Teachers make a tremendous difference, both in the lives of our children and the competitiveness and success of our country.
That’s why it’s so essential to get more effective teachers into U.S. classrooms. Every thoughtful strategy for this moral and economic imperative ultimately comes back to colleges and universities doing a better job of preparing teacher candidates. Contrary to movies and folklore, successful teachers are not born. They are trained and taught.
Going as far back as the 1950s, critics have bemoaned that rigor and relevance get short shrift in teacher education. Teachers themselves frequently make this complaint. Many vividly and painfully recount how they spent the early years of their careers guessing about how to manage their classrooms, plan engaging lessons, assess student performance and reach students of all achievement levels simultaneously. “Why did I have to learn so much on the job?” they fairly ask of us.
With a reasonable amount of compelling evidence, the National Council on Teacher Quality recently pointed to this problem in "Easy A’s and What’s Behind Them." Looking at information from more than 500 institutions, NCTQ found that teacher candidates are graduating with honors almost 50 percent more often than all undergraduate students.
Clearly, the assertion is that teacher candidates are not being held to the same high standards expected of other academic programs and that course work in teacher-prep programs is not being graded and evaluated rigorously.
Where this is true, shame on us. We’re misleading people in consequential ways. If new graduates aren’t as prepared to succeed in the classroom, as their grades and honors suggest, then we have done a disservice to them, to their employers and, most important, to their students.
We know this complaint is real. We’ve all heard that too few of the teachers we train have the practical knowledge and deep grounding in their content areas to teach to 21st-century standards.
We must hear critics’ legitimate complaints. I have often said that we are not differentiating the achievements of our graduates with the precision and honesty that, for example, law schools and other professional schools do. That’s a failure we, as institutions of higher learning, have to confront, own and fix.
Many in the teacher education establishment will say "Easy A’s" is a cheap shot or that it looks at incomplete information. Others have asserted that the methods that NCTQ uses to evaluate teacher education programs are inappropriate, if not flawed. Though we have our criticisms of NCTQ’s work, the message, not the messenger, is what we care about.
The reality is that far too many institutions do fail to adequately define what constitutes research-driven preparation practices. Because of that lack of definition, many education graduates have a false sense of their preparedness. Their college credentials don’t translate to results in the classroom.
Imagine the shock of new teachers, and especially our most celebrated grads, if they go into the classroom and their students objectively and consistently perform poorly.
Just as K-12 schools are being asked to differentiate teachers based on value-added metrics, teacher education institutions need to differentiate teacher candidates during their academic and clinical preparation.
True, our goal is for all candidates to do well. But if we have demanding rubrics for effective practice, not all teacher candidates will be rated equally or even highly. Quite simply, whether through rubrics or a limit on A’s or some other performance differentiator, teacher education programs also need to do a much better job of assessing the performance of candidates.
We have been critics of NCTQ and will continue to be when we disagree. Its rhetoric is often too strident, its perspective too jaundiced about teacher education programs. But the organization and we agree on two essential points:
Teacher education programs are vital to ensuring teacher quality and creating the necessary pipeline of talent for our nation’s schools.
Improving teacher quality will only be accomplished with more rigorous teacher preparation.
Even well-meaning programs such as Teach for America could benefit from better grounding in university partnerships. Our schools need highly trained and skilled teachers who are effective the day they start their careers. If we really are committed to providing a world-class education system, we must have a comprehensive system for turning out the professionals to drive it.
The way to ensure teachers will be successful is to provide and demand more rigorous clinically based teacher education. In that system, there will be no easy A’s.
Nancy L. Zimpher is chancellor of the State University of New York and holds a Ph.D. in teacher education and higher education administration. Thomas J. Lasley II is executive director of the Learn to Earn Dayton program at the Dayton Foundation and a professor in the School of Education and Health Sciences at the University of Dayton.
In today's Academic Minute, Cliff Ross, a marine biologist at the University of North Florida, discusses his research on the ecology of the Florida Keys to better understand coral reefs. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
Queen's University in Canada announced Thursday that Melody Torcolacci, an instructor accused of teaching scientifically invalid anti-vaccine arguments, would not be returning to teach the health course in which she made the statements, The Globe and Mail reported. But Provost Alan Harrison said that an anti-vaccine PowerPoint used in the class -- prompting student complaints -- may have been taken out of context. He said that the PowerPoint was anti-vaccine, but that he was not sure the same could be said of the class lectures. Nonetheless, he said that the instructor would be returning to teach other courses, not this one.
