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Is This a Model for Excellent Teaching?

The path toward teacher certification is laden with demands that prospective teachers prove that they’re sensitive, socially conscious, and self-critical. If a national group of education agencies has its way, those demands could soon extend throughout teachers’ careers.

Teachers and others would do well to look at the “Model Core Teaching Standards: A Resource for State Dialogue,” released in July for public comment. Developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers’ Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (InTASC), the new teaching standards (separate from the Common Core State Standards that have been in the news recently) retain much of the language of the 1992 teaching standards, with some reordering and rewording to match the “new times.” Whereas the 1992 standards were intended for beginning teachers (and adopted by 38 states), the new standards are for all teachers.

The ten standards fall into four categories: The Learner and Learning, Content Knowledge, Instructional Practice, and Professional Responsibility. Each standard is broken down into Performances, Essential Knowledge, and Critical Dispositions. Like the 1992 standards, the Model Core Teaching Standards downplay subject matter knowledge while emphasizing the social processes of the classroom and the attitudes that teachers should have. Because these standards come so soon after the Common Core State Standards, they might influence how the Common Core standards are interpreted and implemented.

The 1992 document devoted the first standard to content knowledge; the new standards address content in standards 4 and 5. Two standards devoted to content seem like more than one, but neither standard addresses the need for specific knowledge. They treat content as fluid and relative, not enduring or precise. One of the “critical dispositions” for the fourth standard states that

the teacher realizes that content knowledge is not a fixed body of facts but is complex, culturally situated, and ever evolving. S/he keeps abreast of new ideas and understandings in the field.

This statement reflects only part of the truth. Content is both changing and unchanging. Teachers should be aware of developments in one field, but they must know the subject well, down to the details. One cannot teach physics unless one knows its rudiments–regardless of recent discoveries in physics. One cannot teach a language well unless one is thoroughly versed in its grammar, idioms, pronunciation, inflection, and nuances. Anyone can babble about the latest theories on Shakespeare’s identity; fewer can illuminate the logic of Sonnet 146 or help students grapple with folly and reason in “Lear.” Such understanding requires years of immersion and thought.

The standards appear to treat knowledge as a subjective, personal, social matter. Consider one of the “performances” for the second standard, “Learning Differences”:

The teacher brings multiple perspectives to the discussion of content, including attention to students’ personal, family, and community experiences and cultural norms.

Why should this be expected of all teachers? There is a time and place for multiple perspectives, but when you take this too far, the teacher may deny students the clarity of a right answer or direct approach to a problem. In algebra class, for instance, it is important that students actually learn how to solve algebra problems. Personal experiences, likewise, can obscure as well as illuminate. Even champions of “text-to-self connections” warn that faulty connections can lead to confusion and distraction.

Collaboration is mentioned far more often in the standards than independent work; this imbalance may undermine the collaboration itself. Collaboration is valuable when students have something to collaborate over. Sadly, the more they are asked to collaborate, the less they will bring to the table, unless they also learn how to wrestle alone with problems, ideas, and language. There should be equal emphasis on rigorous solitary thought. The best collaboration happens when the members have worked on their own and put thought into the project. If they are unable to do that, the collaboration quickly degenerates into chatter.

The standards articulate many attitudes and “critical dispositions” expected of teachers. The ninth standard (Reflection and Continuous Growth) states that a teacher

reflects on his/her personal biases and seeks out resources to deepen his/her own understanding of cultural, ethnic, gender, and learning differences to build stronger relationships and create more relevant and responsive learning experiences.

Yes, teachers should be able to question their own actions and assumptions. An introspective bent is important if not essential to good teaching. However, things become murky when teachers must show evidence of their self-questioning. Teachers who resist that sort of public display might receive low evaluations in this area, while those who produce confessions may be praised. It is fair to expect teachers to abide by an ethics code; it is not fair to require them to display their self-questioning. This may be hardest on teachers who take introspection seriously (and there are many such teachers), for they will be asked to bare their souls or else come up with a superficial version of their thoughts.

All in all, the “Model Core Teaching Standards” rely on faulty premises. They downplay the importance of concrete knowledge. They disregard the enduring aspects of subject matter, the things that need to be learned, pondered, read, and reread. They emphasize collaboration without likewise emphasizing independent thought. They expect teachers to be reflective, but without autonomy of thought. None of this is particularly new; many education schools have similar value systems. Once upon a time, such requirements were part of a teacher’s initiation; once you made it through the hoops, people left your thoughts alone, unless there was reason for concern. Now teachers may have to demonstrate “correct” attitudes and thoughts throughout their careers.

Far from meeting the needs of a new world, these standards ignore the qualities that have characterized fine teachers over the centuries: knowledge and love of the subject; keen awareness of the students and respect for their privacy; and the ability to demand concentration, precision, integrity, and hard work. Within this, there are many personalities and variations — but these qualities are not outdated, nor will they ever be.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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