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Talk Back, Push Back, Hold On:
ATE Returns to St. Louis in Search
Of Positive Solutions for a Profession Under Attack by Private Interests.

Red Wasp94 Years   3-19-14

By Freddie A. Bowles
Fayetteville, Arkansas

I recently returned from the 94th annual meeting of the Association of Teacher Educators in St. Louis, Missouri, where over 900 teaching professionals gathered to discuss, share, and learn about the theme “Advancing Teacher Education that Matters in Teaching, Learning, and Schooling.”

As co-chair for the conference, I felt like a conductor of a collaborative work, holding high hopes that our magnum opus might receive a standing ovation.  Orchestrating such a large event requires the combined efforts of all players, so I must applaud the team effort of a magnificent group of professionals.  President Nancy Gallavan chose an outstanding trio of keynote speakers to support her theme:  Dr. Marilyn Cochran-Smith, Dr. Diana Hess, and National Teacher of the Year Jeff Charbonneau.

While St. Louis was celebrating its 250th birthday in February, ATE was celebrating the 25th anniversary of our first meeting in St. Louis.  As a special treat for conference attendees, President Gallavan invited all former ATE presidents to speak about their own legacies as association leaders, a choice befitting these historical connections and President Gallavan’s background as a social studies teacher.  Moreover, we honored our Meetings Director, Dr. Billy G. Dixon, who served ATE as president at the St. Louis meeting in 1989.

The Cynical Corporate Move
Toward Profit-Driven Schools

“Advancing Teacher Education that Matters” resonates with those of us in teacher education programs, given the recent campaign to demonize our work as arcane and inept by a host of entities, ranging from corporate sponsors to consortia of privately funded think tanks.  The most recent attack is led by a quasi-professional education group funded by foundations such as Gates, Walton, Carnegie, Gleason, and Joyce.

At the forefront of this coordinated, profit-driven attack on public education is the National Center for Teacher Quality (NCTQ), a political lobby based in Washington D.C. and founded in 2000 by supporters who “believe the teaching profession is way overdue for significant reform in how we recruit, prepare, retain, and compensate teachers” (2014, retrieved from website).  NCTQ pursues a “case for a comprehensive reform agenda that would challenge the current structure and regulation of the profession.”

At the heart of the NCTQ agenda, though unstated, is the cynical mission to privatize public education and shift state and federal funding from the public sector to the private sector, transforming our schools into profit centers for big business.

Dabblers and Busy-Bodies
Undermine Democratic Ideals.

While those of us in teacher education programs welcome constructive feedback as we strive to prepare our teachers for 21st century classrooms, we do take offense when busy-bodies outside the profession deem themselves saviors for our public education system.  (Yes, busy-bodies: a quaint term but appropriate nonetheless.)  It is especially alarming when a large number of the reformers have only dabbled in teaching and hold a surface-skimmer’s view of teachers as babysitters with long summer vacations.

Immense amounts of money and time are poured into criticizing our public education system, which, despite the assault against it, remains a hallmark of long-cherished democratic ideals.  Public schools offer citizens of all hue and home the tuition-free opportunity to become literate, productive members of society.  It’s that simple — and it works much better than critics want the public to know.  However, the stranglehold of faux accountability and punitive intrusions exercised by so-called reformers on state and federal agencies is undermining our best efforts to succeed.

If an equal amount of time and money were invested in improving the infrastructure of urban and rural schools, providing early childhood programs, and supporting curricula that addresses the cognitive, creative, and kinesthetic domains of all children rather than testing them ‘til the cows come home, then perhaps, yes perhaps the corporate meddlers and fast–track teacher-prep programs would fade back into the trendy shadows from whence they came.  But with so much public money at stake, and so many mega-corporations eager to gain a foothold in the revenue stream, that’s highly unlikely.  So we deal with it.

But I digress, I suppose.  I came here tell about the ATE conference in St. Louis.


Dr. Cochran-Smith Deconstructs
The Hidden Agenda of Reform.