David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed that the association has been limited in its analysis of the case so far. "We’ve weighed in only to say that we need to be cautious about jumping to conclusions on this one," he said. "There is a lot we don’t know, and [we] need to be wary of trial by social media."
The National Endowment for the Humanities announced Thursday that Anna Deavere Smith will deliver the 44th Jefferson Lecture on April 6. Smith is an actress and playwright known for works of nonfiction theater -- such as Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 -- in which she plays multiple roles. Her lecture will be called “On the Road: A Search for American Character."
Charged €1,000 ($1,140) for damage to two rooms and the destruction of another family’s possessions, Mohammed giggled and explained, “No problem, I buy them.” Over the past 4 weeks, the boys who shared room 305, Mohammed, a 16-year-old Tehrani, and his kindred spirit, Vlad, a 17-year-old Muscovite, had built a tender friendship. (I have changed all names to protect the anonymity of the school, students and faculty.) They sought my acknowledgment in every way they could, both benignly by gifting me Haribo gummy bears, and also by provoking my anger by prank calling in the middle of the night. Eventually they settled on a new plea for attention: running water taps. What began with a running faucet culminated in the flooding of their hotel room and the one below it.
Camped in a four-star resort in a one-street Alpine village, the institute where Mohammed and Vlad were studying English caters unabashedly to the global 1 percent. Accommodations feature five-course meals, king-size beds and a choice of four saunas. With parents at the helms of Russian petroleum companies, Swiss banks and Brazilian multinationals, these students are both extraordinarily wealthy and remarkably maladjusted. Some -- like Vlad -- have the acute (and not inaccurate) sense they’ve been quarantined while their parents gallivant around the Mediterranean and elsewhere. Others, such as Mohammed, have been raised by fawning tutors who have inculcated them with a profound overestimation of their talents in language -- and everything else.
Financial necessity led me to the institute. My graduate stipend pays only enough to support me during the academic year, and I needed summer funding. My preparation to teach freshman writing at my university entailed a semester of intensive pedagogical training, replete with sample assignments, reading materials and instruction strategies. At the institute, I received a dated Oxford textbook (in which beepers were cited as new technology) and a stiff drink purchased for me by the director the night before I was to begin. With little sense of what to expect from this new pedagogical environment, I immediately began to develop a diagnostic to sort a cohort of students, some of whom would stay for a week, others two, and others the entire month, with new students enrolling each week. My class size ranged from 3 students (in the final week doldrums) to 15 at the height of the program.
With four hours of daily instruction to fill and no practical ELL (English language learners) experience, I relied on two fellow English instructors, who generously provided me with lessons and exercises. My lessons often failed. Once, I asked students to describe their home bedrooms. Each one took a turn speaking while the others drew illustrations based upon this description. This exercise, which I intended to hone locational vocabulary, failed because students didn’t know how to describe or depict “bedrooms” that occupied multiple rooms and, sometimes, entire floors. On another occasion, I asked students to create a brochure for a dream school. I intended for my students to apply educational vocabulary. Instead, they submitted descriptions of shopping malls, glutted with Gucci, Prada and Boss boutiques.
The same thing happened during extramural activities as well. The institute featured daily instructional excursions, about which students were encouraged to write copiously in weekly postcards to family. (The excursions were of such import that I was asked to allocate a weekly lesson to postcard writing.) We visited some of Western Europe’s most impressive cultural destinations, including Munich, Salzburg and St. Gallen. On an excursion to Brixen, Italy, students performed what was for me an all too familiar ritual: they retreated to a Starbucks to watch YouTube videos. Offered the choice to visit a castle or an outlet mall nearby, all but one voted to shop. Some students called the outlet their favorite destination of the month.
I loathed their lack of curiosity, but mostly I lurched between detachment and exasperation. I was far busier than I had anticipated, and after a 12-hour day I found it easy to dislike my students. I skipped group lunches for the relief of solitary walks and siphoned precious sleep time to study for my coming qualifying exams. My colleagues, many of whom were full-time students or high-school teachers, commiserated but could not relate. To them, the institute provided a lucrative means to a holiday that they not otherwise afford. They didn’t overthink it.
