The Cooperative-Communal Classroom–>Insights from Nature

Cooperative-communal classrooms are aligned with fundamental ideas that have been formulated from nature.  Cooperation, empathy, mutual aid, and the interdisciplinary nature of the biosphere are fundamental concepts that are implicit in cooperative-communal classrooms. Each has its origin in nature.

The rationale for establishing cooperative-communal classrooms can be linked to the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin and the work of two Russian scientists of the 19th and early 20th Century, Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky (1863-1945), and Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin (1842-1921).  I know that this appears strange, but as you read ahead I hope you will see how my thinking was influenced by not only my experiences as a teacher, but my collaboration with colleagues in the U.S. and in Russia.

Anatoly Zaklebney, ecologist and science educator who worked with students and teachers during the era of glasnost and perestroika.
Anatoly Zaklebney, Russian ecologist and science educator.

I started visiting Russia (then the Soviet Union) in 1981, and continued for the next twenty years making one or two trips per year collaborating with teachers, researchers, scientists, students and parents.  After several years of building trust and friendship with Russian colleagues (by sending and receiving delegations of teachers and researchers, teaching in each other’s classrooms, and holding open-ended discussions about teaching, and drinking lots of coffee and tea), we created a project that connected students, ecology, and the Internet into what became known as the Global Thinking Project–a kind of hands-across-the-globe environmental science project.  Cooperation was a central tenet of our work.  There was no attempt to Americanize Russian education; instead, we hoped to build a form of collaboration to enhance teaching and learning in each country’s classrooms touched by our work.  Our model was to join classrooms–the class–from one country to the other, for collaborating on one of several ecological and environmental projects that would be carried out using “project-based learning.”

GTP classrooms in Russia, and the U.S. had only one computer per classroom connected to the telecommunications network we established with the help of Gary Lieber, on loan to us from Apple. We actually carried on a flight to Moscow, six Macintosh SE 20 computers, printers, and 2400-baud modems. With this equipment, phone lines and a connection to SOVAM, a telecommunication’s company in Moscow, we linked six Russian and six American schools using email and bulletin boards.

Collaborative teams within each classroom were essential in the GTP, and as a result we had years of experience working with schools that experimented with cooperative-communal classroom learning.

We documented our work in a variety of publications including: Environmental Science on the Net,  The AHP Soviet Exchange Project, Teaching Students to Think Globally, Citizen Scientists, The Emergence of Global Thinking Among American and Russian Youth, and other research.

In time many other teachers and researchers joined with us including, Australia, the Czech Republic, and Spain.

Thinking in Wholes: Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky

In 1988 I met Anatoly Zaklebny, a professor of ecology and ecological education, the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences, Moscow.  Dr. Zakhlebny was a principal leader in ecological education in Russia, and had led many excursions into Siberia to give “field-camp” type experiences for science teachers.  He also developed ecological curriculum for schools throughout Russia.  He argued that science curriculum should be interdisciplinary, helping students experience connections not only among disparate fields in science (biology and chemistry, biology and geology, and so forth), but with politics, social science, and history.
Dr. Zaklebny introduced us to the ideas of Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky, a 19th Century Russian scientist.  At the time, most of us in the West were unaware of what Vernadsky had taught about the Earth.  Vernadsky explained that life, including human life, using energy from visible light from the Sun, has transformed the planet Earth for billions of years.  To Vernadsky life makes geology.  To him, life is not merely a geological force, it is the geological force. At the Earth’s surface, just about all geological features are “bio-influenced.”  Although Vernadsky did not coin the word “biosphere,” his understanding and views are what are accepted today.  As Dr. Lynn Margulis, and colleagues stated in the introduction to the first English translation of Vernadsky’s book, The Biosphere, Vernadsky showed us the way to understand how life and non-life are connected.  They wrote:

He illuminates the difference between an inanimate, mineralogical view of Earth’s history, and an endlessly dynamic picture of Earth as the domain and product of life, to a degree not yet well understood. No prospect of life’s cessation looms on any horizon. What Charles Darwin did for all life through time, Vernadsky did for all life through space. Just as we are all connected in time through evolution to common ancestors, so we are all-through the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and these days even the ionosphere-connected in space.

Vernadsky’s contributions and scientific contributions are metaphors for thinking in wholes, and the connections that exist within any system that we study.   This is especially true for the science curriculum.

But Here’s the Thing.

The Common Core State Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) have been criticized for their lack of attention to interdisciplinary curriculum, and the role of schools in preparing students for citizenship. Professor William Wraga suggests that “disciplinary myopia” has led to standards that are overly technical and steeped in discipline concepts, processes and practice. He suggests, and we would agree, that interdisciplinary curriculum can lead to greater understanding by seeking connections among the disciplines. S-T-S, science-related social issues, and a lived curriculum should be starting points for a science curriculum; unfortunately this is not the case in the new science framework.

Wraga also focuses in on the unfortunate single purpose of schooling as depicted in the common standards, and that is that education should be in the service of economic interests. We see this in news reports each Spring when test scores are released which typically lead to “a sky is falling” mentality amongst chief school officers, governors, and other politicians. Repeated attention to international test results leads to unfounded comparisons among countries. Wraga sees this as a narrow function of schooling, and wonders why vocational, social, civic, cultural, and each goal give way to a single goal, which he identifies as the academic goal.

The same criticisms can leveled at the framework for science education in that National Research Council’s Framework as it is steeped in a disciplinary approach to content. In fact, the word “interdisciplinary” is found only twice in the framework, and one of these was part of one of the committee member’s biography. The science framework is neatly organized into four traditional content areas: life, earth, and physical science, as well as engineering and technology. The framework does name cross-cutting ideas, but this is not at all what science educators would view as anything remotely close to interdisciplinary curriculum.  The Framework was the basis for the NGSS.

We need to teach science that is rich in connections not only within the traditional disciplines of science, but the connections with and among social studies, politics, economics, history, and geography.   Charlene M. Czerniak, in a chapter entitled “Interdisciplinary Science Teaching” in The Handbook of Research on Science Education, an advocate for “integrated curriculum,” reports that there are challenges to implementing interdisciplinary curriculum.  Even though interdisciplinary approaches have been around for a long time, the 1996 Science Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards, still organize the standards into each discipline of science.  There is very little attempt to integrate knowledge across disciplines.

Perhaps what we need is a Vernadskian curriculum theorist and practitioner who will apply integrated approaches, especially if we think that this kind of curriculum might be more relevant to students, and might indeed focus on problems that would be of interest to our students.

