Dear Steve, Part Two. An Open Letter to the Education Reform Movement

You make a curious argument, Steve, in your Op-Ed. You say that one way to achieve your goal of bringing “the best people we can” into the teaching profession is to allow teachers to “get started earlier” and avoid “long and expensive programs” of teacher training. I am not as you will see unsympathetic to this proposition. Still, you must admit, the notion of actually reducing barriers to entry to teaching seems illogical on its face, given that your stated goal is to get better teachers.

Nobody I am aware of, if you will indulge me in an analogy, is suggesting we increase the caliber of doctors in American society by making medical school easier to get into or residency shorter. Yes, I have heard people suggest we make becoming a doctor less crushingly expensive as a way to help new doctors move into socially important but less well-paid specialties. Programs like the National Health Service Corps already exist to help new doctors serve low-income communities. But all this in no way affects the broad social consensus that we want high barriers to entry to the medical field, not low ones. After all, our very lives may one day depend on having the right person as a doctor.

The analogy with teaching is of course imperfect. But Steve, I think you might agree that it is apt enough to show that your desire to make teacher training less “long and expensive” only makes sense if there is something seriously broken about the existing process for becoming a teacher. Having just come out on the far end of this process, I can attest that there is definitely something broken and that I have some close-up insights as to how to fix it.

But before I tell you about these insights, I want to look briefly at some expert analysis and data that points directly at the brokenness of the system of new teacher training, placement, and mentoring. We need not do a deep data dive. In fact, we probably need to go no further than the statistic cited by University of Pennsylvania professor Richard Ingersoll on the excellent radio program With Good Reason that between “forty and fifty percent” of new teachers will “leave the profession within five years.”

In truth, the numbers are worse than suggested in this already troubling statistic. Despite the obvious need for more black and Latino teachers, Ingersoll notes that “minority teachers quit at significantly, distinctly higher rates than non-minority teachers.” Despite the equally obvious need for the best possible teaching and the most stable adult relationships possible for students in poverty of any race or ethnicity, Ingersoll states that students experiencing poverty are by far the most likely to lose their teacher. In fact, “half the outflows” of quitting teachers every year occur at “only a quarter of the schools,” almost all in high poverty areas.

This issue of turnover in high poverty schools is important, and if you’ll permit an aside, Steve, I’ll share a story about it that might interest you. I started my student teaching in 2009, at the pit of the recession and at one of the three or four lowest-performing elementary schools in the greater Sacramento area. The interesting thing about this, looking back, was that this was by design. The sages in charge of my teacher education program at California State University, Sacramento, and the elders running the San Juan Unified School District responsible for the elementary school where I had been student teaching had purposely placed practically all of us student teachers at high-poverty schools.

I’m not saying that we student teachers did a bad job, or that the intent of providing new teachers exposure to high needs kids was wrong. But it’s worth simply noticing that the system had been set up purposely (I’ll say that word again) so that students in poverty would be much more likely than wealthier kids to have an inexperienced adult in their classroom for a short period of time.

This is a clear case of structural inequality in the education system. There are many such cases. Us student teachers talked about inequality incessantly, by the way, as part of a year-long “Foundations” course. In Foundations we learned a kind of social science lite curriculum designed to alert us the historically racist tendencies in the school system (as if we were too ignorant not to know already). We were encouraged to look at our own biases and to examine our privilege, white or otherwise.

What marks the whole Foundations effort in California is a belief that teachers’ personally racist attitudes are causing black and Latino children to struggle in school, that it is possible to re-educate people to not have such problematic attitudes and biases, and that a reduction in bias might change school outcomes for the better. All of which may or may not be true. But what is certainly true is that bias reduction efforts distract limited energy from more obvious sources of structural inequality.

To put it another way, it is easy to force teacher education students (or in-service teachers) to sit in a room and talk about bias and racism. But to extend even the somewhat trivial example related to my student teaching placement mentioned above, it is very likely hard to get parents with resources to accept fleets of student teachers in their children’s classrooms. It is certainly hard, to use a decidedly non-trivial example, to get senior teachers to quit teaching AP classes to upper-middle-class kids at “nice” schools and start teaching regular education classes to kids in poverty at schools plagued by gangs, despair, and academic failure.

