Teacher education

Rule making on teacher preparation programs fails to reach consensus

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After a panel fails to reach consensus, the U.S. Education Department will have a free hand in writing regulations that affect whether students in teacher preparation programs can receive some forms of financial aid.

Teacher preparation rule-making panel gets more time

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With no consensus in sight on new standards for evaluating teacher education programs, negotiators agree to an extra meeting.

Rule making on teacher preparation programs questions U.S. authority

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As federal panel negotiates standards for teacher preparation programs, some question whether the task should be a federal responsibility at all.

Fighting the Non-University Master's

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WASHINGTON -- A Senate bill that would encourage the growth of alternative training programs for teachers and principals, some of which would not be based at colleges or universities but would have the authority to give certificates considered the equivalent of master’s degrees, has come under fire from higher education organizations that argue Congress should focus on higher education institutions in efforts to improve teacher quality.

Another Take on 'Educating School Leaders'

Newspapers across the country paid significant significant attention last week to the publication of "Educating School Leaders," a report by Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University’s Teachers College. We at the Renaissance Group, a consortium of 36 universities that prepare 1 of every 10 new teachers for the nation’s classrooms and a significant number of principals and school system administrators, take very seriously the business of preparing school personnel.

And we take umbrage at yet another study that paints all colleges of education with the same broad brush stroke on how ineffective we are -- when, in fact, our accrediting agencies and clientele report how well we are doing our jobs and are impressed with the quality of graduates from our member institutions.

We agree with Levine that some school leadership preparation programs lackquality in preparing their students, and for the Renaissance Group’s 16 years of existence we have strived to engage in public debate to help improve these programs. But we feel it is wrong and dangerous to make the kind of sweeping generalizations that Levine does. Among our concerns with his work: 

1) Levine’s study did in-depth interviews on only a few campuses with educational leadership programs. Using this small sample to represent the numerous educator preparation programs in the U.S. is misleading. The ultimate question that should be investigated and answered is whether or not those who are being prepared as building and district leaders have the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to promote vision, create positive learning outcomes for children, and be successful in today's ever changing schools. Policy makers and politicians must accept the fact that not all individuals have what it takes to be an effective leader. Likewise, it is true that some institutions and programs are going to have to get serious about quality issues instead of focusing on quantity. If institutions are not willing to make these tough decisions, states will need to intervene. 

2) We feel Levine's paper makes many unsubstantiated claims about educational leadership programs, which we don’t want to repeat here to lend them credence. No data is provided to support the negative statements in the paper.

3) Levine’s recommendation that a new degree be created, a master’s in educational administration, with a curriculum in both management and education, approaches the issue from a one-size-fits-all model. This is an old solution to a new set of issues and challenges. It fails to acknowledge that not all programs are alike and that institutions are right now redesigning their educational leadership programs to align them with the work of the public schools the colleges of education have relationships with, as well as with acknowledged standards of student learning and of preparation for school employees.

Numerous Renaissance Group institutions are not only using new and effective leadership preparation models but faculty are actively and directly working with employees in the schools. Faculty members at various schools of education are currently working with local education agencies on principal mentoring programs, an elementary school district on improving student achievements, and with administrators outside the United States on programs to improve their schools. Faculty routinely conduct reorganization studies and curriculum audits for school districts, and work with state boards of education.
The Renaissance Group would agree that certain school preparation programs need either a significant overhaul or to be closed. It is time both to start identifying those programs and institutions and to give more credit to those institutions that are effectively preparing school leaders. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. The Renaissance Group’s vision is that its member institutions will be exemplars for P-16 collaboration, noted for their impact on student learning and leadership in professional education for America’s schools.

Leo W. Pauls
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Leo W. Pauls is executive director of the Renaissance Group. Also contributing to this article were Sam Evans, dean of education at Western Kentucky University; Ric Keaster, associate dean of education at Western Kentucky; Tes Mehring, dean of education at Emporia State University; Bonnie Smith-Skripps, dean of education at Western Illinois University; and Tom Switzer, dean of education at the University of Toledo.