The Place of Cooperation in Evolution : Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin and Charles Darwin

Wordle on Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin

The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics is a new book written by Lee Alan Dugatkin an evolutionary biologist and historian of science and a professor and Distinguished University Scholar in the Department of Biology at the University of Louisville.  Dr. Dugatkin’s book should be of interest to scientists, and science educators, but I think also the corporate reformers that I wrote about in the last blog post.  Dugatkin writes about the science and politics of Peter Kropotkin, and it is the science that I think should be reading for all interested in improving teaching and learning of the youth of the species, Homo sapiens.
As Dugatkin writes, Kropotkin was a brilliant scientist, who spent years studying nature in Siberia.  As a young man, with the support of the Russian Geographical Society, his travels to Siberia began a life of exploration, writing, publishing, editing, and activist politics.  As Dugatkin points out, the evolutionary theory of the late 19th Century suggested tha the natural world was a “brutal” place; indeed, competition was the driving force.  Kropotkin expected that he would find examples of the brutalness of nature, but instead he found the opposite.  Lee Alan Dugatkin writes:

And so, in the icy wilderness, Peter expected to witness nature red in tooth and claw. He searched for it. He studied flocks of migrating birds and mammals, fish schools, and insect societies. What he found was that competition was virtually nonexistent. Instead, in every corner of the animal world, he encountered mutual aid. Individuals huddled for warmth, fed one another, and guarded their groups from danger, all seeming to be cogs in a larger cooperative society. “In all the scenes of animal lives which passed before my eyes,” Kropotkin wrote, “I saw mutual aid and mutual support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species and its further evolution” (Dugatkin, Lee Alan (2011-09-13). The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics . . Kindle Edition).

And during his studies in Siberia, he visited peasant villages, and in them he saw their sense of community and coöperation.  According to Dugatkin, Kropotkin as a young scientist “witnessed human coöperation and altruism in its purest form.”

These observations presented a problem to the Russian scientist.  As an advocate for natural selection (as discovered by Darwin and Wallace), as the driving force that shaped life on the earth, he began to question the way Darwin’s ideas had been perverted and misrepresented, especially by British scientists.  Even today, most people misinterpret Darwinian evolution by invoking the term “survival of the fittest” as the fundamental idea of evolution.  It is not.  Dugatkin writes:

Natural selection, Kropotkin argued, led to mutual aid, not competition, among individuals. Natural selection favored societies in which mutual aid thrived, and individuals in these societies had an innate predisposition to mutual aid because natural selection had favored such actions. Kropotkin even coined a new scientific term—progressive evolution—to describe how mutual aid became the sine qua non of all societal life—animal and human. Years later, with the help of others, Kropotkin would formalize the idea that mutual aid was a biological law, with many implications, but the seeds were first sown in Siberia (Dugatkin, Lee Alan (2011-09-13). The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics . . Kindle Edition).

Cooperation is an essential attribute of survival, not only among humans, but other animal species as well.

Instead of using the attribute of coöperation as a fundamental aspect of student learning, most classrooms use a competitive model to fulfill the goal of personal achievement, at all costs.  To make sure that one can measure achievement, élite groups have mandated single set of goals naming them common standards.  To date, we have developed common standards in mathematics, English/language arts, and science.  Concurrently achievement tests that are matched to the standards are being developed by two groups of test constructionists.  The tests, when they are ready for use, will be administered using computer technology.

Unfortunately, much of the rationale for this standards/high-stakes testing is based on the flawed theory that to compete in the global market place, we need to beat the drums and make sure that students attain a set of goals that may or not be related their own futures.  Using a behavioral and at best traditional model of knowledge attainment, instruction is geared to the teach to the test model.  All outcomes of this approach are measured by how people do on high-stakes testing.

Instead of recognizing that scientists have moved way beyond the simple model of knowledge transmission and have invented a new field of study, called the learning sciences, schools are stuck in the older model.  The so-called reformers of education want only one thing: Higher test score.  The learning sciences is an interdisciplinary field of study embracing disparate fields including cognitive sciencecomputer scienceeducational psychologyanthropology, and applied linguistics.  What is significant here is the notion of interdisciplinary study.  Vernadsky and Kropotkin uncovered new connections among various fields of study, and indeed, Vernadsky might be considered one of the earliest scientists to invent interdisciplinary fields including “biogeochemistry,” and “geomicrobiology.”  Kropotkin established that brought together various fields of study to develop a common thread or theme–the scientific law of mutual aid, which brought the fields together.  As Kugatkin in the Prince of Evolution writes:

This law boils down to Kropotkin’s deep-seated conviction that what we today would call altruism and cooperation—but what the Prince called mutual aid—was the driving evolutionary force behind all social life, be it in microbes, animals or humans (Dugatkin, Lee Alan (2011-09-13). The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics . . Kindle Edition).

Students do not learn in isolation, and their learning is not enhanced by competing with other students for higher grades, stars, happy faces, or even money.  In my view, learning is improved in environments where students are working together to build and share ideas through action on problems that are relevant to the student’s life experiences and cultural heritage.  As formulated by John Dewey, learning should be rooted in pragmatism resulting in school learning that is experiential and humanistic.  Cooperation should be a focus of the work of teachers in helping students “learn” to work with each other to tackle socially relevant problems.  Empathy and realism foster interpersonal relationships among students and teachers.

Thinking in wholes, and learning to use coöperation, one of the survival traits that evolved through natural selection, should characterize schooling for human beings living on the planet Earth.

What do you think about all of this?  Do you accept Kropotkin’s idea that mutual aid or coöperation played a major part in the evolution?  Does this have any application for teaching?  And what do you think of Vernadsky’s conception of thinking in wholes, and making connection among disparate fields?


Peter Kropotkin was also a famous political activist.  His travels to Siberia, and experiences with peasant villages led him to “give up on government,” and instead believe that it would be better to have no government.  He joined an activist group in St. Petersburg whose goal was to work with peasants and tell them of labor movements in Europe, and to educate them.  Remember, Peter was from an aristocratic family, and as such, he dressed as a peasant and traveled around spreading the ideas that government was evil, and that people would “naturally” coöperate and solve problems better than any government (See  Dugatkin, Lee Alan (2011-09-13). The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics (p. 23). . Kindle Edition).  Although imprisoned in the notorious Peter and Paul Prison in 1874,he was able to receive books, and with the help of the Russian Geographic Society, and his brother’s plea to the Czar, Peter was able to receive paper and pen to continue writing.  He escaped from a low security prison in 1876, and fled to England.  Follow this link to The Prince of Evolution to find out more about his political activities in England, mainland Europe and America.



Why Are We Surprised About Senator Rubio’s Concept of Geological History?

You would think that a United States Senator would have at least a rudimentary knowledge of geology.  Presumably the Senator, who is on the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, must use knowledge of science to deal with some of the issues this committee tackles, especially the subcommittee of Science & Space, of which he is a member.  He is well-educated with degrees from the University of South Florida and the University of Miami (Law).

Senator Rubio no doubt had a course in earth science when he was a middle school student in Florida, and no doubt took biology courses in high school and at the University of South Florida, where he earned a B.A. degree.  And given that he received his degrees in the 1990s, there really hasn’t been enough time for him to forget everything he learned in science classes.

