“I do not know very much about painting, but I know enough to know that the Art teacher did not know much about it either and that, furthermore, she did not know or care anything at all about the way in which you can destroy a human being. Stephen, in many ways already dying, died a second and third and fourth and final death before her anger.”
So wrote Jonathan Kozol in Death at an Early Age, the 1967 exposé of American public education drawn from the author’s hands-on work as a substitute teacher. Forty years later, I hear echoes of the young Kozol in regular e-mails from my recently graduated Georgetown University students who are teaching in public schools all across the country.
For example, last year Kristen Hutchens recounted a time when a 7th grader named Hernando stood up in her Washington Heights classroom and shouted, “School is for white people,” a plaintive cry given the 49 percent high school completion rate for New York State Latinos. Hanseul Kang described Native American high school students in Thoreau, N.M., who couldn’t care less about failing classes given the endemic poverty engulfing them. Emily Conger wrote about how it took her the good part of each morning just to calm down the chronically angry Baton Rouge first-graders she was trying to teach.
Kristen, Hanseul and Emily all worked in Teach For America (TFA), the 16-year-old program through which can-do college graduates teach some of America’s neediest public school students. In the last three years, more than 30 young Georgetown graduates I’ve taught or mentored have taken this path. All have been challenged very deeply in multiple ways. As I hear about their work, the victories and the struggles, the problems they see and the personal limitations they feel, it has become clear to me that now is the right time for higher education and Teach For America to work together in a more formal partnership.
For higher education, a new relationship makes sense for a number of reasons. TFA has an outstanding and altruistic mission. It has achieved demonstrably powerful results while maintaining a commitment to continuous evaluation and improvement. With a growing force of 4,400 idealistic graduates preaching and embodying the power of college in underserved communities across the country, TFA may help higher education address one of great challenges of our future -- the shocking reality that only 1 in 17 children from families earning less the $35,000 per year will earn a college degree by age 24.
Teach For America is also important for higher education because of the impact it's having on many campuses right now. With 19,000 applicants last year, the organization is clearly connecting with our students’ personal and civic values. At Georgetown, 8 to 9 percent of last year’s graduating seniors applied to TFA -- more than applied to medical school. As a result, TFA is the No. 1 employer of members of our class of 2006. We need to take this phenomenon seriously and see how we can support our students’ aspirations.
We also need to take seriously the complexity and difficulty of the experience our students have once they get started in TFA. The young women and men who write to me describe the first year as a baptism-by-fire in which past achievements count for nothing, and success, writes former San Jose teacher Joanna Belcher, requires “every ounce of energy and intellect.” As brand-new teachers, they have to figure out how to teach and how to maintain order. They often need to create materials and even curricula from scratch. Most of their students test well below grade level; some have trying or desperate needs.
And then there are the dilemmas: What to do when students won’t even try to cooperate? When school lunches taste so bad that hungry kids won’t eat them? When the children see broken-down buildings as symbols of how little society values them? Hard-working and sleep-deprived, obsessed with helping their children, my former students brood over such questions and sometimes chastise themselves for not making a fast-enough impact.
As I listen to young people who I’ve taught and know well, even as they struggle, I see so many different ways that they’re growing. In Roma, Tex., Steve de Man showed the initiative to raise $42,000 to bring two groups of 40 middle school students to visit the nation’s capital. In the Mississippi Delta, Mike Griffin demonstrated the flexibility and perseverance to teach extremely well after being assigned to a new school midyear. Nicole Benvenuto and Grace Tse were able to see the beauty in individual victories. Joanna Belcher learned to draw upon the resources of others at her school to become an even better teacher.
Elena Romerdahl found a hero in her New York City principal. Marya Murray Diaz developed an intellectual love for critical pedagogy and its implications for her outreach to working class parents. Last summer, Joseph Almeida described how his fifth grade class in Washington Heights gained 1.5 years in reading growth and also exceeded its 80 percent math content mastery goal, concluding, “It was incredible to see their transformations and the power that the acquisition of knowledge had on their self-esteem and continually improving academic performance.”
