Teachers Doin’ It for Themselves

Kristal Bivona analyzes plans to put language and technology at the forefront of teacher education

With the new year brings the opportunity to end the lament over budget cuts, fiscal crises and the political traffic jam that has arrested the reform of outdated and failed practices in education. Instead, action and collaboration are where the focus is due. This is already budding in primary, secondary and post-secondary education. Two professional organizations, in particular, are taking initiative and fostering a transformation of the education systems through action and counterattack: the National Education Association (NEA) and the Modern Language Association (MLA). Professional development is at the forefront of their plans, and is key to keeping education dynamic. Both associations are calling for teachers and professors to actively transform their own professions so that they can best meet their students’ needs.

Last month’s Modern Language Association convention united over 8000 professors and instructors of English and foreign languages and literatures, arguably those hardest hit by budgetary woes and the brain drain of students into majors geared toward high-paying corporate careers, such as Business Administration and Economics. Rather than complain about the dire state of the humanities at colleges and universities, panelists at the MLA called for radical changes in teaching approaches and how scholarly work is reviewed. Above all, digital humanities would help reach more students and readers.

Addressing K-12 education, the National Education Association published a three-point plan to reform the K-12 teaching profession that they believe will empower teachers to be more active in the decisions that affect their classrooms and their students. The NEA’s plan outlines a completely restructured system that gives teachers more control over their own professional development and the progress of their schools by introducing framework centered on effective teaching as the ultimate goal.

Key aspects of the MLA and NEA’s endeavors overlap. First, both organizations recognize the crucial role of language and literacy in determining students’ academic and professional success. Language skills and literacy are central to student success, yet are often overlooked as the government and districts have recently been more interested in quantitative measurements of student achievement through standardized testing rather than the qualitative development that transforms students into passionate learners. The NEA and the MLA both emphasize the importance of literacy in English, but also the importance of foreign language education. Second, both organizations want their teachers and instructors to become proficient in instructional technology and use it, both in the classroom with their students and throughout their professional development. Third, both organizations stress the critical, reciprocal and dependent relationship between K-12 education and post-secondary education, as K-12 students become college students and future K-12 teachers are trained in universities. Both organizations are calling for a more comprehensive view of education.

The MLA’s 2011 president, Dr. Russell Berman, also sees language instruction as an overlapping issue for K-12 and college education. Berman says, “A comprehensive perspective also implies recognizing the connection between first and second language learning: English teachers (in schools or in college) and second language teachers can develop intentional collaborations to promote the quality of student language and literacy education. Our specializations may differ, but we should not lose sight of the fact that we share the same students and the same profound concern for student learning.” Such a collaboration could be nurtured through professional development.

For the NEA, student learning is front and center in their plan for transforming K-12 education. Central to bolstering student learning and effective teaching is the training and professional development of teachers. Teachers can only be truly effective when they have academic preparation and support.

As every teacher knows, professional development doesn’t end on the first day of work. The teaching profession evolves; teachers need to stay informed and keep up with the cutting edge of pedogogy. When teachers don’t have a say in how their profession changes, implementing those changes can become an odious chore. Many talented college graduates who would like to teach decide not to go into the teaching profession precisely because of the politics and bureaucracy. In a statement, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel explained, “Unlike lawyers or doctors or CPAs, teachers have never had significant authority over the processes and systems that govern the teaching profession. What minimal influence teachers ever had, has waned over the last two decades... Since teachers know best about what we do, teachers should take responsibility for leading the transformation of our profession.”

In 2010, Roekel formed the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching (CETT), uniting 21 teachers from different subjects to interview colleagues and identify challenges and problems in the profession that the NEA should address. The result of CETT’s investigation is the following: promoting professional development and demanding more explicit requirements and national standards for teacher preparation beyond state credentials are key to the NEA plan.

The NEA plan rests on three core principles:
1. Student learning is the center of everything a teacher does.
2. Teachers take primary responsibility for student learning.
3. Effective teachers share the responsibility of teacher selection, evaluation and dismissal.
These principles aim to transform the teaching profession, by giving teachers more accountability for student achievement as teachers play a larger role in shaping the teaching staff and development at their schools. Essentially, this requires much more than contact hours with students.