Yet, when he was asked about the age of earth, he said he wasn’t a scientist, and not qualified to answer.  What is the implication of that answer?  Does he mean that only “experts” like scientists can express a qualified opinion?  Does this mean that only lawyers, like himself, are qualified to give opinions about legal matters?  Here is Rubio’s complete answer:

I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.

William Smith’s first geologic map of England, c. 1815

William ‘Strata’ Smith would beg to differ.  In truth, knowing about the history of the earth, the age and composition of rock formations changed the world economy.  Simon Winchester in his book, The Map That Changed the World, tells the story of how Smith, a English canal digger, discovered that rocks he was digging were arranged in layers; he also noted that fossils varied from one place to another, and by using fossils he could “trace” layers around England.  According to Winchester, Smith realized that he could make a map that would show the ‘hidden’ earth.  He created a hand-painted geologic map that was eight feet high by six feet wide.

According to Winchester (and most geologists would agree), the world’s coal and oil industry, its gold mining, its highway systems, and railroad routes were are derived entirely from the creation of Smith’s geologic map.  Mr. Rubio might want to know that there is a field of study called economic geology.

The answer Rubio gave might also come as surprise to some middle and high school students that had taken a few courses in science, especially earth science, biology or astronomy.  In those courses they most likely studied geological time, rocks, minerals, and fossils, and learned about methods scientists use to date things that happened long ago.

But here is something that is more important.   Geology is the study of earth (the place we all live), its history, structure, evolution of life, and the processes that moulded the Earth, and affected its inhabitants.  Don’t you think that we should expect that men and woman elected to the U.S. Congress ought to know something about the planet on which they live?

Should members of Congress pass a literacy test (link to the US Citizenship Test) that would include questions on science, political science, religion, economics, history of the U.S.?  Just to be sure they have the knowledge needed to do their job?  Teachers, physicians, pedicurists, lawyers, and electricians need to be certified by a test. Why not members of Congress?

Is the Earth Really Billions of Years Old?

Archbishop Usher of Ireland, a highly regarded churchman and scholar (1581 – 1665), established the Usher chronology by comparing written histories and Holy writ concluded that the earth was formed on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC.  He then calculated the dates of other biblical events.  The “young Earth” of Usher came under criticism, especially in the 19th Century with the development of the science of geology.   Usher’s views however were not different from some famous scientists.  Johannes Kepler’s earth was 3992 BC, and Sir Isaac Newton’s was c. 4000 BC).  Their views were not nonsense.

But, today we do have people who claim that the earth is only 9,000 years old.  A 9,000 year old earth is nonsense.  I am talking about Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia who said:

You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I’ve found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don’t believe that the Earth’s but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.

Phil Plait, on his Bad Astronomy blog wrote a post on Rep. Broun.  Plait suggests that Broun is another member of the Anti-Science Committee that resides in the halls of Congress.

Senator Rubio and Representative Broun might be surprised to find out who wrote the following account of the origin of earth and life on earth.  Read on….

Here is one view of the universe, its origin, and emergence and development of life on Earth:

According to the widely accepted scientific account, the universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the ‘Big Bang‘ and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life. While there is little consensus among scientists about how the origin of this first microscopic life is to be explained, there is general agreement among them that the first organism dwelt on this planet about 3.5–4 billion years ago. Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution.

Most high school students, if asked, whether they think this is a fair account of the origin of the earth and development of life, would probably agree.

Representative Paul Broun of Georgia would say the statement is straight from Hell.  The earth is only 9,000 years old.

Senator Rubio thinks that the science on the age of the earth is not settled. He ought to read Alex Knapp’s post on Forbes.  Rubio thinks there are multiple theories to explain the age of the earth.  He thinks the age of the earth is one of the great mysteries of the world.

Rubio is a Roman Catholic.  The quote that I included above was not written by a scientist.  It was written by a Catholic Cardinal in 2004.  When it was written, the author’s name was Cardinal Ratzinger.  He is now Pope Benedict XVI.  You can check the reference here: Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God, plenary sessions held in Rome 2000–2002, published July 2004.

Would this information, and the knowledge that the head of the Catholic church accepts the scientific views on the history of earth, and evolution of life on the planet have any affect on Rubio’s views?

Probably not.

Say It Isn’t So

Are Rubio’s views simply fundamental religious beliefs?  Are his answers couched in politico speak?  Is he more concerned about what potential voters think of his view on such as ‘touchy’ subject?  Would his answers on evolution, global warming and climate change, and cloning lead to the same kind of conclusions?

Even though Rubio’s education and religious beliefs should not have been a conflict with the established science of the age of earth, or even evolution, he appears to be either fearful of science, or he is beholden to the conservative world view that is based on a strict father or authoritarian figure.  Is he beholden to the radical right of the Republican party when he gives anti science answers?

In George Lakoff’s view, we can understand one’s position on issues such as the “age of the earth” by understanding his research on deep framing–the moral and political principles that cut across issues and that are needed before “slogans or clever phrases” can have meaning with the public.  Lakoff, however, believes that politics is about values and how to communicate them, not necessarily about issues.  Lakoff writes in his book, Thinking Points, that

Politics is about values; it is about communication; it is about voters trusting a candidate to do what is right; it is about believing in, and identifying with, a candidate’s worldview. And it is about symbolism.

Rubio’s answer to the question the earth’s age is about the values he holds about truth and knowledge.  By saying that the age of the earth is a great mystery, he is opting for an authoritarian source of knowledge based on beliefs, and not a source of knowledge based science, reason or inquiry.  Rubio’s position is based on the Strict Father Model that Lakoff has developed that focuses on authority and control.  In the case of the age of the earth, a religious authority has a more valid answer than the field of geology.  Conservatives think that they lose control if they accept data, knowledge, concepts and principles established by science.  There is little authority in the field of science.  There is no president or moral leader of science.  For a conservative, values and resulting beliefs and attitudes flow from a moral authority–God, the president, the parents, the teacher, commanding officer, and so forth (Lakoff, Thinking Points).

For progressives, who have turned to the keyboard on their blogs and newspaper articles after Rubio’s comments, its important to point out what their values are, how it frames their positions on issues.  What values underscore why they oppose anti-science comments spread by members of Congress such as Rubio?

What are the values that move you to agree or disagree with Rubio’s view on the age of the Earth?



Hip-Hop Culture & Science Teaching: Progressive Education in Action

I’ve written several posts on this blog about Professor Christopher Emdin, Professor of Science Education, Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City.

Dr. Emdin has worked for years in New York City schools with urban youth to help teachers change the way they work with their students to bring real meaning to the learning of science.  The kind of teaching environment that Emdin suggests for urban schools is a communal one. Communal classrooms involve students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on interpersonal relationships, community and the collective betterment of the group. This type of teaching requires not only an understanding of the student’s culture, but the courage and willingness to create classrooms based on relationships, empathy, and understanding, and there is real evidence that to do this the best and most experienced teachers are needed.