One of my favorite stories concerns Sophia Pappas, who entered in 2003. Right from the start, her Newark elementary school principal complained that he didn’t want her, and in October she was summarily fired. With rent to pay and no other job, she spent the rest of that year working in TFA’s New Jersey office. Many would have decided to move on at that point, but instead Sophia chose to start over the next fall teaching pre-K at a different school. For the next two years she taught brilliantly and immersed herself in her students’ lives, winning teaching awards. Having now completed the two-year TFA term, Sophia is staying at her school for at least one more year before starting graduate study in education policy.
As a professor, I love the fact that TFA believes in my students, and it lifts me to watch those I have taught rise to its demands. There’s no question that some of the formative experiences they have in the program will shape them for a lifetime, the way Jonathan Kozol’s shaped him.
That said, when I reread the e-mails I get from the front lines, it’s clear that some beginning teachers could use more preparation and more intensive on-going support. I have especially heard this from first-year teachers placed in special education or limited English proficiency classrooms. Such problems are compounded when new teachers get assigned to schools where the administration can’t support them or may not even want them.
While these difficulties affect a minority of Corps members, they could worsen with the organization’s plan to expand from 4,400 teachers this year to 7,500 in 2010. This is another reason why higher education needs to sit up and take notice. Frankly, these growth plans only make sense if the organization can recruit and support an even larger cohort of exceptional graduates determined to transform young lives. I’m not sure TFA can do this alone -- which brings me to some of the ways higher education might reach out in partnership.
First, we should help more undergraduates qualify themselves to be accepted -- not because we necessarily prefer TFA over other options, but because significant percentages of our seniors clearly do. We might expand community-based learning courses, student research opportunities, and leadership development programs. We might partner with TFA to help undergraduates learn early what it will take to get selected -- maybe even by giving them teaching internships with current or former Corps members. We also should evaluate our current university-run youth programs to make sure they’re in sync with the schools’ curricula and benchmarks. There’s no reason we can’t teach college students how to develop work plans to bring the children they’re mentoring up to or beyond grade level; maybe TFA and its leading feeder campuses could work together on this and thereby strengthen the applicant pool.
Second, as the Princeton University English professor Jeff Dolven has observed, colleges and universities could make a big impact by extending new resources to our teaching alums -- all teachers, not just Corps members. Perhaps we could provide access to free or reduced cost textbooks, class materials, library resources or summer courses. We might identify professors willing to serve as intellectual mentors or discussion leaders for chat rooms. We could certainly bring these teachers together for workshops, symposia, or opportunities to reflect and reconnect. The first year of teaching can be so bracing, and so lonely. Creating networks for problem-solving, dialogue, and dreaming is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.
The idea of working with TFA will be controversial in some quarters of higher education, because the model has its detractors. Some question whether freshly minted college graduates are the best fit for the high-stakes classrooms of distressed school districts. Another concern is that the two-year TFA term requires struggling schools to spend too much time mentoring new teachers and managing turnover. A third is that the program is growing too quickly.
These are fair and important concerns. TFA has good answers to each of them, pointing to students test scores, principal satisfaction and the high caliber of recruits. I would argue -- and I’m confident TFA would agree -- that these are perennial quality issues and not one-time questions to resolve. So, a third area of potential collaboration might be the establishment of a new TFA advisory board of faculty, alumni, students and university leaders to look at such issues, year in and year out, and bring the resources of universities to bear on those areas that give concern.
Higher education, Teach For America, and the schools that TFA serves have a lot to gain from a new partnership. Of course, thousands of our own students and alumni already know this. This generation of young graduates has responded to the American ideal of equal educational opportunity with a sense of urgency, and don’t want the children sitting before them, right now, to die at an early age. Our teaching alums remind us that creating opportunity for children is everybody’s job.
Daniel R. Porterfield
Daniel R. Porterfield is vice president for public affairs and strategic development and an assistant professor of English at Georgetown University.
As someone who works with many states to improve education, I’m deeply troubled by the lack of our national progress -- and the missing urgency in postsecondary education -- toward improving students’ readiness for college and their prospects for completing college degrees.