We Can't Do It Alone

Colleges and universities have come under relentless pressure from lawmakers and the public about retention and graduation issues, and demands for accountability based on graduation rates have increased across the country. Higher education even faces the possibility of standardized achievement testing, which has made life at the K-12 level miserable for teachers without necessarily improving student learning. Unless colleges and universities can start to both raise graduation and retention rates, and to change the public’s perspective on these issues, academe may look a lot more like a high school than a university.

Universities and colleges, including my own, have made retention a priority, encouraging faculty members to rethink what they do in order to foster student success. However, this is only half the effort needed, and may come too late for many students. Like the musical Chicago’s Velma Kelly, colleges and universities cannot be a one-person act in the musical Retention; they need their K-12 partners to get in on the action.

Recent research on student achievement may help colleges and universities start to formulate policies that reverse this tide of bad news. The first key piece of evidence comes from Clifford Adelman’s study “The Toolbox Revisited," which charted the high school courses that helped students complete college on time. He found that taking a core set of academic classes was the most powerful predictor of high school and college success, for students of all races, classes and genders.

In other words, a great deal of the success of college students depends on the choices they made in high school, particularly the decision to take rigorous classes, and to also pursue college credit options. If students enter college with six college credits in academic subjects, their chance of successfully making it through freshman year increases markedly. Core high school academic classes, such as advanced mathematics, give students a broader chance of majors, and keep them out of the remedial/non-credit classes that serve as a trap for students, basically leading to stagnation and eventual non-completion.

A second recent piece of evidence is William Tierney, Zoe B. Corwin, and Julia E. Colyar’s book, Preparing for College: Nine Elements of Effective Outreach, which noted that taking a rigorous college preparatory curriculum is “the key to college access.” The authors found that taking a rigorous academic curriculum that includes a strong mathematics component is the most consistently successful way of boosting college attendance and success, beating out mentoring, tutoring, summer programs, and many other popular means of helping students get to college. While they do not denigrate such programs (some types of programs lack evidence, not promise), it is clear that a strong set of academic classes in high school does make all the difference in college access and success.

The final piece of evidence is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation report on high school dropouts, “The Silent Epidemic,” published this month. Former students reported to researchers that they might have stayed in school had they faced a more challenging curriculum and adults who held them to high standards. Many of these dropouts had high expectations of themselves, but did not find challenge or relevance in high school, leading them to a dead end.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s psychological concept of flow helps explain why setting challenging goals for young people is critical. When people are faced with tasks that both challenge them, and are within reach of their abilities, they feel motivated to take them on. However, faced with tasks that have no challenge, or tasks that are simply out of reach, they give up. Unfortunately, if high school students give up on mathematics, reading or writing in high school, limp to graduation, and then enroll in higher education, they are part of a flow that leads to remedial classes, and eventual stopping -- or dropping out.

If college and universities worked with high schools to promote rigorous classes, relevant curriculum, and to give students in high school a vision of what they could become, both institutions would benefit greatly. The greatest area of need, as the Gate Foundation study points out, is for teaching methods that effectively engage and motivate students, and colleges and universities are critical to providing that professional development to teachers.

However, it is also important to address public and lawmaker perspectives on retention and graduation. Adelman makes a strong argument that students and their choices need to stand at the center of the debate on high school and college success. High schools and colleges need to do their utmost to promote success and opportunity, but need to remind people that while they can offer incentives, they cannot choose for students. Students themselves choose AP Calculus or study hall in high school, and they can choose to take classes over the summer in college or drink with their friends. Public officials, policymakers, the public and parents need to hear this message more often.

To recognize that students make their own decisions is not to let institutions off the hook. The federal government needs to support programs that promote college readiness, such as GEAR UP and Upward Bound, rather than annual proposing their destruction. Whether funded by federal money or not, college and universities need to provide middle and high school students with accurate and timely information about where they stand and what they need to do to achieve college admission and readiness. University access and mentoring programs need also to be expanded, and must target the students most in need of them.