My detachment and exasperation gave way to defiance. If tutors or teachers wouldn’t correct student misbehaviors, I, as the graduate student with little to lose, would compel these students to acknowledge the humanity of those around them. As the institute’s tenderfoot, I was primarily responsible for the largest and most disruptive cohort, the Russian boys, who threatened me with retribution by their familial connections. (The Russian mob notwithstanding, I had a hard time taking that seriously.) I intervened at a dinner when Vlad mocked a gay student. I intervened when Mohammed poured his soda on the ground (because it was diet). I intervened when the Russians spoke Russian in English class and when the Brazilians wandered off on their own during excursions. Gradually, some students reluctantly changed behaviors.
Mohammed and Vlad, both of whom I had in class, changed most dramatically. After receiving failing grades on their first exams (perhaps the first F’s ever assigned at the institute), they began to worry -- and take notes. I used their camaraderie to cultivate a productive rivalry, awarding daily lesson “championships,” more choice of assignments and even the chance to teach units.
I also learned more about them. Vlad shared a photo of himself, his father, and a brand-new Mercedes-Benz -- the only photo of him with his dad. Mohammed’s father, on the other hand, applied so much pressure to his firstborn son that the young man suffers chronic health problems, including an eating disorder. Both of the boys of room 305 were boisterous, privileged and unaware. They were also children who were, despite their luxurious lives, unhappy.
I gradually realized I had misread my students. If Brixen was a hop away in a private jet, there could be nothing inherently special about it. Like the social media-addicted students I taught at home, these teens craved a sense of belonging, which they achieved by wearing the same labels, watching the same mass media and locating themselves via Starbucks and smartphones. When they didn’t feel they belonged, they behaved like puppies that hadn’t been housebroken: they broke rules, sneaked out and destroyed rooms. I sometimes felt I was succeeding in domesticating my cohort.
By the end of the program, Vlad and Mohammed visited my room to acknowledge me as their instructor (to prove they were doing homework) and mentor (to learn how to tie a tie). However, those very same students cheated on their final exam and flooded their hotel room. I couldn’t ascertain whether I was dealing with accident-prone pets or young sociopaths. Nor was I confident that I was a suitable trainer. The very transience and poverty that equipped me to confront their misbehaviors also formed a boundary against any kind of meaningful or lasting connection with these future plutocrats. It also made me doubt that I, their teacher, could change them.
For one of our final excursions, I took my students back to the outlet mall. It was the equivalent of letting the foxes into the Gucci henhouse, but given my exhaustion, I let them gorge. And they did. I brought a book and read on a lawn chair at Lafuma while the students maxed out their parental credit cards on what everyone agreed to call souvenirs. When it came time to leave, the van couldn’t accommodate the bags, so Mohammed and Vlad stacked Armani, Dior and Boss boxes high on their laps. For the next two hours, boxes tumbled across the backseats as we wove up serpentine roads to our town. By the time we arrived at the resort several hours later, it was dark and the boys were ecstatic to escape the van. They left behind their souvenirs.
At dinner, I asked Mohammed if he had found what he wanted. He shrugged and asked me what I bought. I told him I didn’t need anything. He looked at me as though he didn’t understand. He told me he would buy me a new suit on our next trip.
Will Fenton is director of the Writing Center at Fordham University Lincoln Center, a teaching fellow and a doctoral candidate of English at Fordham University, where he specializes in 19th-century American literature and the digital humanities.
When George Orwell identified his family background as “lower-upper-middle class,” he wasn’t being facetious. It was a comment not just on British social hierarchy but on how that structure perpetuated itself -- through an anxious process of monitoring and policing the nuances of distinction, the markers of inclusion and exclusion at each level.
It’s a cliché that Americans tend to be clueless about such things, or at least as pointedly indifferent to them as circumstances permit. No other society has ever managed to convince itself so thoroughly, for so long, that social mobility is normative -- tending, as if by nature, mostly upward. Some of the people Jessi Streib interviewed for The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages (Oxford University Press) were “visibly angry or tearful” when asked about class, “as they thought that the question implied not only differences but also statements about who was morally superior.”
What a contrast to the rather morbid preoccupation with calibrating status that Orwell describes! But the difference is not so complete as it first appears. Intense indignation and distress at being asked to think about one’s class background suggest it is a topic charged with feelings of embarrassment, frustration, anger, disgust and fear, to keep the list as short as possible. Orwell’s reflections on class find the same emotional elements, albeit combined in a different formula.