Many in postsecondary education agree the readiness problem must be addressed, and a few states have taken strong early steps toward a solution. So, why haven’t we moved closer to solving the readiness problem?
The largest obstacle is that all of postsecondary education still does not see the readiness problem and the elements of addressing it in the same ways. Some question the size of the problem. Some fear that students’ access to higher learning could be at risk. Others fear that admissions would be affected, or believe that we can solve it simply by requiring more high school courses, or that readiness is more of a problem for high schools to solve.
We must come together in postsecondary education on many of these points if we are to prepare far greater numbers of students for college. ACT Inc. estimates that 60 percent to 70 percent of its test takers are not well-prepared for college study. Considering that only about half of students who enroll in college actually earn a degree or certificate, we must find ways to confront this problem. Research shows that most future job opportunities in the U.S. will require some level of college study or career training after high school.
A handful of states have taken action toward improving college readiness -- notably Arkansas, California, Indiana, Georgia, Kentucky and Texas, all of which have at least established specific state policy agendas for dealing with the problem.
Achieve Inc. has worked with many states through its American Diploma Project to promote the importance and help states take some early steps toward improving college readiness. The American Council on Education and the State Higher Education Executive Officers also are among the groups that have begun supporting the need to take action on readiness.
Most states, though, have neither committed to a specific agenda for improving college readiness nor made significant progress.
The lack of progress is particularly worrisome because many in postsecondary education agree that improving college readiness is doable, and we have a good idea of the practical steps our states and K-12 and postsecondary education systems need to take.
Briefly, these steps are needed:
Establish college-readiness standards in language arts and mathematics that are embraced by all of postsecondary education.
Ensure adoption of the college-readiness standards by the public K-12 schools.
Identify high school tests that measure students’ performance on the standards early in high school so they can find the extra help or courses they need before or during the senior year.
Make these tests part of the state’s K-12 school accountability system.
Prepare current and new teachers in the new standards and how to incorporate them into classroom instruction.
So, if we know how to address this college-readiness challenge, why is there such little progress across many of our states and systems of postsecondary education?
As we have reviewed state policies on college readiness in the past year, a time during which many states should have been making considerable progress on readiness, we’ve seen a lack of shared views within and across states of the magnitude and nature of the readiness problems we face. There is simply not the critical convergence of thinking around various elements of the readiness challenge that is necessary for all interests to establish or commit to a bold action agenda.
I remember attending a graduate school forum some years ago and hearing the noted organizational psychologist Karl E. Weick, now a professor at the University of Michigan, refer to higher education as a bunch of solutions in search of relevant problems. In other words, frequently the most difficult task is defining the problem clearly and in such ways that all of the key parties embrace the definition. The solutions are more apparent when the definition is clarified.
Here are some suggestions about how to bring consensus on some of the key points in defining the readiness challenge:
First, there needs to be agreement that all states face a significant readiness problem. Research shows that most students are not well-prepared to begin college study in language arts, mathematics or both. Even many students who are not required to take remedial courses are not well-prepared for college work, and many professors and college administrators know it.
Few states apply one set of readiness standards across all of postsecondary education, resulting in individual campuses or systems setting their own readiness or placement standards. Frequently, the standards are lower than they should be to indicate readiness. States that recognize the magnitude of the readiness problem are more likely to make readiness a priority and move toward improvement.
Second, postsecondary education needs to embrace the improvement of college readiness as a move in its own best interest -- and in the best interest of every state and the entire nation. Some officials in postsecondary education will question this statement. After all, remedial education still generates per-student funding, and many students who are not ready for college still make their way into degree-credit courses and generate funding, at least until they drop out. Their lack of readiness also provides an easy explanation for low college graduation rates. Having high proportions of students better prepared for college would eliminate a reason higher education currently uses to explain the low rates and would make higher education more accountable for its own effectiveness. Thus, making postsecondary education more accountable for postsecondary completion while maintaining access would force us to take readiness more seriously, because readiness is a key factor in degree and certificate completion.