Dr. Marilyn Cochran-Smith, former elementary school teacher and now the Cawthorne Professor of Teacher Education for Urban Schools and Director of the Doctoral Program in Curriculum and Instruction at Boston College, opened the conference with her astute deconstruction of Education Reform’s hidden agenda.  Dr. Cochran-Smith urged us to “talk back, push back, and hold on to what we do well.”

Using the metaphor of an alphabet soup, Dr. Cochran-Smith chose five acronyms that pervade the conversation regarding school reform.

Alternative Teacher Certification Programs.
Forty-four states have approved programs for some rather unconventional approaches to teacher preparation.  Some require no apprenticeship or internship experiences.  Some are delivered solely through online programs, and others simply ask that your child’s future teacher have a bachelors degree.  I guess that’s better than it was back in the day when the only requirement to be an elementary school teacher was a high school diploma.

Race to the Top.
RRTG is a federal pilot program, floated much like a carrot leading a cash-hungry donkey, that became de facto education policy.  Dr. Cochran-Smith views RRTG as part of the greater issue of accountability, where learning is equated with test scores.  She reminds the audience that teaching and learning are akin to complex brain functions and cognition.  According to the website Race to the Top Fund, “Awards in Race to the Top will go to States that are leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform.”

National Council on Teacher Quality
A research and policy group, it is privately funded by an A-list of corporate players (see the web About NCTQ and then ask yourself where their children go to school).  While the organization purports to “provide an alternative national voice to existing teacher organizations and to build the case for a comprehensive reform agenda that would challenge the current structure and regulation of the profession,” the methods utilized to accomplish this disregard all standards of valid and reliable data collection.

4. EdTPA
Education Teacher Performance Assessment
It's one more assessment — and costly, too, at almost $300.00 per test — for students who go through traditional teacher preparation programs.  Incredibly, students who opt for ATCP programs and other fast-track teacher prep options would not be required to take this test.  However, students in a traditional teacher education program already have Praxis Core, Praxis Pedagogy, and other Praxis subject-specific tests to “prove” they are qualified to teach.  They are regularly observed and assessed using any number of observation protocols such as The Framework for Teaching by the Danielson Group.  Note that on the web edTPA, the goals include “Improve the information base guiding improvement of teacher preparation programs.”  No mention is made regarding improvement of programs such as Teach for America.

Common Core State Standards
CCSS is a successful effort begun in 2010 by a group — most are non-educators — to fast-track a national set of standards into implementation by 45 states.  The website prides itself on the fact that “The federal government was NOT involved in the development of the standards.  Local teachers, principals, and superintendents lead the implementation of the Common Core.” (See the web State Standards Initiative | Frequently Asked Questions.)  The quoted text does not say that local teachers, principals, and superintendents created CCSS.  They were only involved after the fact.

Dr. Cochran-Smith

Dr. Marilyn Cochran-Smith

Dr. Cochran-Smith’s articulated presentation of the reform juggernaut reinforced the sobering understanding of the combined effort by reformists and capitalists to paint for public consumption a propagandist's picture of a failing democratic institution.  Once the public believes that our public schools are awful and desperately in need of redemption, these investors and reformers can “come to the rescue” and create the right kind of training program for the right kind of teacher for the right kind of school using programs and products created by their own publishing arm, Pearson — for the right price, of course!

Alternative Routes 'Churn Out'
An Unstable Cadre of Teachers.

The second keynote speaker, Dr. Diana Hess, Senior Vice-President of the Spencer Foundation and professor of Curriculum and Instruction at University of Wisconsin-Madison, focused on the issue of “short term teachers” as it relates to teacher quality.  Her presentation, “Beyond Churning: How to Keep Strong Teachers in the Classroom,” was a startling reminder of how detrimental it is to our learners when the cadre of teachers becomes an unstable force beset by high attrition and frequent movement from school to school and district to district.