The NEA plan calls for a restructuring of the current system that trains new teachers. The NEA believes in professional development as a tool to improve the quality of K-12 education and the system. It’s easy for policymakers with no educational background to demand that teachers be accountable for student achievement. What the NEA is attempting to do differently, having insight into the teaching profession, is to give teachers the tools they need through excellent training and development opportunities. A council composed of NEA-identified effective teachers, called the National Council for the Teaching Profession (NCTP), will be responsible for defining and setting standards for a national system of preparation, licensure and certification of all teachers and teacher educators. The NEA decided to give one committee all the responsibility of setting national standards, and then reviewing all 50 states to ensure that each state is on par with the national standards and not less-rigorous. Teacher licensing will change to a tiered system. In addition to the current state license, teachers can pursue a national-level Professional Teacher Certificate or a Master Teacher Certificate. Teachers who hold Professional or Master certificates will be eligible for additional compensation, career advancement, and the certificates will be recognized across states, allowing for teachers to relocate more easily. By creating national standards, the NCTP hopes to close the gap between teachers around the country with vastly disparate training experiences. The NEA cites Massachusetts for its rigorous licensure process, including three years of successful teaching and coursework in pedagogy before a teacher is eligible for the state credential, and in contrast Mississippi, where a BA or BS degree and as little as three weeks of training are all one needs to be a licensed teacher.
Here the reciprocity between K-12 and university education becomes clearer, as universities play a role in educating future effective teachers and preparing them for licensure. Universities will also be affected by the NCTP’s decisions that affect university faculty who teach teachers. Future K-12 teachers can expect a comprehensive training experience that touches on pressing issues in education today, such as multicultural education, second language acquisition and teaching English language learners, standards-based curriculum design, and the impact of socioeconomic background, ethnicity, race, gender, language skills, disability, and other factors on teaching and learning. This instruction will take place largely in colleges.

In colleges, courses in English, foreign languages and literature are being frivolously cut. At the MLA convention, no one was crying over the impending obsolescence of a liberal arts education but rather brainstorming a counterattack. A major aspect of the humanities counterattack is embracing technological changes and appropriating them, rather than resenting them from the ivory tower. For example, the MLA is urging professors to consider scholarly work that is put out digitally to merit the same consideration as scholarly work published in the traditional hard copy journals and books by releasing guidelines for the evaluation of digital work. The MLA’s Director of Scholarly Communication, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, called for the proliferation of digital scholarly writing to engage a wider audience. By creating guidelines for the peer review of scholarly work published digitally, the MLA is presenting scholars with the tools they need to reconsider the nature of how one moves ahead in academia.

MLA representatives are not the only ones calling for radical change in college education. Speaking at the Presidential Forum, University of Southern California's professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity, and Gender Studies, Judith Halberstam called upon her colleagues to become computer literate and upgrade themselves to the digital humanities. Part of rolling with changes, Halberstam explained, is to learn to unlearn outmoded practices and relearn new ones as technology, the university and the world constantly shift. Christopher Freeburg, assistant professor of English from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, shared his technique of “vocationalizing” for his students, which he defines as spelling out what they can expect to gain from literature coursework. Freeburg sells his students on what they will develop in his classes, such as skills for clear articulation and argumentation along with the ability to think critically about culture and society. Most importantly, he pointed out, literature students learn to be careful and deliberate readers, which is transferable to any profession. The humanities foster literacy in many forms, from traditional reading and writing to computer and cultural literacy.

Closing the forum, Russell Berman called for the universities to care about what happens in secondary and primary education. In a statement to Language Magazine, Berman reiterated: “College students have been shaped and prepared by the character of their K-12 education. College faculty, therefore, have to pay attention to questions of K-12 policies and funding and make common cause with teachers in the schools. Their students become our students, and we should maintain a holistic view of student growth.“
While universities look to K-12 policy as an indicator of what is to come, K-12 looks to universities as training centers for future teachers. This feedback loop embodies the connection between K-12 and post-secondary education at the level of instruction: What students learn (or don’t learn) in K-12 will mark their college experience, and what future teachers learn (or don’t learn) in colleges, state credential programs and graduate school determines how they will perform as K-12 teachers, including how they can align their lesson plans with Common Core Standards, develop professionally, work with a team of colleagues and use effective methods in the classroom.

Language and literacy remain crucial to the future of the U.S. education system, as both organizations point out. Students deserve the opportunity to become excellent manipulators of both written and spoken language during their K-12 education. Having language skills will equip them to be better overall learners with the abilities to acquire vocabulary in science class and to debate intelligently in a political science course. Students who cannot understand or articulate themselves with advanced language will struggle to catch up in college, where the material is more challenging and demands critical thinking. Therefore, the NEA wants all teachers, regardless of specialty subject, to have a knowledge of language development skills and second language acquisition. A familiarity with language-related issues can help teachers identify situations in which language or literacy is interfering with a student’s ability to succeed.

Kristal Bivona is assistant editor at Language Magazine.