Third, postsecondary education must not confuse the need to improve readiness with a threat to college admission or entry. Confusing readiness with admission will only keep states and postsecondary education systems from reaching consensus on making readiness a priority. Broad-access and open-door institutions (which serve a large majority of students across the nation) will not fully embrace a readiness initiative if they believe it will negatively affect access. Therefore, states need to assert that access and entry will be maintained regardless of the readiness agenda. Remedial education will continue -- only, we hope, a lot less of it, for more students will be prepared to begin college work.
This is the fourth and most essential point: Improving college readiness depends on strengthening high school graduation requirements and diplomas, but states and higher education systems cannot delay dealing with the readiness problem until these graduation requirements rise to meet college-readiness standards. All states need to raise high school graduation and diploma requirements, increase high school graduation rates, improve student achievement, and ensure that much higher proportions of students are ready for college upon completing high school. All of these areas need careful and diligent work from K-12 and postsecondary leaders working together. Rhetoric calling for high school diploma and graduation requirements and high-stakes graduation tests to be changed overnight to ensure college readiness for all students in the near-term may cause the public schools to question whether higher graduation requirements are realistic. Many states already struggle with low graduation rates in high schools, even under existing requirements and tests.
Fifth and related to the last point, for the readiness initiative to be taken seriously, the general claims that “all students need to be ready for college and careers” needs to be narrowed down, clarified and embraced widely. We must specify what readiness means in those essential skills that every person needs to learn further in school and at work -- reading, writing and math. Specified in terms of these learning skills, a case can be made that all high school graduates need these skills in collegiate academic programs, postsecondary career-preparation programs, or subsequent on-the-job training. In today’s economy, all students need a certain level of basic skills to pursue their goals.
Sixth, postsecondary education and the public schools need to recognize that meeting the college-readiness challenge will center on setting specific, measurable performance standards in key learning skills and having more students achieve them. There is still some confusion over this focus, especially in postsecondary education, which has little experience in performance standards-based education (in contrast to public schools since the 1990s). Postsecondary education tends to see readiness as synonymous with high school courses and grades or with ACT or SAT scores. While rigorous high school courses and good grades are necessary, they do not by any means ensure readiness. The national admissions tests may come closer to indicating student readiness in reading, writing and math, but they do not provide the precise and transparent focus on the core standards that high school teachers need to use in their classroom instruction.
Seventh, the best kind of readiness agenda will require a statewide effort that has all of postsecondary education acting as a body, agreeing on one set of readiness standards and uniformly communicating them to all high schools in a state. This statewide stance is needed to ensure that teachers in all of a state’s high schools know exactly what standards to help students meet. No state has managed yet to get all of postsecondary education -- universities and community colleges -- to speak with one voice. College readiness will be improved only when high school classroom teachers receive clear and concise signals about standards, backed by all of postsecondary education in their state. Statewide, state-level policy direction may be needed to provide the framework for public schools and postsecondary education to coordinate their efforts.
Reaching consensus across postsecondary education on the definition of the nation’s college-readiness problem will help states and college systems move toward solutions. All states need explicit readiness standards in reading and math, and they need to bring postsecondary education and K-12 schools together to develop such standards and to implement them. Getting more students ready for college and the work place will benefit our nation, every state, all students and postsecondary education.
Dave Spence is the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization based in Atlanta that works with 16 member states to improve pre-K-12 and postsecondary education. He is a former vice chancellor of the California, Florida and Georgia state university systems, and he received the Virginia B. Smith Innovative Leadership Award in 2006 from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
American colleges and universities hold dear their independence, not only from government but from each other. Each college and university, irrespective of its sources of support, perceives of itself as self-contained, free to define its mission and to control its own operations. Competition rather than cooperation among them is expected in the intense search for students, dollars and prestige. While common understandings on mutual obligations do exist, none rise to the level of a sense of shared national purpose.
There does exist an overriding purpose that all should openly share -- the care, feeding and reform of elementary and secondary education in America. A growing consensus among scholars and practitioners is that the most important element in student success is the teacher and the most important element in school success is the principal. Who prepares the teachers? Who prepares the principals?
Many, if not most, academics may plead innocence for the inadequacy of the public school system on the ground that their teaching and research obligations do not involve elementary and secondary school issues. But how many have lamented the inadequacy of their students’ academic skills and blamed the performance of elementary and secondary education for their deleterious impact upon higher education?