She pointed out a number of factors that pull teachers away from the classroom:  the public’s lack of confidence in public schools, a bi-modal teaching force (younger and older), a loss of teacher leaders, non-competitive salaries, and a lack of retention initiatives.  Dr. Hess also emphasized that the teaching profession is booming with over 3.3 million teachers.  However, many of these teachers enter through an alternative route with little preparation and experience in the classroom, often leaving after their commitment to their program has been fulfilled.  They most often “churn out” after a two or three year obligation.  Public discourse and private disinformation also lead to disenchantment of newly-minted teachers, who face top-down directives and instructional changes initiated from private groups (NCTQ and CCSS) and adopted by state departments of education.

Dr. Diana Hess

Dr. Diana Hess
Photo by David McCarthy

These phenomenal speakers provided a somewhat dire picture of teacher education, but many conference participants chose to counter with a proactive stance, looking for avenues of inspiration and turning the conversation around to positive solutions of support for our professional teachers.  At several committee meetings I heard a familiar and resounding theme in the discussion, focusing on talking back, pushing back, and holding on to what we do best.

Humor, Passion, Enthusiasm
From the Teacher of the Year.

The third keynote speaker, National Teacher of the Year Jeff Charbonneau, engaged the audience with humor, passion, and an enthusiasm for the profession that roused a standing ovation.  His presentation was especially appreciated by a number of pre-service teachers in attendance for the special annual one-day conference offered by ATE just for them.

Mr. Charbonneau teaches at his alma mater, a small school in Zillah, Washington.  He teaches chemistry, physics, and engineering — and then he enters stage right to teach drama, and then finds time to guide journalism students on the yearbook — and like many rural teachers, takes on a number of extra-curricular activities in school and in the community.

His goals for students are “to understand a challenge and learn the method of accomplishing something, and then to be a problem solver.”  His motto is “What if?”  Jeff shared a “what if” story of how he modeled problem solving with his students.  First they raised enough money from the town’s people to buy 100 robots and start a robotics program at Zillah.  Then they shared the finished products, the robots, with other underfunded schools, giving the machines away each year after the annual robotics competition.

Jeff Charbonneau with President Obama

Jeff Charbonneau with President Obama
Image from a Video by Tch, the Teaching Channel

Making Standards Work

Mr. Charbonneau listed five attributes of success he teaches to his “kids.”

  • Confidence.... Teach them to be self-sufficient so they can become group sufficient
  • Courage.... Teach them to stand firm and make good choices so they are good PR Professionals.
  • Legacy.... Teach them the history of their school and community.  He led the yearbook staff in a project to scan every yearbook from 1919 to the present and make the scans available to the school.
  • Citizenship.... Teach them to be good citizens.  He tells his students that when they see a job that needs doing, make it happen. 
  • Overcoming obstacles.... He asks us to help every child figure out what the obstacles are and give them the tools to overcome them.

Mr. Charbonneau disagrees with critics who say our public school system is broken.  The real problem, he said, is that teachers are just really bad at PR.  He encourages us to turn our strengths into a stronger system that values experience, gives support to students and administrators, remains flexible and teacher driven, and showcases the many accomplishments of our kids and the schools that nurture them.  He added that the real impact of great systems is giving students HOPE!

He finished by asking, “What do we teach?”  His answer?  Success!  “All students of all backgrounds and abilities need to be successful no matter what the circumstances.”  And why teach, he asked.  “I do this because I am creating the NEW US.”  How?  “By creating relationships first.”

With over 900 in attendance and 400 plus sessions and presentations, the 94th ATE Annual Meeting offered everyone an opportunity to create and solidify professional relationships, share their own teaching successes, and build a community of learners to support our efforts in creating the NEW US.


ATE President Dr. Nancy Gallavan
with Dr. Cochran-Smith
Photo by David McCarthy


shellbat Meet Jeff Charbonneau
2013 Teacher of the Year

a Teaching Channel Video Feature


shellbat ATE's 2014 Annual Meeting in St. Louis
the official website

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