I could keep going here but the point is that talking about racism is easy, even I venture to say weirdly pleasurable for many people in comfortable positions within both the teacher education system and the school system itself. Actually addressing the sources of structural inequality in schools, the real sources of segregation, is exceedingly tough. Few people want to face the kind of high-stakes conflict this work would entail. Think about the conflicts over busing in the 1970s. Maybe it’s time, more than forty years later, to stop being afraid of such conflicts in the 2010’s.

But now I need to get back to what I had originally been trying to say about why I think your plan to reduce barriers to entry to teaching might actually make sense. At base I think your seemingly crazy proposition about making it easier to enter teaching is worth taking seriously because if “forty to fifty percent” of teachers leave the profession “with five years” something has to be desperately wrong with the whole process for bringing new teachers into the system. Yes, people leave teaching primarily because it is such a crazy-hard job, but it just has to be said that if the process for entering the profession worked better, it sure seems like more teachers would value their training enough to stick with said hard (but also rewarding) job.


So here’s where I’ll add to your basic argument about making it easier to get into teaching by throwing out my own proposition. What if we upended the process for entering teaching entirely by putting the student teaching experience first? What if we created a new kind of Tier 1 teaching assistant? What follows is an admittedly speculative argument. Very likely there are downsides to the ideas I propose. But bear with me Steve and see what you think.

Here’s the basic idea. A person could only be a Tier 1 teaching assistant for a year, perhaps two during recession years when there are less professional teacher jobs available. Tier 1 teachers would only work under the direct supervision of senior Tier 2 teachers (more on these, and on elite Tier 3 teachers, later). They would pay into Social Security (shamefully, teachers in California and other states do not, but this is a topic for a whole separate essay). They would participate in a labor union (I am for unions). They would be paid more than interns, but less than professional Tier 2 teachers on the regular salary scale. They would be selected competitively based on their college grades (I suspect a Stanford man like you would support this idea, Steve). They would need to pass a meaningful academic entrance exam (similar to the CSET in California but harder than joke-like CBEST). They would take one class, and one class only, taught by an academic expert in best practices for classroom management.

Unlike the distracted student teachers in the current system, they would spend no time at all writing papers and filling out bureaucratic forms (as in the annoying BTSA teacher induction process in California). They would video themselves regularly, and talk over the videos with their mentor teachers. They would work hard trying to help kids learn, always under the direct guidance of a senior Tier 2 teacher. They would not generally teach the highest need, highest poverty students (the rightful job of elite Tier 3 teachers).

What would Tier 1 teaching assistants actually do in the classroom? I am again being speculative here, but why not look at the work of Professor John Hattie (among others) about the “effect sizes” of different instructional strategies? For instance, Hattie found a very high effect size of 0.73 for feedback, especially if this feedback is quick and oriented around doing a task more effectively. But it can be hard in a busy classroom for one teacher to provide enough of this kind of quick, skills-based formative assessment feedback. One role of the Tier 1 student teacher then might be as a person who leverages that formative assessment feedback through working in a structured way with small groups of students. There are many other potential roles for Tier 1 teaching assistants, but the point is that all of these roles should be structured around high effect size instructional strategies, and leveraging the capacity of the classroom teacher.

After a year, or two during recessions, Tier 1 teaching assistants would come to a choice point. Do they like this role? Do their mentor teachers and school administrators see them as a good fit for the job? Are they able to relate well with their students? Is moving ahead a good idea?

If not, there needs to be a path to quit early without shame or failure. As the mantra goes in Silicon Valley, fail early, right? The job is hard, it’s not for everyone, and it’s not unreasonable for some people to use Tier 1 teaching as a kind of public service opportunity before entering other careers. Frankly, Steve, this much like many in the Teach for America program you extol in your Op-Ed now use their teaching experience. Some people might even come back and try Tier 1 teaching again after washing out the first time. After all, what someone is not ready for at age 22 might be a great fit at age 32 or 42. I can say for myself as a late entrant into the profession that my interest in teaching did not blossom until I had my own children.


But if everyone agrees it is time to move ahead, then both prospective teachers and the system itself needs to invest in some formal teacher education. This would be both like and unlike the teaching credential program I went through a few years back. Here I am advancing yet another speculative argument, but let’s think for a minute about what a year back in the university might look like.