Colleges and universities need a proactive strategy for working with K-12 schools to promote college readiness, and to encourage middle and high school students to do the work that will prepare them for college success. From a retention and graduation rate perspective, colleges and universities need more students with a strong academic core, who have had college-level experiences before enrolling freshman year, and who are prepared to work hard at being a college student -- and fewer students who expect the college experience to be what they have seen on Laguna Beach, Beverly Hills 90210 or (worst of all) Saved by the Bell: the College Years.

Russell Olwell
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Russell Olwell is associate professor of history at Eastern Michigan University, where he teaches classes in methods of history teaching, research and writing, and does outreach to local schools.

Time to Team Up with Teach For America

“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
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Daniel R. Porterfield is vice president for public affairs and strategic development and an assistant professor of English at Georgetown University.

Don't Give Up on Universities

Last week, the New York State Board of Regents adopted a new policy that will enable non-universities, including organizations such as Teach for America, to create teacher education programs, with the Board of Regents granting the resulting master's degrees to teachers.

This move comes at a time when criticism of university-based teacher education programs is mounting and an increasing number of efforts, like the new Regents approach, seek to compete with or replace traditional programs entirely. While I have some sympathy with the frustration behind these policies, and while I do believe that we can learn from new alternative programs and should support the best of them, I think the easy tendency to seek to replace rather than strengthen university-based programs is a serious mistake.

Despite a barrage of criticism, including some from my own research, improving the current system is a step the nation has not been seriously attempted. It would be better for New York to put their education schools on notice, monitor progress, and shut them down in favor of other alternatives if they fail.

This was the key recommendation of my 2006 study, Educating School Teachers. In that report, a team of researchers and reporters found that, despite some excellent programs nationwide, most teacher preparation programs have low admissions and graduation standards, inadequate curriculums, disconnects between academic and clinical instruction, and alumni who say they were not adequately prepared for the classroom. But the study also set forth a method of improvement that included setting clear requirements and timelines for colleges and universities. If their teacher-prep programs did not improve within the given timeline, they would be shut down. Evidence of poor performance would include criteria such as low admission and graduation standards, low passage rates on standardized teacher tests, and poor performance by students compared with peers in their graduates’ classes. Marginal programs would be monitored and reviewed regularly by the state to ensure improvement with the promise of closing those as well if they failed to make progress. New York State’s latest effort avoids working to improve the schools that educate most of the state’s teachers. To build a whole new sector instead is to give up, prematurely, on schools of education.

There are other crucial reasons not to give up on education schools. Four years ago, the board of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation decided to launch a fellowship program to enhance teacher education in America. A key question was which teacher education organizations to focus on: universities, alternative routes or a combination. We chose universities, for five very pragmatic reasons.

First, more than 90 percent of all teachers are prepared at universities. In contrast, the alternatives tend to be small hothouses. This is the Willie Sutton principle: Asked why he robbed banks, his answer was, "Because that’s where the money is." The capacity of universities so dwarfs every other competitor that it makes sense to try to fix them first, and makes focusing only on ways to end run them misguided policy.

Second, change at universities is self-sustaining. In contrast to many of the alternative teacher education programs, which require annual philanthropic dollars to continue their programs, university teacher education is self-funding. Students pay tuition. Universities are among the few not-for-profit teacher education institutions with proven business models.

Third, universities, unlike most alternative producers, have content expertise. Research shows that teachers’ mastery of content — math, science, language and the other fields that are taught in schools — raises teacher performance and student learning. Universities are the only teacher educators with arts and science colleges in which future teachers can learn the subjects they will teach in addition to the pedagogy associated with teacher preparation. To assume that aspiring teachers have mastered all the content they need prior to starting their teacher preparation program, as many of the alternatives do, is to separate the "what to teach" and "how to teach" elements of teaching in a destructive way.

Fourth, the research on teacher preparation gives little compelling evidence that university-based teacher education is substantially better or worse than the alternatives.

Fifth, both universities and schools are in the midst of adapting to dramatic global change. As a consequence of demographic, economic, and technological shifts, universities and schools — like so many of our social institutions, including government, health care, the media, and financial institutions — appear broken because they were built for a different time. All of them need to be repaired, through no fault of their own.