Emdin provides insight for us as to go about being a teacher in urban classrooms. Because Emdin places great emphasis encouraging teachers to understand their urban students and he says this:

…it is necessary to understand how students know, feel, and experience the world by becoming familiar with where students come from and consciously immersing oneself in their culture. This immersion in student culture, even for teachers who may perceive themselves to be outsiders to hip-hop, simply requires taking the time to visit, observe, and study student culture.

Dr. Emdin suggests that classrooms should be viewed as a “space with its own reality.” In particular he urges us to focus on the “experiences of hip-hop participants as a conduit through which they can connect to science.” Using the concept “reality pedagogy” teaching in the urban classroom means creating a new dialogue where the student’s beliefs and behaviors are considered normal, and that the experiences within the hip-hop culture can actually be the way to learning science.

Dr. Emdin’s research and work with students is progressive education in action, and Emdin is doing the research to document his and his colleagues efforts.  According to John Dewey, learning environments that tend to be more informal than formal use elements of non-school learning that in the end bring the students closer to the [science] curriculum, perhaps making border crossings less hazardous. In this context, learning is tied to “use, to drama of doubt, need and discovery” (Fishman and McCarthy 1989).

Emdin has brought the culture of hip-hop into the classroom to create this kind of environment.   As Dewey, and now Emdin point out, in formal learning settings, scientific ideas & concepts are presented as if they were bricks, and we are tempted to try to pass out ideas, because like bricks, they are separable. Concepts are taught without a context, without connections, and without relevance to the students. Yes, there are some students who will learn science very well in formal environments. But many students, who will not benefit from such formality, thrive in informal learning environments. Working on topics of their own choice, collaborating in cooperative groups, or discussing the relevance of the content—each of these ideas will give to the informality of the classroom.

And this is the heart of Emdin’s work.  In this video, Dr. Emdin explains how he integrates hip-culture, the Obama Effect, and urban science education based on his theory of communal learning.

Recently Dr. Emdin published a ground-breaking book entitled Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation. The book provides essential tools for the urban science educator and researcher, according to the publisher. But it is much more than that.

Christopher Emdin say this about the philosophy that under-girds urban science education:

In urban classroom, the culture of the school is generally different from the culture of the students. In addition, a majority of students are either African American or Latino/a while their teachers are mostly White. Culturally, urban youth are mostly immersed in a generally communal and distinctly hip-hop based way of knowing and being. By this, I mean that the shared realities that come with being socioeconomically deprived areas brings urban youth together in ways that transcend race/ethnicity and embraces their collective connections to hip-hop. Concurrently, hip-hop is falsely interpreted as being counter to the objectives of school, or seen as “outside of” school culture.

In the current conversation about educational reform, and in particular, science education reform, the thinking reflected in Emdin’s book should be fundamental reading for science teachers and teacher educators, as well the corporate types that are aggressively pushing the corporate take over of schooling which relies on a very traditional model of teaching.

Hip Hop and Science Teaching–Reform from the inside Out

In a New York Times article , Dr. Emdin was interviewed about his new project, which will target grades 9-12, and will cover sciences ranging from biology to physics.  The program will use hip-hop to teach science in 10 New York City public schools.  In the NYT’s article, Emdin explains the nature of the innovation which will take place starting in January 2013:

 On a recent afternoon in his office at Teachers College, Dr. Emdin likened the skills required for success in science to those of a good rapper: curiosity, keen observation, an ability to use metaphor and draw connections. Moreover, he said, the medium itself provided a model that could be more effective than traditional science instruction, in which teachers stand in front of classes delivering information, then judge students by their ability to repeat it on tests.By contrast, in what is known as a hip-hop “cypher,” participants stand in a circle and take turns rapping, often supporting or playing off one another’s rhymes.

“A hip-hop cypher is the perfect pedagogical moment, where someone’s at the helm of a conversation, and then one person stops and another picks up,” Dr. Emdin said, his checked bow tie bobbing under his chin. “There’s equal turns at talking. When somebody has a great line, the whole audience makes a ‘whoo,’ which is positive reinforcement.”

The innovative approach to reform was initiated when Dr. Emdin met  a famous musician.  Here is how it happened:

Christopher Emdin is a Columbia University professor who likes to declaim Newton’s laws in rhyme.GZA is a member of the Wu-Tang Clan who left school in 10th grade. When the two men met this summer, at a radio show hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, they started talking about science and education — particularly, why science classrooms were failing to engage many African-American and Latino students, who together make up 70 percent of New York City’s student body.

GZA had recently completed work at MIT and Harvard to develop a solo album on the “cosmos.”  The two met later. They discovered a shared interest in merging their two worlds: GZA by bringing science into hip-hop; Dr. Emdin by bringing hip-hop into the science classroom.

The project will involve ten New York City high schools. According to the New York Times article,  starting in January, the 10 schools, with support from Dr. Emdin and his graduate students, will experiment with cyphers and rhymes to teach basic science concepts — one class per school, one day per week. The students will write rhymes in lieu of papers; the best rhymes, as judged by GZA, will appear on Rap Genius, beside the lyrics of popular hits. The program fits into a broader educational movement to use students’ outside interests to engage them in class work.

Dewey’s idea was to create an environment for social and pedagogical experimentation. The school was learner-centered, and the curriculum was organized as an interdisciplinary approach to education. Teachers designed activities based on a theory of growth stages, and the activities engaged students in self-development and mutual respect. Dewey advocated the idea that thinking was an active process involving experimentation and problem solving. He also espoused the idea that the school had a political role as an instrument for social change.

In our own view, Dr. Emdin has furthered Dewey’s ideas, and created a pedagogy that engages students in science using their own cultural knowledge and experience.  Now, that’s reform.

What are your views on Dr. Emdin’s work in science education with urban youth?

¿Is it Not Possible to Charter Teachers for a Change?

¿Is it not possible that if teachers were chartered to design curriculum and assessment methods geared to their own students they might provide an education that is closer to the lived experiences of their student?  ¿Is is possible that by enabling teachers to carry out their work as professionals the way most of them are prepared, school would be a better place?

¿Why not charter teachers, as we have done with schools, to use their professional knowledge and credentials to carry out a more relevant and substantive curriculum based on the needs and aspirations of students they teach?

Teachers as Professional Leaders

The models of identifying teachers as professional leaders have typically been based on raising students’ academic outcomes.  One example is the National Board Certification.  In these models, identifying outstanding professional teachers is based on what impact the teacher has on student achievement and learning.  In most cases, student achievement is measured with high-stakes content or subject matter tests.  The fundamental problem with using test scores is that even an outstanding teacher accounts for only 20% of the learning of students.  As we will see below, it is out-of-school factors that have have a larger share in determining student learning.  Presently, the Department of Education in Washington, and most state departments of education believe that it the teacher who makes the most difference in the success or failure of students.  Its simply not a valid position.

