BOOK EXCERPT: Marilyn Cochran-Smith’s Forward from – Preparing the Nation’s Teachers to Teach Reading: A Manifesto in Defense of “Teacher Educators Like Me” By Curt Dudley-Marling

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“This manifesto comes not a moment too soon. Curt Dudley-Marling offers a spirited defense of teacher educators rooted in the reasons they choose to teach. Those in the trenches will greatly appreciate the fresh ammunition he provides.” – Anthony Cody, author of The Educator and Oligarch

“… A robust defense of an educational approach that is shockingly out of fashion in the policy world: a meaning-centered education that is irreducible to standardized test scores.” – Peter Smagorinsky, University of Georgia

“This book should be required reading for everyone preparing to teach children to read, everyone currently teaching children to read, everyone who knows a child who is being taught to read, and everyone who makes policy about teaching children to read.” – Carole EdelskyArizona State University

One of the most important scholars on literacy. – Paul Thomas, author of The Becoming Radical and Beware the Roadbuilders: Literature as Resistance


Preparing the Nation’s Teachers to Teach Reading: A Manifesto in Defense of “Teacher Educators Like Me” by Curt Dudley-Marling


Preparing the Nation’s Teachers to Teach Reading: A Manifesto in Defense of “Teacher Educators” Like Me”

“Forward” by Marilyn Cochran-Smith


This little book, which is titled a “manifesto” that defends teacher educators like him, was written by Curt Dudley-Marling, my periodic collaborator and co-author and my long-time colleague and friend. For nearly 20 years, Curt and I worked together at Boston College—as faculty members in the same department, readers of the same dissertations, steadfast supporters of the doctoral advisory committee, collaborating editors for a major teacher education journal, and—more times than we cared to count—not-so-patient co-attendees at long meetings that raised questions about what it really means to do good work in the world of teacher education research, policy and practice.

During those two decades, Curt and I often talked about emerging ideas, and we sometimes read each other’s’ partly-finished work, offering feedback, questions, and suggestions. But the joint professional activity we engaged in most frequently and the one that was by far, at least for me, the most valuable—was a kind of mutual reality checking about the rapidly changing educational policy scene, which grew increasingly more neo-liberal—and, as part of that, increasingly more publicized, politicized and contentious—over time.

In keeping with our long history, I regarded Curt’s request that I write the Foreword to his book as a request for a reality check about the politics of education, particularly the politics of teacher education, which has changed so dramatically since we began to work together as university professors 20 years ago, although we had known each prior to that time, and both of us already had two decades of experience in other universities before circumstances brought us together at Boston College. As his provocative title captures perfectly, Curt’s manifesto focuses explicitly on the work of teacher educators who prepare teachers to teach children to read and to develop as life-time readers over time.

As I see it, Curt’s book makes two important contributions. First, it carefully and rationally “defends” his lifetime’s work, laying out with exquisite clarity and patience the major and inter-connected assumptions of a meaning-centered approach to teaching and learning reading. In the process of doing so, the book talks back in no uncertain terms to the excoriating critiques of meaning-centered reading teacher educators like Curt, critiques that are instantiated most visibly in multiple reports from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) that allege the near total failure of university teacher educators to teach the nation’s prospective teachers how to teach reading, thus presumably contributing to, if not causing, the alleged failure of many of the nation’s children to learn to read well.

Although Curt himself describes his book as “polemical,” I don’t find it so. The book is outspoken and bold, to be sure, and the same critics who attacked the positions Curt attempted to explain in his posts on the Literacy Leaders listserv (described in his introduction to the book) will undoubtedly reject and attack his ideas here as well, if they ever have the occasion to read them. But polemics are often all ideology and no data, all passion and no reasoned principles of practice, all opposition and no proposition about alternative approaches and perspectives. Curt’s book isn’t like that at all. His propositions are grounded in a consistent, research-based, and principled theoretical framework for understanding the nature of teaching and learning to read, with many references to highly-regarded and well-vetted empirical research and to actual classroom experiences (his own and others’) that support and helped to generate these propositions. His oppositions, especially to NCTQ’s operating assumptions about reading, teaching reading, and preparing teachers to teach reading, are also grounded in carefully explained and principled theoretical frameworks, which are widely shared by literacy scholars and practitioners around the country and the world.