For these reasons, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation has deliberately chosen to work with, not around, education schools. And those schools now working with us in three states (to date) — Indiana, Michigan and Ohio — are demonstrating that they can change. We have seen universities move from a mostly on-campus program to a truly clinical program in which aspiring teachers spend most of their time in K-12 schools observing master teachers, teaching under supervision, and melding theory and practice. We have seen universities break down the liberal arts/education divide and engage discipline-specific arts and sciences professors in mentoring novice teachers.

In New York State and nationwide, we should likewise give university-based teacher education programs the support and impetus to improve. There is simply too much at stake to abandon them.

Arthur Levine
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Arthur Levine is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and president emeritus of Teachers College, Columbia University.

Higher Ed and the Schools

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
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Milton Greenberg is professor of government emeritus at American University, where he served as provost and interim president.

Back to Elementary School

All around the country, it’s already or nearly back-to-school time. Lists are being made and checked off. And as back-to-school time arrives, earlier, it seems, each year, I realize that my entire life has been structured by the school year. With 13 years of K-12 schooling, four years of college, two years for my master’s, four years of elementary teaching, four years of doctoral study, and one year as an assistant professor of elementary education, I’ve never experienced any other timeline. Summers to me have always meant closure, cooling down, some boredom sprinkled with part-time work (or is it vice versa?), and the rush of readiness throughout August.

Why bring this up? Well, as is also customary during summer transitions, one year drawing to a close ushers in a period of reflection. What went right, what went wrong? As an elementary teacher, it meant erasing the names of the prior class and spreading butcher paper over the furniture. I noticed throughout my first year as a professor and teacher educator that the actual public school experience from which I needed to draw was fading. I could no longer recall the names of students from my final year class photo. When I supervised pre-service teachers as a graduate student, my time in the classroom felt fresh, invigorating the wisdom I could offer my undergraduates. Now it’s getting harder and harder to find a relevant example from my own teaching. This can cause a teacher educator to defer to the cooperating teacher’s wisdom rather than my own vision.

On worse days, it feels like my doctoral training went to waste. The valued currency in academe is knowledge, more theoretical and conceptual than practical, although not in all cases. As a teacher educator, I have one foot in higher education and the other in elementary schools, so my situation feels a bit different. My intellectual identity is divided between the realms of the academic or conceptual and the practical. We always seek that moment of praxis like an addict chases that initial high. Often it’s never realized.

As summer approached, I felt a strong desire to reconnect to my practical roots, so to speak. I needed to legitimize myself as an actual teacher rather than someone taking notes and barking advice from a calm, comfortable place in the back of the room. I also thought my expertise could actually help, you know, students. But I had nowhere to turn. School systems are largely closed to people like me. My certification was long expired and it didn’t seem worthwhile to go through any process of renewal. As I’ve become more familiar with the education blogosphere over the last year or so, there has been considerable traffic devoted to new kinds of schools. What do you call them? Yes, charter schools.

I write that with a hint of sarcasm, but public school teachers, and administrators alike, are slightly suspicious of charter institutions. Some of which is justified because the charter movement is not turning out to be the panacea that reformers had hoped. Yet, the more successful models do offer public K-12 schooling and institutions of higher education examples of how to do things a bit differently, which is great. Traditions can be stifling. Charter schools also do not necessarily adhere to the strict certification requirements of most school systems, for better or for worse. One Washington D.C. charter school was willing to give me a shot for its four-week summer program. I could not have been happier, but could have used something to calm my nerves.

My return to the classroom consisted of 20 days teaching a combined fourth- and fifth-grade class for roughly four hours, split between language arts and math. I was given daily objectives for both subjects, but also had absolute control of how I addressed them. Most of my teacher resources from my days as an elementary teacher are in several 20-gallon tubs in my parents’ garage back in Pittsburgh. I did possess numerous picture and trade books in my office that could be used, as well as resource books for multiple subjects.