In my experience, teachers who are well prepared and experienced, are able of making professional decisions about curriculum and instruction that meet the needs of their students.  Collaborating with other teachers in their school and district, they can design and carry out a curriculum that student-oriented, and based on students’ prior experiences, needs and aspirations.

Anthony Cody described a case in which teachers working together in one of the lowest performing elementary schools in Oakland “transformed their school through a combination of teacher research and creative instruction.”  The case he described on his blog, teachers, with the support of their principal, are in charge of their reading curriculum.  There are hundreds of examples of teaching doing the same kinds of curriculum and instruction innovation.

Professional teachers do not need to be told what to do or how to teach by people who work in office buildings looking at spread sheets!!

Instead, teachers need to work in environments in which professional growth is the principle of quality teaching.  A good example is the Montgomery County, Maryland Professional Growth Systems (PGS) which is a collaborative system to improve teaching, rather than corporate and state led “value-added” or “student growth” approaches. Read more here

Another example is the Lexington School District’s (MA) implementation of one of the first evaluation programs for teachers based on professional growth. The program was named the Teacher Leadership Program, and a teacher could apply for the program after three years of service. To do so required that the teacher create a portfolio of work including lesson plans, projects, student evaluations, peer evaluations, samples of student work, sample of teacher innovative products. The teacher’s portfolio was then assessed by a team of peers and administrators. If the teacher’s credentials were judged as high quality, the teacher entered the Teacher Leadership Program, and for the next three years, and would jump two steps each year on the salary scale. At the end of the three years, the teacher could reapply. The premise of the Leadership Program was to focus on professional growth, and high quality teaching. This program was created more than 40 years ago.


Today, teachers are hamstrung by policies that are alien to their communities and neighborhoods.  Bureaucrats in Washington, and state departments of education make decisions about what teachers should teach, and what students should learn.  They hold students and teachers accountable by designing high-stakes tests based on lists of behavioral objectives or standards.  It was discovered was that students and teachers were held accountable using unreliable and invalid testing and measurement methods.  For research to support this, please follow this link to GREATER, Georgia researchers who are advocates for reforming evaluation methods.

In recent research published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching (JRST), Randall D. Penfield and Okhee Lee point out that there is a paradox in the assessment policy enacted by the U.S. Department of Education.  They report that the assessments used across the country are developed for a student population of White, middle- and upper-class, and native speakers of English.  Yet, minority students, who were intended as the primary beneficiaries of the NCLB test-based accountability policy, are students of color, low-SES, and learning English as a new language.

The kind of reform that is being leveled on American schools ignores the research, and the problems that have plagued schools and teachers for years.  Terms such as choice and competition have replaced ideas such as equity and coöperation.  Reformers have turned schools into corporate factories designed to turn out students who can pass a series of high-stakes tests.

Without any solid research evidence, the nation’s schools have accepted that a common curriculum in math, reading/language arts, and science is in the best interests of teachers and students.  According to Achieve, Inc., the developer of the standards, students are responsible for the mastering the standards, regardless of where they live.

We have reported on this blog that changing or writing new standards will have little to no effect on student achievement.  Loveless, in the 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education, explains that neither the quality nor the rigor of state standards is related to state NAEP test scores.  He points out that if there was an effect, we would have seen it since all states have had standards since 2003.

In another important study reported in the prestigious Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Carolyn Wallace found that science standards actually present barriers to teaching and learning.  Wallace analyzed the effects of authoritarian standards language on science classroom teaching.  She found that curriculum standards based on a content and product model of education are “incongruent” with research in science education, cognitive psychology, language use, and science as inquiry.

I am going to suggest that we find a way to charter teachers with the authority to make curriculum and assessment decisions based on the tenets of professional credentialing and practice.   In order for teachers to enact their charters, we need to stop using high-stakes tests as tools to punish and reward teachers and schools.  In tandem with eliminating high-stakes tests, we need to reverse the move to “standardize” education,” and say out loud that one size does not fit all.  There is no evidence to support the notion that the curriculum for all 49 million U.S. students should be based on a single set of standards.

One size does not fit all!

But in order for teachers to succeed as professionals, we need to face head on the issue of poverty and the kind of pedagogy that will help students become successful citizens in the 21 Century.


¿May it not be that just as students who attend schools in wealthy neighborhoods, do well in school, and go onto higher education and into 21st century careers, that students attending schools in poor neighborhoods would experience the same successes if they had similar social, financial, and academic attributes found in wealthier neighborhoods?

¿Is it not possible to say that if students lived in housing environments that were safe and less prone to violence that they might do better in school?

¿Is it not possible to say that students with adequate access to health care, nutrition and activities would have a better chance at success in and out of school?

It is a policy at the federal and state levels that poverty in not an excuse for not succeeding in school.  The policy promotes the idea that as long as a students have a great teacher, we can not use any excuse for students not doing well. ¿Is it not possible that even with a great teacher that a student who lives in a family with little income, poor housing, and fears her mother will be deported, just might not do well in school, even with a great teacher?

Anthony Cody provides evidence that even with a great teacher, only 20% of student success is in the hands of that teacher.  There are simply too many factors, most of which are out of school control, to claim that focusing on teachers will change schooling for children in poverty.  Yet, organizations such as the Gates Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Education have repeatedly ignored the effects of poverty on student success in school, and instead have put the full burden on teachers.   Anthony Cody, on his blog, Living in Dialog put it this way:

First of all, let’s take a closer look at what “out of school factors” really are about. One of the central tenets advanced by many education reformers is that poverty is used as an excuse, a bogus justification for poor academic performance, that allows schools and teachers in poor neighborhoods to remain ineffective. Therefore, the best way to beat poverty in these circumstances is to set high expectations for everyone, hold teachers accountable for increasing test scores, and accept no excuses. So I want us to understand just what these schools, teachers, and children are up against.

Cody then goes on to discuss the impact of violence, the effect of health and housing on child development.  According to Cody, about one-third of children living in the nation’s violent neighborhoods have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).  He also talks about the effect of murder, reporting that living in a murder prone neighborhood affects academic achievement in school.

Until reform focuses on poverty, test scores will not meet the expectations of the current force of corporate reformers.  Using the code words of choice and competition, American education is rapidly moving toward a market driven educational system.  The Charter School, which was designed to empower teachers, free them from overly bureaucratic regulations, and strengthen their voice in school and curriculum decision-making, has become a politicized and corporate movement that is slowly taking control of public schools.  Although there are more public schools in the U.S. than charters, many states seemed to have thrown up their hands, and are passing laws that will make it possible for state appointed commissions to create charter schools without the approval of the local school district.  Many of these charter schools have been established in poor neighborhoods and are being staffed with teachers who have as little as six to eight weeks of teacher preparation.

