October surprises

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Science has taken some really hard knocks in 2020. Over the past week, however, science had a couple of well-needed wins within the world of education—both in reading instruction and classroom management.

In a surprising twist of events first reported on by APM Reports, Lucy Calkins and her colleagues at the Teachers College Writing and Reading Project (TCWRP) at Columbia have conceded (in an internal memo) that its approach to reading is not scientifically-based after all and that they will be adjusting their materials accordingly.

Given that Calkins oversees the third most widely-used reading program in the nation...and her guru status...this is BIG news. The blistering attack last spring on TCWRP's reading program by some of the nation's preeminent reading researchers, our own banging of the drum on teacher prep's disregard for reading science (including negative reviews of many of Calkins' textbooks), and the upsurge in attention by educators and policymakers inspired by Emily Hanford seemed to have all created a perfect storm.

Contrary to the bitter, combative spirit that dominates the U.S. landscape, those of us in the reading science community who are Calkins' longtime foes would be well advised to extend an olive branch. If for no other reason, TCWRP can't possibly have the deep expertise required to achieve the "rebalancing" referred to in its leaked memo. They could probably use some real help. The reading science community might in turn take this opportunity to acknowledge its own contribution to the "Reading Wars," having too often pushed only foundational skills (phonics, fluency, and phonemic awareness) at the expense of factors equally necessary to creating good readers: knowledge building, vocabulary, and comprehension.

On the other aforementioned win, NCTQ has new ratings out this week examining the state of clinical practice (aka student teaching or residencies) in teacher prep. Just as we were able to show big increases in program adherence to the science of reading earlier this year, we can again report large gains made by teacher prep in their expectations for what teacher candidates must master regarding classroom management strategies—the lack of which tends to be principals' top complaint about their new teacher hires.

This 2020 Teacher Prep Review report, which drills down on classroom management and clinical practice, shows nearly half (49%) of programs ensure that student teachers practice at least four of the five classroom management strategies that are universally effective, regardless of student age or the subject being taught—an increase of almost 30% since we first started rating programs in 2013. That's a giant leap.

The growth we are reporting in both reading instruction and in classroom management speaks to the efficacy of the NCTQ theory of change. Prior to this work, programs operated for decades with neither good comparative data nor a decent definition of what good looks like; the Teacher Prep Review provides both. The growing acknowledgement by programs that the Review, as unwelcome as it was initially, may actually help them is a result of both sides conceding ground and coming together for honest exchanges. A record 205 programs worked with us to provide additional evidence about their program practices in this most recent report.

Part of what is likely to hold back further progress on classroom management is that programs—and states too—continue using observation instruments that aren't research-based to evaluate novice teachers. Many commonly used observation instruments (including the most popular, Charlotte Danielson's Framework for Teaching) pay highly uneven attention to the five research-based classroom management strategies. Of the many widely used instruments we looked at, only one covered all the bases: the TAP rubric from the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET).

Unfortunately, the good news here is tempered by the fact that programs made no improvements in adopting fundamental elements of a high-quality clinical practice experience. While almost all programs impose a decent amount of time to the practice experiences and evaluate their candidates frequently, almost none (only 4%!) insist that the classroom teachers who are assigned to mentor their student teachers be anything much more than a willing volunteer. This is a critical omission given that findings from Dan Goldhaber and colleagues report that mentoring by a highly effective teacher produces first-year teachers who perform as well as third-year teachers.

We attribute the lack of movement on this measure not as much to programs but to school districts, which simply don't pay enough attention to their student teaching partnerships. The benefits are clear, but what will it take for districts to redirect their attention to their most promising and cost effective source of new teachers? While it falls to both teacher preparation programs and their K-12 school partners to work together to improve clinical experiences, we can only conclude that school districts, not programs themselves, are in the best position to catalyze this process.