What happens to class differences within the crucible of romantic love is an old question for novelists, but Streib, an assistant professor of sociology at Duke University, takes a more analytical approach. She interviewed 32 married heterosexual couples in the United States in which one spouse came from a blue-collar family and the other from a white-collar family, plus another 10 couples for whom all the in-laws were from a white-collar background. Everyone interviewed was white and most were college graduates.
The homogeneity on these points was in part a function of who answered the initial call for interviews, but it had the advantage of limiting the number of variables in a relatively small pool of subjects.
The precise definition of class is a matter for dispute even among social theorists sharing the same general framework of analysis (the Marxist debates alone are voluminous), but Streib’s categories are pretty much vernacular. “White-collar-origin respondents are those that had fathers with bachelor’s or advanced degrees and who worked in professional or managerial jobs.” The blue-collar-origin participants “had fathers with at most a high-school diploma and who tended to work with their hands (though, of course, their jobs also often required mental work).” The mothers’ educational levels were almost always identical to those of their husbands.
The interview subjects themselves, whatever their parents’ educational and occupation level, fell into the white-collar category. Streib questioned each member of the couple separately and then together, covering not just their family backgrounds and biography but their attitudes and practices concerning money, career, child raising, housework and use of free time. The mixed-background couples tended to have met in college or at their workplaces -- in other words, in contexts where each person would understandably assume that the other occupied a white-collar status or was at least headed that way.
My impression from Streib’s biographical sketches is that during early phases of their relationships, mixed-class couples tended to think of differences in their background mainly in terms of family income. When describing his own class origins, Orwell wrote: “You notice that I define it in terms of money, because that is always the quickest way of making yourself understood.” So it is, but other aspects of class come into view only after spending some time with the other person’s family -- experiencing something of the world they grew up in, the attitudes and norms that shaped them.
Streib identifies two general patterns of value and behavior associated with the partners’ origins. Those who come from professional white-collar families exhibit what she calls a “managerial sensibility.” They tend “to plan, deliberate, mull over and organize their resources, their children and their daily lives,” while their spouses are prone to a “laissez-faire sensibility” and prefer “to feel free from self-constraint... to go with the flow and live in the moment.” (Carpe diem is a better characterization of it than laissez-faire, but que sera sera....)
Such broad generalizations are not easily distinguished from stereotypes -- and as someone who would fall into Streib’s blue-collar-origin cohort, I’ll point out that her “managerial sensibility” also exists in the lower orders, where it is known as the work ethic. In any event, The Power of the Past focuses largely on how managerial and laissez-faire sensibilities play out in the various domains of family life, and how couples come to understand the contrasts and strains.
The most interesting finding is that mixed-background spouses tend to be attracted to each another by personality traits missing from their own sensibility: the highly organized daughter of lawyers falls for the easygoing trucker’s son. Complications and conflicts inevitably ensue. Resolving or containing them is certainly possible, though it is much more complex and drawn-out a process than the romantic comedies would have you believe. (My white-collar-origin spouse would surely agree.)
The author’s insights are necessarily limited by the size and narrow demographics of her pool of subjects, but also by abundance of happy endings, or at least of lasting unions. Class conflicts can be resolved in good marriages -- but it doesn’t always work out that well. I don’t think Marx ever had divorce in mind when he referred to “the mutual ruin of the contending classes,” but the statistics imply that is the usual outcome.
A legislative committee in Oklahoma has voted to ban the use of state funds for teaching Advanced Placement U.S. history, The Tulsa World reported. Lawmakers complained that the curriculum focuses too much on what "is bad about America." Further, some lawmakers are questioning the entire AP program, saying that it is effectively a national curriculum. These lawmakers note that the state is committed to fighting efforts at creating a national curriculum, and so some are questioning the legality of AP in its entirety.
Tenure-line faculty members at the University of Illinois at Springfield have formed a union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. The new union has 137 members, who organized under the following platform: negotiate for “fair” wages and benefits, share governance with the administration and advocate for the rights of students without fear of professional retaliation.
Faculty members at Springfield’s sister institution, the University of Illinois at Chicago, also are organized with AFT (along with the American Association of University Professors) and signed their first union contract last year. A Springfield spokesman said the university respects faculty members’ right to decide whether or not they want to be represented by a union, and that the union “will have the power to act and speak for faculty in required group-level negotiations on wages, hours and conditions of work.” Some 71 eligible members signed cards in favor of the union, according to information from the university.