Critical Pedagogy

The Common Core State Standards, and the emerging national testing movement (such as PARCC), American schools are soon to become a national, centralized system of education.  Through Federal acts and laws such as the No Child Left Behind Act, the Race to the Top, and the ESEA Flexibility Requests (waivers on some aspects of NCLB), state educational departments are being “regulated” by federal mandates.   Again have the state education departments just given up.  This regulation extends to every local school district that must now follow a singular set of standards, and are required to administer high stakes tests that find the success or failure of students, teachers and administrators.  The race is on to train teachers to use the Common Core State Standards.  Does anyone have an idea how much this implementation will cost.  It’s in the billions.

In a nation with 50 states,  320 million people, 15,000 school districts, and the continuing call to make sure that schools eliminate inequity, it is unfortunate that we are creating centralized educational reforms.  It doesn’t make sense!

By their very nature, standards are  authoritarian documents offering teachers very little flexibility in their use, and essentially remove the professional judgement of teachers in deciding how to make their courses relevant to their students. Combined with high-stakes tests, we have a system that is centrally controlled. ¿Is this not an odd mixture in a democratic society?

Instead of relying on an authoritarian system of standards and tests, many teachers and researchers suggest that education should be in the service of providing students with the tools to improve themselves and take part in a democratic society by engaging in “progressive social change.”

One of the emerging progressive ideas in the teaching of science and mathematics over the past twenty years has been social constructivism.  According to researchers, such as Dr. Mary Atwater, professor of science education, The University of Georgia, constructivism provides a lens to view multicultural education in a democratic society.  In order to provide for equity in teaching and learning, social constructivism in light of a multicultural vision is crucial in making decisions about teaching.  Atwater suggests that we embrace critical pedagogy.  Critical pedagogy helps students develop consciousness of freedom, recognize authoritarian tendencies, a connect knowledge to power and the ability to take constructive action.

Critical pedagogy calls for teachers who are free and conscious of their role in helping students become active and life long learners capable of making decisions, and taking positions on issues that are close to their hearts.  Thus the students would become leaders in their community, think creatively, and to use knowledge to innovate and solve problems, all the while taking part in a democratic society.   Critical pedagogy faces head on the issue of poverty and equity.  To many researchers, critical pedagogy is based on the idea that there is an unequal social stratification in our society based on class, race, and gender.

As discussed on this blog, critical pedagogy is a progressive world-view, as a opposed to the conservative world-view, which dominates American education.  Based on the research of George Lakoff, a progressive view emerges. There are four principles which would drive education:

  • The Common Good Principle–Citizens bring together their common wealth to build infrastructures that benefit all, and contributes to individual goals.
  • The Expansion of Freedom Principle–Progressives demand the expansion of fundamental forms of freedom, including voting rights, worker’s rights, public education, public health, civil rights.
  • The Human Dignity Principle–Empathy requires the recognition of basic human dignity and responsibility requires us to act to uphold it.
  • The Diversity Principle–Empathy involves identifying with and connecting socially and emotionally with all people regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation. Ethic of diversity in our communities, schools, workplaces.

Chartering Teachers

Chartering teachers based on this pedagogical ideology would change the way curriculum is developed and selected, and way students are viewed as learners.  Charter teachers would be empowered to shape school curriculum, to work collaboratively on innovative projects, and take-risks to improve the education of their students.

Students in the progressive classroom would be respected, nurtured, and encouraged to communicate with peers and the teacher from day one. The classroom would be viewed as a community of learners. The progressive teacher’s beliefs about teaching are formulated by many factors, but two that stand out are empathy and responsibility.

The chartered teacher would be a highly qualified and certified professional who not only has a strong background in content and pedagogy, but has a range of experiences with youth enabling them to understand students and treat people through the eyes of progressive morality.

Chartered educators would be research oriented. That is, they would tend to experiment with new approaches to teaching and would also do action research in their own classrooms to improve the teaching/learning environment.

Chartered/Progressive educators would ask lots of questions:

  • ¿Why is our state and district willing to accept a top-down authoritarian set of standards that weren’t developed with our students’ interests or aspirations in mind?
  • ¿Do you know what the research tells us about the ineffectiveness of using high-stakes tests on students achievement?
  • ¿Why does the state department of education have so much authoritative power over the inner workings of every school district in the state?
  • ¿Why aren’t educators involved in the development of curriculum is based on the lived experiences of students, and the interests that students might have for getting involved in real work?

¿Do you think it is possible to charter teachers?  ¿Do you think it would make a difference?


I have used this symbol ¿ with my own editorial license.

NCTQ Study of Assessment in Teacher Preparation Courses Flunks

In May, 2012, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) issued a report entitled: What Teacher Education Programs Teach About K – 12 Assessment.   Anthony Cody mentioned this study in a recent post entitled Payola Policy: NCTQ Prepares its Hit on Schools of Education.

The title intrigued me, so I went over to the NCTQ website, and read and studied the report which is about what education courses teach about assessment.  This post is my review of the NCTQ study, and I hope after you finish reading the post you will realize how bogus reports like these are, especially given the quality of research that professors of education have been doing for decades.  The study reviewed here would never have been published in a reputable journal of research in education, not only in the U.S., but in any other country in the world.   I’ll make it clear in this post why I make this claim.


The National Council on Teacher Quality is conservative think-tank that publishes reports on education that the council claims to be research studies in the field of education.  The subhead for the group on their website is: “A research and policy group working to ensure that every child has an effective teacher.”  The NCTQ has a staff of 18, an advisory group of 36 people, and a 13 member board of directors.   The individuals on these various committees come from the corporate, educational, and consulting worlds.  Some of the organizations represented include: Pearson Publishing, Teach Plus, KIPP Schools, the Hoover Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, Core Knowledge, Piton Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Thomas Fordham Foundation, N.F.L Players Association, B & D Consulting, Students First, Abell Foundation, Teach for America, New Schools Venture Fund, and others including a few universities and two public schools.

Many of these groups have worked very hard to denigrate teachers, insist that the Common Core State Standards be adopted by all states, believe that teaching and learning should be data-driven, and that student achievement data on high-stakes tests should be used to make decisions about student, teacher and principal effectiveness, and school success.

The NCTQ publishes reports with titles such as Building Better Teachers, Student Teaching in the Nation, and the most recent one What Prep Programs Teach About Assessment.

According to Anthony Cody’s post, the NCTQ was founded by the Thomas Fordham Institute, a conservative think-tank that publishes non-peer reviewed reports on education, and has an appalling opinion of teacher education institutions. And of course, the Thomas Fordham Foundation has membership on the NCTQ Board of Directors.

