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A case against standards

Susan Notes:

Bravo! A professor who makes a bold denunciation of standards and those who participate in setting them. He rightly observes that these teacher prep standards are designed to feed a licensure and accountability mechanism that will de-professionalize teaching further and stand in the way of teachers being provided rich and challenging undergraduate degrees in the pursuit of scholarship and practice.

Even if you don't give a fig about English teacher preparation, you should care--and honor--someone who has the gumption and professional pride to say no.

And bravo too to Valerie Strauss.

Comment By Valerie Strauss

This post is about the draft version of standards for initial English teacher preparation for grades 7-12 being considered by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), which is the professional accrediting agency for teacher preparation. A number of academics were asked to review the standards, including Paul Thomas, an associate professor of education at Furman University in South Carolina. This is his response to the draft standards.

By Paul Thomas

While I appreciate the invitation to respond to the draft version of the NCTE/NCATE Standards, I must offer a blanket rejection of the standards and the process.

My nearly 30 years in education and my scholarship in the fields of education and literacy have led me to view standards/accountability and bureaucratic certification processes as I do guns--Both are potentially harmless, but in reality, both tend to do far more harm than good.

I see both the national standards and the teacher certification process as "the bureaucratizing of the mind": “The freedom that moves us, that makes us take risks, is being subjugated to a process of standardization of formulas, models against which we are evaluated" (Freire, 1998, p. 111).

U.S. public education and teachers have been subjugated for over a century to misguided charges of failure, calls for higher standards, and the pursuit of greater accountability and standardization through teacher certification. The bureaucracy has repeatedly failed both teachers as professionals and scholars as well as students (See Kincheloe & Weil, 2001).

If these standards were intended as a powerful resource created by NCTE to support the autonomy of rigorous teacher education departments and colleges, I believe they would be worth the time and effort already dedicated to the task. Until educators at all levels--from the K-12 classrooms to undergraduate education departments/colleges to graduate schools--are allowed the autonomy to be professionals, however, we are destined to fail our ideals established for universal public education.

But, as with state and national standards for students, these standards are designed to feed a licensure and accountability mechanism that will de-professionalize teaching further and stand in the way of teachers being provided rich and challenging undergraduate degrees in the pursuit of scholarship and practice.

Scripted teachers and teacher-educators are not the environment that will foster autonomy in students across a free country (Schmidt & Thomas, 2009).

Since we often choose to demonize U.S. education by international comparison, I suggest we consider the attitude toward the professionalism of teachers in Finland from Henna Virkkunen, Finland’s minister of education:

"Teachers in Finland can choose their own teaching methods and materials. They are experts of their own work, and they test their own pupils. . . . Our educational society is based on trust and cooperation, so when we are doing some testing and evaluations, we don’t use it for controlling [teachers] but for development. We trust the teachers. It's true that we are all human beings, and of course there are differences in how teachers test pupils, but if we look at the OECD evaluation–PISA, for example–the learning differences among Finnish schools and pupils are the smallest in OECD countries, so it seems that we have a very equal system of good quality."

K-12 teachers and teacher educators must be afforded the autonomy of professionals--not further bureaucracy and invalid accountability.

Standards linked to accountability and certification have always and will always be reduced to providing evidence as part of a compliance process; that evidence has always and will always, then, be reduced to assessments that are manageable (thus quantifiable) so that those being held accountable can manage the bureaucracy--always at the expense of quality pedagogy and scholarship. In short, regardless of the quality of these NCTE/NCATE standards, the process will fail those standards and all educators involved.

The National Council of Teachers of English is a powerful organization composed of the leading literacy educators in the United States. NCTE should speak for those literacy educators by rejecting the increased mechanistic approaches to teacher education that de-professionalize the field further and are destined to ask less and less of those educators as the bureaucracy increases and the accountability remains punitive and misguided.

I feel to offer high quality standards without considering to what ends those standards will be used is negligent for our organization.

The National Council of Teachers of English has raised a similar voice of expertise about the failure of the College Board's adding the writing section to the SAT--that the writing section contributes to the isolated use of the SAT (college readiness) does not excuse the test from trampling on writing pedagogy (Ball, et al., 2005).

I hope that concerns such as mine have a place in the debate within an organization that I value and within which I am a member. I believe my view is not a fringe stance or a lone voice, and I also believe it stands on a significant body of evidence--some of which is included below.


Ball, A., Christensen, L., Fleischer, C., Haswell, R., Ketter, J., Yageldski, R., & Yancey, K. (2005, April 16). The impact of the SAT and ACT timed writing tests. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Trans. P. Clarke. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

——— . (2005). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare to teach. Trans. D. Macedo, D., Koike, & A., Oliveira. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Kincheloe, J. L, & Weil, D. (2001). Standards and schooling in the United States, vols. 1-3. Denver, CO: ABC-CLIO.

Schmidt, R., & Thomas, P. L. (2009). 21st century literacy: If we are scripted, are we literate? Heidelberg, Germany: Springer.

— Paul Thomas
Washington Post Answer Sheet



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