Curt’s opposition to NCTQ’s conclusions are further substantiated by his original – and I would say startling –analyses that show no correlation whatsoever between NCTQ’s ratings of the approaches of the teacher education programs within a given state to preparing teachers to teach reading, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the performance of the students in those states on NAEP reading tests, referred to as the nation’s report card and widely regarded as the most valid national assessment of students’ achievement.

The accuracy of Curt’s conclusions about the lack of predictive validity of the NCTQ’s ratings is supported by a new study that was released after he had completed the manuscript for this book. Using data from the state of North Carolina, Henry and Bastian (2015) found that in only one of 42 comparisons between graduates from programs with higher and lower NCTQ ratings did teachers from higher rated programs have higher value added scores, based on the achievement of their students. They concluded:

“With our data and analyses, we do not find strong relationships between the performance of [teacher preparation program] graduates and NCTQ’s overall program ratings or meeting NCTQ’s standards” (p. 1).1

Curt’s findings, along with Henry and Bastian’s evidence about the failure of NCTQ ratings to predict teacher effectiveness, are difficult to ignore or dismiss on empirical grounds. I suspect, however, that NCTQ spokespersons will respond to this evidence—if at all—on ideological and political, rather than empirical, grounds. This brings me to the second major contribution of this book.

Curt raises very important questions about whether NCTQ’s critiques of reading teacher education (and teacher education more broadly) can in any way at all be considered a good faith effort to make US teacher education better, as NCTQ claims its purpose is, or whether their critiques are a thinly-veiled contribution to the larger neoliberal agenda whose ultimate purpose is to undermine public education and university teacher education. The neoliberal education reform project that is intended to reinvent American education (and teacher education) is based on a completely economic conceptualization, which sets directions and limits for public policy and defines many education policy debates in terms of means, not ends. As Curt points out, a problematic aspect of the neoliberal education reform agenda is that the ultimate freedom is taken to be the freedom of the market. At the same time, from a neoliberal perspective, private goods and individual choices are more important than protecting and advancing the collective good, which is a fundamental precept of a democratic society.

From the very beginning of its project to review teacher preparation programs in the US and consistently all along the way, NCTQ has claimed—and on the surface at least, apparently without irony—to be a friend of teacher education, intent on earnest, constructive critique that can protect consumers, improve teacher preparation, and hold programs accountable for outcomes. But, as is widely known in the teacher education community, because of resistance by universities to provide information to NCTQ, some evidence was obtained by paying students for course syllabi or through federal Freedom of Information Act petitions. These covert actions are difficult to understand as research methods and data collection strategies unless they are politically motivated.

Moreover, as Curt points out, although NCTQ claims that its 19 standards and indicators were the result of years of research and expert analysis, the standards were never vetted by the professional community, nor were NCTQ’s previous studies subjected to peer review. In addition, the current NCTQ advisory board includes Michael Barber, the chief education advisor of Pearson, Inc., Joel Klein, E.D. Hirsch, Chester Finn, Wendy Kopp, Eric Hanushek, and Rick Hess, a veritable who’s who of the conservative opposition to university teacher education, long interested in breaking up its “monopoly” through deregulation and letting the market decide who gets fully prepared and fully certified teachers. These and many of the other “facts” about NCTQ revealed in Curt’s book cast serious doubts about NCTQ’s self-proclaimed larger purpose and raise difficult questions about whose interests are actually served by NCTQ’s calculating and publically disseminating program ratings.

