to potential students, we are working to increase the aid we can offer candidates. We would like to educate more paraprofessionals, a number of whom will be losing their jobs in 2006 due to NCLB requirements.

We are also offering more academic and test-taking support to students coming into our program, recognizing that the additional testing required for teacher candidates can be a hurdle for some students. Students who are challenged by testing or who require some additional support in basic skill areas will be more likely to succeed if we can provide support, both pre-application and within our program.

We are not satisfied with our ideas about how to be most effective in this climate. We asked our current students how we could best prepare them (and those students who will follow them) to deal with the NCLB environment. They had the following suggestions:

Really push students to get to know the law. I know you push us to become familiar with NCLB, and to realize that education is political, but I never really read it. Give us the assignment to get to know the law so that we can be more aware of what it really says.

Have more conversations about the realities of the politics of schools. As depressing as it is, it is helpful to have these conversations, and to develop strategies together to both survive and to serve our students.

Bring theory and practice together in a practical manner so that students can learn how to satisfy both NCLB and their souls. Many students felt excited and inspired by the constructivist, child-centered approaches that focus on social justice advocated at Antioch, and then betrayed when they entered schools only concerned with following scripts and meeting cut scores. They felt a strong need to know how to survive in the NCLB system long enough to bring change to it.

It is a large challenge that we face in teacher education, but it is one we must face; we really have no choice if we wish to save public education and the teaching profession.

Doug Selwyn (dselwyn@antiochsea.edu) teaches at Antioch University in Seattle and works with Puget Sound Rethinking Schools. With Jan Maher he is author of History in the Present Tense: Engaging Students Through Inquiry and Action (Heinemann, 2003.) *All students’ names have been changed.