Who or what is responsible for the disappointing portrait of America’s system of public elementary and secondary education? Multiple answers are typically offered: Uncaring parents, uninspired teachers, unqualified principals, selfish teachers unions, corrupt politicians, partisan school boards, politically harassed superintendents and disgraceful school buildings. Social ills such as poverty, racism and drugs are in the mix as are the debilitating impact of television and twittering. We blame the lack of money but that collides with data showing that many poor performing schools and school districts spend more per student than good schools.
What is missing from this litany of the obvious? The free pass being given to higher education.
How did we get to this perverted assignment of blame to those at the end of the educational chain who are totally dependent upon the existence and products of the top of the chain? Who is preparing the teachers, principals, superintendents and most school board members who form the key ingredients for educating our children?
What you have heard, when we address it at all, is widespread condemnation of schools of education, treating them as weak spots while all the other departments and disciplines in the university, teaching the same students, share none of the blame. Incompetent or unsuitable teachers? Well that’s the fault of schools of education, right? Students in other programs or professional schools are considered products of the whole university’s efforts but, apparently, education students emerge as a tabula rasa who reflect no benefit from their relationship to the rest of the university.
You don’t have to dig too deeply into the literature on schools of education to find a pattern of criticism, much of it related to the perception that such schools emphasize teaching methodology instead of subject matter competence. Who is supposed to teach how to teach children to read, write or do arithmetic? And who is to teach what to teach if not the scholarly disciplines? How many liberal arts departments offer courses sensitive to what an elementary or secondary teacher would find useful? Instead, even introductory courses are usually geared to the production of majors with little if any idea about what is actually taught to children. A faculty member who espoused that his or her department make that part of its agenda would be viewed as a pariah, out of step with the department’s academic discipline.
Another favorite of critics is that education programs attract and accept students with lower qualifications than other liberal arts programs. This allegation is questionable and irrelevant, since the prospective teacher must pass all requirements of the academic disciplines to earn a degree. Debate rages about whether teachers need unique educational credentials to teach or, instead, if we should open the profession to people with other training who desire to enter the teaching profession. Still, it is expected that such people will take some traditional educational methods courses.
The history of the training of school teachers in this country is instructive. The early colleges and universities stressed classical education for the learned professions (clergy, law, medicine), but teacher education was not considered part of the mission. Public elementary education was sporadic and geared to the needs of an agrarian society.
Teachers were unlicensed and poorly compensated. Not until the late 1830s were public “normal schools” established to provide post-eighth grade education to prepare primary school teachers and to establish “norms” for schools. By the beginning of the 20th century, school systems grew and stabilized, secondary education expanded and many normal schools extended their curricula to agricultural and vocational training with some liberal studies. Only after World War II and the enormous population boom did the United States approach the idea of universal secondary school education, an idea that is not yet realized in graduation data.
With those developments, normal schools developed into the four-year “teacher colleges,” the earlier format of the “state normal colleges” which evolved into the “state colleges” and, during the 1950s and 1960s, to the numerous regional state universities, typically named according to location in the state -- “eastern, western, northern, southern and central.”
At each step of this astonishing growth of higher education in America, teacher training slipped in status as a lesser-regarded area of study. Though prospective teacher enrollments remained high, they served as the proverbial “cash cows” with lesser qualifications for entering the teacher education programs and education faculty salaries lower than for other growing disciplines.
It happens that I was twice part of the morphing of the normal school, teacher college, and state college into a regional state university, with a diminished role for teacher education within the growing university. I can recall the overall atmospherics of a community rooted in the training of school teachers. Whatever subject matter you taught, you knew that most of the students in your class were prospective teachers. Many departments were involved in curricular discussions with teacher education units to coordinate substantive subject matter with teaching methodology and to advise students on suitable courses to meet state and school district requirements.
Subsequently I became the dean of a newly established college of arts and sciences at a former teacher’s college and there experienced the unraveling of longstanding faculty and curricular arrangements as general education programs overtook the focus usually allotted to the preparation of teachers. At both universities, the gradual separation of teacher education from the central mission of the institution reflected new directions for higher education in America.