A partial answer to these questions may come in the form of knowledge about ERAOs, or “Education Reform Advocacy Organizations,” which have emerged as powerful new policy players as one part of the post-No Child Left Behind (NCLB) politics of education (McGuinn, 2012b). ERAOs share funding sources, such as the Gates, Broad and Walton Family Foundations, and they also share reform ideologies aligned with neo-liberal approaches to school reform and campaign tactics. The largest and most prominent ERAOs are arguably StudentsFirst, founded and, until relatively recently, directed by Michelle Rhee, and Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. ERAOs formed a partnership in 2007 known as PIE, the Policy Innovators in Education Network, which currently supports 49 ERAOs in 31 states (McGuinn, 2012a). PIE’s mission is to close the achievement gap, ensure that all students are college and career ready, replace low performing schools, protect charter schools and other choice options, and develop powerful accountability systems that link data on students, teachers, teacher preparation, school districts and states. To try to sort out what’s really going on with the NCTQ teacher prep review, it helps to know that NCTQ is an ERAO and a partner in PIE. It’s supported by the Gates, Broad and Walton Family Foundations, as well as the Fordham Foundation. Notwithstanding its own claims to the contrary, this information makes it very clear what NCTQ’s larger agenda is.

NCTQ has been operating for more than 15 years now. During this time, there has been a major shift in the policy rhetoric about teacher quality in the U.S.—from a demand for “highly qualified teachers” to a demand for “highly effective teachers” (Hess & McShane, 2014). Consistent with this shift, today’s most visible efforts to improve teacher education quality focus squarely on accountability, assuming that the major driver of education reform is accountability and evaluation. That is, they assume that the key to reform is assessing, rating and ranking states, institutions, programs, and teacher candidates, and they assume that rewards for the winners and consequences for the losers will bring about change. It is well worth looking closely at initiatives like NCTQ, as Curt has done in this book, in part because they are deeply revealing of the dominant values in our society. By specifying what teachers should know and be able to do, how they should be judged ready—or not—to teach, and how their preparation programs should be evaluated, initiatives like NCTQ’s annual teacher prep review, with its explicit focus on how the nation’s teachers are prepared to teach reading, reflect how those in power are seeking to shape the world for future citizens.

I regard this book as Curt’s take on the current state of affairs in teacher education. I conclude my Foreword to the book—my reality check on Curt’s perceptions—with good news and bad news. The good news is that I find his reading of the current situation accurate and insightful regarding both teacher preparation in general and the preparation of teachers to teach reading in particular. The bad news is that this means we are in a very problematic—even dangerous—situation. NCTQ’s reviews of teacher preparation programs along with the positions of those who attacked Curt’s listserv posts about meaning-centered reading are part of a larger social movement for “ed reform.” This movement includes a number of other current accountability initiatives related to teacher education, such as the 2014 proposed federal reporting regulations for teacher preparation programs and states, which would be part of Title II of the Higher Education Act, as well as the standards of the newly-constituted Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), both of which will evaluate teacher preparation programs in part on the basis of the value their graduates add to students’ growth and test scores.

The “ed reform” movement is based on the assumption that both education in general and teacher education in particular are the keys to the economic prosperity of the nation. But both of these systems are assumed to be “broken,” and so they need to be fixed through the implementation of sophisticated new big-data systems that hold teachers, schools and teacher education programs accountable for students’ achievement, as measured by tests. This approach has taken hold so extensively in the US that it is now broadly considered simply common sense.

Unfortunately, I believe that the initiatives of “ed reform,” including the one described in Curt’s book, may be collectively deforming rather than reforming teacher education by reshaping its goals and expectations in subtractive ways and redefining how teacher educators, like Curt and me and many of our colleagues around the country, understand our roles by giving us a singular and limited focus on test-based accountability. Slowly but surely, the ed reform movement is reducing the spaces in our work as teacher educators for discussion, action and advocacy related to equity and social justice (Cochran-Smith, 2014, 2015). Hopefully Curt’s manifesto will be widely read and will contribute to a counter movement that challenges the assumptions, strategies and goals of “ed reform,” and raises questions about who the winners and losers are when “ed reform” becomes common sense.

Marilyn Cochran-Smith
Boston College

Learn more about Preparing the Nation’s Teachers to Teach Reading. Learn more about Curt Dudley Marling.

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