Let’s start with the easy question of what would not exist. There would be no patronizing “Foundations” course like we have in California. There would be no unrealistic demand to multi-task by taking a large course load and student teach at the same time, as in the current system. Prospective Tier 2 teachers would have a chance to focus just on their own academic training for a year, much like they focused just on student teaching during their Tier 1 experience. Notice, however, that their Tier 1 “student teaching” would actually have been paid, unlike the current model where prospective teachers pay to work.

The harder question is of course, what would exist? I think there should definitely be a thesis-like independent research project organized around field research and sample lessons taught in schools. Such a research project might look somewhat like the “PACT” process I went through as part of my teacher training in California (you can look this up if you want), but would be much less scripted than PACT.

The year back at school would also, of course, involve classes. But these classes would have the characteristic of “lab” classes without a heavy writing and homework load. Most writing and homework would be reserved for the independent research project described earlier.

The in-depth training and practice in classroom management begun during the student teaching experience would continue. Management classes would be very heavily lab-oriented, based around sessions where prospective teachers “act” for each other in front of mock classrooms and practice (and re-practice) techniques for responding to difficult situations.

There would also be subject-oriented teaching classes similar to “methods” classes in the current teaching credential model. Students would learn the very best methods to teach math from excellent math teachers, the very best methods to teach literacy from excellent literacy teachers, and the like. There would be a lab aspect to this similar to the labs on classroom management described above, where students would get to practice and re-practice subject-specific best practices. Methods classes would also include a strong emphasis on best practices in formative and summative assessment for given subject areas.

There would be opportunities to observe and take notes on elite Tier 3 teachers working with hard-to-reach kids in high poverty settings. As the role of the Tier 3 teacher should be teaching and teaching only (again, more on this in Part Three of this essay), these would be just observations, not opportunities to student teach.

Both methods and management classes would include specific empathy training of the kind suggested by UC Berkeley professor Jason Okonofua to help reduce suspension rates in the school system and cut off what has been called the school to prison pipeline for black and Latino boys. After all, it’s not as if the social justice issues discussed in the current Foundations curriculum in California aren’t real. They very much are. It’s just that the current system provides little more than a heavy dose of navel-gazing to address this issue, rather than giving teachers practical tools to help keep kids in class who may not be bought into the system.

Finally, there would be at least some opportunity for candidates to take classes in their actual subject areas of interest, especially in fields like math where there is a huge need in the labor market. To take myself as an example, I ended up taking a half-dozen community college math classes to put myself in a position to test into (first) my foundational math credential and then (eventually) my full high school math credential. I had to do this, in large part, because during the recession there were no jobs teaching 5th grade, which had been my original dream entering teaching. Taking math classes was a way for me to keep intellectually engaged and sane while on the circuit of temporary and sub jobs in 2008 and 2009, but it worked out for me beautifully. I got hired as soon as I had the foundational math credential and got four job offers as soon as I had the full high school credential.

Again, I digress a bit, Steve, but I think my experience here is not so unusual. American universities graduate too few math majors, many of these people can be too valuable in private industry to want a teaching job, and some might not have the right personality for teaching. So for the foreseeable future, we’re going to have a cadre of math teachers who like me are, shall we say, on an ongoing journey of learning. The same thing is probably true to a lesser degree in other fields. Training for prospective Tier 2 teachers should acknowledge the realities of the labor market and include opportunities for teachers to deepen love for their subject matter or fix areas where they might have underdeveloped skills.

So, Steve, it’s time for me to close Part Two of my letter to you. I’m glad I had a chance to explain why I agree with you that it might make sense, in a certain way, to make it easier to enter the teaching profession. I’m glad I had a chance to explain the complicated terms on which my agreement rests. In the final section of this letter, Part Three, I plan to explain the terms on which I strongly disagree with you and other school reformers that a lot of political energy should be placed on issues like teacher tenure and getting rid of underperforming teachers. I want to explain to you just exactly why the school reform movement should stop obsessing about bad teachers, and start focusing on how it might be possible to highly reward exceptional “Tier 3” teachers. Curious? You’ll need to wait for the next installment of my letter.