There are now so many alternative routes to become a teacher without teacher education certification that the teacher education units are further diminished. For example, avenues are available for teaching positions in private schools, charter schools, through national programs such as Teach for America, and special accelerated courses for persons holding any undergraduate or professional degree who would like to try teaching. Elementary and secondary teaching was viewed largely as “women’s work” until opportunities for women opened in all realms of professional and business life, suggesting that more academically talented women populated schools of education than do so now.
What would it take to mobilize higher education to assume more responsibility for the preparation of teachers? Here are three suggestions:
First, all major college and university associations should declare in concert with their membership that, in the national interest, the preparation of teachers will receive the priority treatment usually accorded to showcase programs or schools. This could mean, for example, that all would agree to raise the requirements for admission to education programs along the lines used for special undergraduate honors or other selective programs and at the graduate level to law, medicine or business. Such unprecedented action would be contrary to higher education’s penchant for institutional and programmatic independence, making it all the more dramatic and establish the preparation of elementary and secondary teachers and principals as a core value of higher education.
Second, all academic departments should work in concert with education faculty to maximize the marriage of subject matter with methodology for teaching elementary and secondary students. Many universities have participated in both academic and social programs to assist local schools. Such programs are usually remedial in character, limited in scope and disconnected from higher education’s overall relationship to the plight of the schools. To connect would require acknowledgment that in the case of children and adolescents, subject matter competence of teachers is not sufficient. What counts is some standard for what should be taught and recognition that teaching methodology can and should be taught. Such alliances are beginning to make some headway in numerous colleges and universities, and their activities should be studied and publicized. Especially hopeful is the release in June 2010 of a set of national standards for elementary and secondary education by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to prepare students for college. Many college officials say that they will train teachers to meet the standards.
Third, in order to maximize the use of limited resources, a return to the concept of the teacher colleges with their combined dedication of subject matter and methodology should be explored. Colleges and universities with small education programs could use existing consortium arrangements, or establish new alliances, to share a free-standing teachers college that joins their education and special subject matter faculty and to which they will send undergraduate and graduate students preparing for teaching and administrative posts. Properly executed, with serious attention to recruiting high quality students, faculty, and research scholars, the diminished prestige of teacher education programs could be raised to the essential place that they should have among the learned professions. It is likely that such experiments would be attractive to major private foundations, with eventual benefit to colleges and universities, and to local business groups eager to repair perceived weaknesses of elementary and secondary schools in their communities.
Henry Wyman Holmes, the inaugural dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, 1920-1940, stated some 80 years ago that "the training of teachers is a highly significant part of the making of the nation." He called for "a more serious conception of the place of the teacher in the life of the nation,” urging educational and political leaders to join him in "changing the systems that support poorly trained, paid and esteemed teachers." He found few supporters. To realize Holmes’s efforts to raise teacher education to higher professional levels, leaders in teacher education formed the Holmes Group, renamed the Holmes Partnership, to encourage linkages among education professionals and with liberal arts departments, still seeking the same goals.
Others, notably in the political world, are putting pressure on schools at all levels. Congress enacted the “No Child Left Behind” program emphasizing testing and assessment of learning. The U.S. Department of Education has put more rigorous requirements on teacher education accrediting bodies and is using “Race to the Top” funds to encourage both program and personnel changes for failing school systems. Another notable development is the aggressive initiative of private foundations, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation for Education, to promote improvements in the teaching profession. Increased action by political and private power centers should be expected.
To avoid further loss of treasured higher education independence, remediation of teacher education should begin with higher education’s role in the decline of the schools. This calls for shoring up their teacher education programs and awakening the traditional academic departments to their responsibilities for the education of teachers.
American colleges and universities are the envy of the world for their excellence in so many endeavors. As the population grows and diversifies and technology poses enormous challenges, we need to concentrate on the ingredient that makes continuing achievements possible -- the education of children. This is one obligation we should openly share that can provide that sense of shared national purpose so lacking in higher education.
Milton Greenberg is professor of government emeritus at American University, where he served as provost and interim president.