I’ve reviewed two reports previously published by the Thomas Fordham Institute.  You can read my reviews of these reports here:

In each report I found the methodology weak, the results misleading, and both reports were published as non-peer reviewed research.  The NCGQ study on assessment in teacher education uses the same methodology as the Fordham studies.  Even with such a poorly designed study and unreliable data, think tanks get away with publishing their works in this fashion, and because of the financial resources, and the identities of their funding agencies, they carry a good deal of clout.  The Fordham Foundation and the NCTQ are two such foundations.

Is teacher education going to take hit?  Probably so.  The NCTQ organization has the resources and the connections to make trouble for university teacher education programs.  There is a movement to hold teacher education institutions accountable for the achievement test scores and gains that their graduates produce in their students once they begin teaching.  As absurd as this sounds, the U.S. Secretary of Education is supportive of such an idea.  Organizations such as NCTQ are on the accountability bandwagon, and carry weight at the the policy level in education.

What Teacher Preparation Programs Teach About K-12 Assessment

This report was released in May, 2012, and according to the preface of the report, it provides information “on the preparation provided to teacher candidates from teacher training programs so that they can fully use assessment data to improve classroom instruction.”  The results reported in the final document were based on reading and analyzing 450 syllabi received from 98 institutions of higher education representing 180 teacher preparation programs.

Why This Study?: The First Disagreement

The purpose of the study was to find out what professors in teacher education are teaching their students about assessment so that when they begin teaching in the classroom they will be able to use assessment data to improve classroom instruction.

To rationalize their study, the NCTQ authors, Julie Greenberg, and Kate Walsh impress upon the reader the importance of assessment in today’s schools, and the need for prospective teachers to know how to use assessment in their future classrooms.  The authors say,

Effective instruction requires that teachers have a well grounded sense of student proficiency in order to make a daunting number of  instructional decisions, such as making snap judgments in the midst of interactions with students, and planning lessons, be they for the next day, the next unit or the entire school year.

The purpose and rationale for this study was not based on previous research, or a review of the literature.  The authors allotted less than one page on “previous research.”  Three references were cited.  One of the references they cited is research done by Black and Wiliam, two of the leading assessment researchers in the field of education.  The authors of the NCTQ study rejected the Black and Wiliam research,which is extensive, published in peer-reviewed journals, and highly cited, BECAUSE the NCTQ researchers said that the research was old (1998), and back then education research had weaker designs, and THEREFORE those studies are suspect.

The researchers fail to tell the reader that Black and Wiliam are leading research proponents of formative assessment as a way to improve instruction and learning and have been publishing research for decades.  Even now. And if they were concerned that the studies were old (>1998), all they have to do is a Google search, or link to Dr. Black’s or Dr.Wiliam’s site for their research on assessment.

Greenberg and Walsh claim that education studies prior to 1998 used weaker designs.  I did my Ph.D. work in the late 1960’s in science education at The Ohio State University, and let me tell you the research designs and methodologies that my colleagues in graduate school, and in the literature used in their research were quite robust, not weak.  The research in education is compelling, and its a testament to the incompetence or bias of Greenberg and Walsh that they couldn’t cite more than three studies.

The rationale of  the NCTQ study is rooted in political and ideological beliefs in schooling rather than one that builds upon previous research.  For example they make this claim:

The evidence for the connection between using data to drive instruction and student performance is emerging, just as the practice of using data is emerging.

There is no previous research cited in their report that helps establish this claim, and help us see how their work is connected to other scholars.  Instead they were cherry picking any research that would support their view, or downplaying or dismissing research that might have questioned their intentions.

Biased Questions?

The researchers were bent on showing that teacher educators weren’t doing the job of teaching their students about assessment.  And they undertook this task with the clarion call that there is new focus on “data driven instruction,” and they cite examples of schools that prove that using data to drive instruction will reduce the achievement gap among low-income and high-income students.  And sure enough, they cite two Broad Prize Winners, Charlotte-Mechklenburg Schools, NC, and Adline Independent Schools, TX as examples. Teachers in these schools, according to Greenberg and Walsh, were trained in using data to drive instruction, and that is what led to such positive test results. And by the way, the Broad Foundation is a major funding source for NCTQ.

But here is the problem.  Instead of trying to document or uncover what is being taught about assessment in teacher preparation programs, the researchers decided what they thought was important and then go and compare what teacher preparation program are doing compared to their own ideas.  The researchers started with three categories of assessment that they thought ought to be included in teacher prep programs.  They identified three categories, which turned into their research questions as follows:

  • How adequately does coursework address Assessment Literacy?
  • How adequately does teacher preparation program coursework address Analytic Skills?
  • How adequately does teacher preparation program coursework address Instructional Decision Making?

You might think this is legitimate.  But it is not really helping with the inquiry.  If the researchers were really interested in making a contribution to the field they would have approached the problem inductively.  That is, they would have worked their way up from the syllabi to generalizations that they could make based on their observations of the syllabi.

The inductive method is a scientific method that educators have used for decades to make generalizations about educational phenomena, such as the types of questions that teachers ask during class.  In this case, data analysis would have been determined by multiple readings (of the syllabi) and interpretations of the raw data.  Because the researchers would be looking for evidence of assessment in the syllabi, they would identify specific parts of the syllabi and label these parts to create categories (e.g. diagnostic methods, formative techniques, using computers to analyse test data, etc.)

The point is that instead of starting with the three categories that the researchers at NCTQ thought should be taught in teacher preparation programs, they could have uncovered what the syllabi reveal about the teaching of assessment, and report that data.  There is more to say about this kind of research, such as teaching the researchers how to code, the use of computer programs to make the task easier, assessing the trustworthiness of the data, and reporting the findings.  We’ll leave that for another day.

According to the authors, and the opionions of their experts in the field, teacher education institutions have not figured out what knowledge a new teacher needs in order to enter a classroom with the ability to use data to improve classroom instruction.  Their review of the literature certainly didn’t lead them to this opinion.  They have no basis for saying this, other than they can, and it supports the basis for their study.

The purpose of their study was to show that teacher preparation program coursework does not adequately prepare students to use assessment methods with K-12 students.  Their study does not shed new light on the teaching of assessment in teacher prep, but it does shed light on how research can be biased from the start by asking questions based on your beliefs and ideologies, rather than research in the field.

The Study Sample: Found Wanting

According to the report, NCTQ obtained course syllabi from 180 teacher education programs in 98 institutions of higher education in 30 states.  Using the open records requests, the reporters used the states’ course syllabi from colleges that first responded to their request.  The “researchers” don’t tell us if they actually contacted any of these institutions, tried to talk with any of the professors, or perhaps visit a few institutions so that they could interview not only professors, but students, and cooperating teachers with whom these institutions worked.  None of this was done.  Or at least it wasn’t stated in the their report.  They got their data by requiring the institutions to hand over their course syllabi.

