Practicing What They Preach: Science Teacher Educators Return to School

In a forthcoming book, 25 science teacher educators describe their experiences after returning to teach students in K-12 public schools and informal settings.  Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Teachers: Practicing What We Teach was edited by Michael Dias, professor of biology and science education, Kennesaw State University (Georgia), Charles J. Eich, professor of science education, Auburn University, and Laurie Brantley-Dias, professor of instructional technology, Georgia State University.  The book will be published early in 2013 by Springer Publishers.

I was asked to write the last chapter of the book, and my comments here are based on reading the pre-published manuscripts, and content of the chapter that I wrote.

In the current era of reform, teacher education has been thrown under the bus, especially by the U.S. Department of Education.  Education policy and practice are being radically transformed in American education, and teacher preparation programs in colleges and universities are being pressured to fall in line with the marketization and privatization of K-12 schools.  In teacher preparation this is clear by looking at proposals to privatize or deregulate the education of teachers, in the increasing reductive entry and exit tests for prospective educators, in differential funding to those teacher preparation institutions whose students score higher on high-stakes examinations, and the increasing growth of home schooling because of various reasons, but perhaps the wish to reject formal schooling and indeed professionally educated teachers (Please see Michael Apple’s chapter entitled Is deliberate democracy enough in teacher education?, 2008).

One of the most important ideas that I took away from these narratives is how the professional images of these science educators changed because they were willing to take risks, and work in a culture that was very different from the one given by academia.  In crossing cultures from academia to public school and informal science settings, these professors put themselves in the environment of teachers, who in a way were more knowledgeable about the practice of teaching science than they were.

I found richness in these reports, as well as creativity, and above all else, there was courage as shown by these teacher educators’ willingness to leave the safety of university life and immerse themselves in the world of K-12 classrooms   Many of the authors took this step to find out how it feels to be back in a school in today’s classroom, and how this experience might affect their work as teacher educators.  Trying out progressive teaching strategies such as inquiry-based, the radical idea of helping students construct their own ideas, and problem-based approaches was a central goal of most of the authors.  They also hoped that thoughtful reflection of their experience through the writing and critique of their chapters in this book would give the assuredness and self-confidence to change their views and impact their university colleagues and their students.

But not everything which was reported was rosy.  And this is why these reports have such credibility.  Most of these professors had strong background in science and how to teach science.  But every one of them had problems when they entered the classroom.  Some professors left university life and took jobs in secondary schools, thinking that this would be a permanent career change.  Others took leaves of absence and taught either one or two semesters in a K-12 school.  Another group, while remaining at their university post, took time weekly to teach in a local school.  And the last group taught in more informal settings, such a camps or summer school.

Why did these professors decide to do this and then write about their experiences?  Some of them indicated that they want to improve their “street cred” with their teacher education students who sometimes would make comments such as “How can you teach us anything about teaching science when you haven’t been in a classroom for years?”  Other professors wanted to find out how progressive teaching ideas such as inquiry-based learning would actually work in the classroom.  Many of the professors were successful here, but even the ones that were successful had to make constant changes, and get help from teachers and colleagues.  Still, other professors simply wanted to work with children and youth and experience again why they decided to become teachers in the first place.

I’ll tell you more about these fascinating experiences in the coming weeks.  For now, I simply wanted to let you that this book is coming along, and that there are teacher educators that are trying to reform education from the inside-out, rather than the top-down corporate and conservative model that is strangling K-12 schools, and teacher education.

If you are teacher educator, what was your most recent experience teaching K-12 about?  How did it work out?


Why Science Educators Need to Oppose High-Stakes Testing

There are many reasons that we can site to oppose the use of high-stakes testing in American schools.  Yesterday, I reported on a case in Florida in which several middle school teachers decided not to do hands-on, inquiry-based activities with their students.  These science teachers decided that a more direct instruction approach was called for, and indeed, they found that their student’s test scores improved on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).  This is sounds like a very good decision on the part of these teachers, and indeed, it may be.

However, the behavior of teachers in this case represents a disturbing collateral effect of high-stakes testing.   Here is an example how high-stakes testing is threatening the “ideals and purposes of American education.” And in this case the nature of science teaching.  Are we to be convinced that using inquiry and hands-on activities in the curriculum is a waste of time because the goals of science teaching that attributed to inquiry-oriented teaching are not measured on high-stakes tests such as the FCAT?

This is one example of the logic used by our test possessed education system that was put into action by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  As Nichols and Berliner state in their book Collateral Damage, the NCLB has created a system of “threats and incentives tied to test performance that will energize teachers and their students to work harder and more effectively.”

As they point out, this is a factory model that was used to manage workers who were doing difficult labor intense tasks.  But today, most businesses depend on the knowledge or intellectual abilities of their “workers” and surely, using punishment and reward, as we have seen imparted on our public schools, is not a part of the model business world.

We are corrupting the nature of (science) teaching by continuing to use high-stakes testing as the only indicator of student achievement and teacher effectiveness.  What would happen if we were to eliminate high-stakes testing immediately from being used as a determinant of a student’s grade in a course, or whether the student moves on to another grade?

The first thing to happen would be the enormous release of pressure on students and their parents who have been convinced that the only way to know if their child is successful is how he or she does on a 40 – 50 item test, that may or not be related to what went on in their classroom.   Pressure would also be released to allow teachers and administrators to act professionally and create environments that are conducive to learning by all students, regardless of where they live.

Another result would be the freeing up of the curriculum enabling teachers to make professional decisions about content and pedagogy, and relate the curriculum to the needs and aspirations of its students.  Now, because of the Common Core State Standards movement combined with high-stakes testing, most of the decision making about content is not in the hands of the professional that know what is best for their students.

Nichols and Berliner, in their book Collateral Damage, issue a warning that American education is suffering because of high-stakes testing, and that we should heed the warning and do something about this.