All of the data is embedded in the course syllabi they received.  I don’t know about you, but course syllabi vary from one course to another.  Some professors create very detailed course syllabi, have well developed websites, use course software such as Blackboard, textbooks, and online data bases.  All of these sources should have been examined if the NCQT researchers wanted get a full picture of these courses.  This was not done.

They only looked at the paper they received.  On the basis of this alone, the data that the researchers used for this report is incomplete.  Syllabi are no doubt inconsistent in design and scope from one institution to the next.  And relying solely on a paper syllabus does the research study an injustice, and makes the analysis and conclusions invalid.

The syllabi they selected had to have the word “assessment” in the course title, or it had to be a methods course, e.g. science methods.  Other syllabi were thrown out, and not analyzed. Somehow, the researchers perused the course syllabi looking for “evidence” or lack of for assessment by reading the objectives, lectures (if they were included in the syllabi), assignments, textbooks and readings.  Whether the researchers actually looked at the texts is unknown.  They said they looked at the publishers’ descriptions of the content of the required texts.  And then they looked for “capstone projects,” such as work samples or portfolios.

The sample that the researchers report in their study does NOT represent teacher preparation institutions in the U.S.  It only represents the 98 institutions that responded to the open records request of NCTQ.  Their “finding” can not be generalized beyond the sample they studied.  I don’t trust the sample that they are basing their findings on.  For one thing, there didn’t seem to be an open two-way exchange between the NCTQ and the universities cited in the report.  How do we know if the syllabi the researchers received is a true record of the course syllabi for these teacher prep institutions.

It’s possible that NCTQ is making decisions for some universities based on one syllabus, and for others using multiple syllabi.  We have no idea, however, because the researchers did not report this in their report.  The universities in the study have been short changed, and even worse have been lumped together in a report that paints a negative picture of teacher preparation programs.

If you take a look online at examples of teacher education programs, you’ll find that if they are graduate level teacher preparation programs leading to a masters degree and certification, there are at least 10 courses that should be examined to evaluate the coursework.  At the undergraduate level, there are as many as 19 courses that should be evaluated.  The researchers at NCTQ failed in giving a real picture of a university’s teacher prep program if they only reviewed a few courses.


The researchers over-laid three rubrics on the course syllabi to find out to what extent professors were teaching (1) assessment literacy (2) analytic skills and (3) instructional decision making.   Assessment literacy meant searching the syllabi for key words including diagnostic, formative and summative.  Analytic skills meant looking for key words such as dissect, describe or display data from assessment.  Instructional decision-making meant looking for evidence that teacher educators helped their students use assessment data to drive instruction.

The rubrics were very simple using a Likert measuring scale from “0” to “4.”  A “0” meant there was no evidence, while a “4” meant the criteria were met at a high degree.  For example to evaluate the syllabi for assessment literacy, the scale used was as follows (you can view all of the rubrics here):

0–There is no or almost no instruction or practice on the various types of assessment (inadequate)

1–Instruction on the various types of assessment is very limited and there is no or almost no practice (slightly adequate)

2–Case 1: The scope of Instruction on the various types of assessment is not comprehensive and practice is very limited to adequate.  OR Case 2: The scope of instruction on the various types of assessment is comprehensive, but practice is very limited or limited.

3–The scope of instruction on various types of assessment is comprehensive and there is adequate practice.

4–The scope of instruction on the various types of assessment is comprehensive, including concepts such as “validity” and “reliability,” and there is adequate practice ( adequate)

The researchers rated each syllabus on three criteria and judged each criteria as inadequate (0)to adequate (4) using the 0 – 4 point scale.  They were then able average scores on the syllabi from each teacher education program.  Presumably either the two researchers did the actual rating, or they hired raters.  Whether they did or not, the researchers failed to provide data on inter-rater reliability.  We have to question the trustworthiness of the data.

As mentioned above, NCTQ started with a biased set of questions, and used these questions to analyze the syllabi of the teacher prep coursework.  On face value, the findings only reflect their own biases and way of assuming how and what teacher prep courses should include about assessment.

In this study, 455 courses were evaluated, anywhere from one to six courses per institution. The only average mentioned was that 2.5 courses per program reference assessment.  This statistic is difficult to believe given our knowledge of teacher education courses.  If they looked at methods courses, the chances are very high that assessment was included in these courses.  I don’t know if these researchers examined course syllabi for internships or student teaching, but all of these experiences would have included assessment strategies as part of the experience.  So you have wonder about the validity of their data.

Results:  Did the Teacher Education Programs Reach the Bar

The results of this study have to be examined cautiously and with reluctance.  In my own opinion, the data that was collected in this study is inadequate to answer the questions posed in the study.  Firstly, the institutions did not directly participate in the study.  There is no evidence that there was any attempt to contact the deans of these colleges, or department heads to ask them to provide additional documentation on their teacher education courses.  Nor is there evidence that the researchers made any attempt to seek out course websites that would have included more details and content of the courses.

It seems to me that the researchers wanted to limit the data, yet make sweeping statements about teacher education programs, and make recommendations based on such an inadequate study.

According to the researchers, “the bar to earn a passing rating in this study was set low.”  They said they did this to give institutions the benefit of the doubt.  Actually, it was a way out for the researchers because they were dealing with very limited data, a few course syllabi from major institutions of higher education, and they were going to use this meager data to make decisions about how assessment was being taught to future teachers.

According to this study only 3% of teacher preparation programs adequately teach the content of assessment in their courses.  But actually all they can say is that in their opinion only 3% of the syllabi they received reflected this value.  And given my critiques, this statistic has no meaning in the reality of teacher prep.

The sample they used in their study was biased from the start.  Why did these universities respond to the open records request?  Why did universities refuse to respond to the open records request?  Did the researchers treat the universities with any respect, and try and open up a dialog on teacher preparation content?

One More Thing

There are quality teacher education programs in the United States.  Linda Darling-Hammond, in her book Powerful Teacher Education: Lessons from Exemplary Programs, documents seven highly successful teacher education programs, and discusses the way in which teacher education has changed to create more clinically based teacher education programs.

The researchers of the NTCQ study are stuck in a 19th-century model of teaching, and simply want to hold accountable teacher education institutions to the principles and practices that teacher education rocketed through years ago.

But at the same time, the NTCQ study cleverly uses percentages and numbers in such a way to convince some that teacher education programs are inadequate, and need to be regulated in ways that satisfy the researchers’ interests.  If you look at their sources of funding, and the names of individuals who sit on their boards, you will see the conservative agenda in action in this organization.

My advice is to call them to task on this study.  Tell them that their study in no ways sheds any light on how assessment is taught in teacher education programs.  The only light that is shed is on their own deficiencies as a research organization.

What do you think about the NTCQ study?  Do think their study is to be taken as a valuable contribution to the literature of teacher education?