The week prior to the start date, I was out purchasing notebooks and pencils for the students. It was not that the school would not provide those, but teachers certainly have their own ways of doing things, and I preferr hard-backed composition books. I defaulted to my previous methods, acquiring a wealth of odds and ends from a dollar store to stock my own repository. Objects of desire — jump ropes, lollipops, bouncy balls, playing cards, snacks — could be purchased with “sheqels,” my denomination of choice because of its alliteration with the name of the summer school program. Other privileges, like lunch bunches or wearing a fedora hat for the day, were available. Over time, I got a kick out of these kids asking me for “sheqels,” something that was unlikely to ever be a part of their vocabulary.

I will spare readers with the details of my day-to-day teaching — the spontaneous outburst of a Michael Jackson dance party when I played a video of his on the Promethean board or unusually harsh tongue lashing a gifted third-grader doled out when she was teaching the class how to add fractions. Rather, I should get to the point: What can a professor learn from a return to a public school classroom? In particular to teacher educators, does our responsibility to public education extend beyond where we supervise to the larger profession as a whole? First, and this will be my strongest opinion of all: Teacher educators and education professors are not worth their salt if they do not return to the classroom with some regularity during their tenure. I plan to do so every summer that I can.

Something changed in my mind when I became an actual assistant professor. I supervised pre-service teachers as a graduate student, which is part of my job now. However, I feel like the pressure to be an “expert” on teaching and learning is greater as my previous memories of being an actual public school teacher evaporate. The initials behind my name confer some kind of status that I take very seriously. As a teacher educator spending a good deal of my time in public schools, how can I profess if I no longer put my own abilities to the test? So, I stand by my new rule: if you’re going to tell young people how to teach, then do it yourself. The opportunities are out there. This all depends on how flexible both the universities and the local school systems are. In my case, I was only responsible for a six-week graduate course on campus, affording me great flexibility. However, the local school systems are not flexible with whom they allow to teach, which is understandable. Yet, my certification expired because my former county did not consider earning a Ph.D. in an educational discipline to be a method of maintaining credentials. There should be policies within local school systems to allow professors of education to do at least some teaching in local schools.

My second major epiphany: institutions of higher education, especially colleges of education, ignore charter schools at their own peril. Like it or not, these schools are here to stay and the Obama administration values them highly. Stores of private cash are moving into charters while the remainder of “traditional” public schools struggle with less each and every year. We ignore them at our peril; well, what is our peril? Relevancy, perhaps? Currency or legitimacy? I wonder if schools of education can be taken as seriously regarding efforts to reform education or improve student outcomes given that alternative kinds of schooling — independent, home, or charter — are rarely afforded a second thought. There are ideas out there worth considering. Being a professor of education in a major metropolitan area, both the ideas and the opportunities to practice them are there.

I can additionally take issue now with the myth that teaching at the college level somehow approximates instruction in the elementary classroom. It’s possible that the parallels in secondary education and leadership or administration are more visible. But I have been told at various points in my experiences that teaching undergraduates is a way to practice my chops. Furthermore, my instruction in the college classroom models for pre-service teachers what they should be doing for their elementary students. All right, I can see that, though it’s a stretch.

Part of my job in teaching social studies methods, for instance, is modeling innovative strategies. I perform them for students so they can see how they’re done; however, I am rarely under the impression that the connections to the elementary classroom are as explicit. In fact, some of the strategies I’ve relied upon in the past simply did not work so well when applied in the charter school. For instance, a four-week program does not allow much space for making tremendous progress with new students. But in teacher education, my mentors and I both encouraged undergraduates to use inquiry, cooperative learning, and other so-called “hands-on” strategies. Fine. But these students were having none of it. I had to strip the activities down to their essence. That is, rather than actually implementing centers or a Jigsaw, I spent the first few weeks simply rehearsing rotations, getting in and out of groups, and reading directions.

By the latter part of the third week and into the fourth, we were able to get through some simple group activities without students trying to switch groups or complain about their partners. Rotations went somewhat smoothly, without too many “management casualties.” But I remember telling my undergraduates, “You can’t always assume that students know how to work together; thus, you have to rehearse these strategies first.” This was usually a throwaway comment on my part, but now I am reminded of how difficult it can be to set up parameters for group work. It is ultimately struggles like these that will benefit my own pedagogy and the impression that I can make on my pre-service undergraduates. They need to see me as an actual teacher and not some kind of demagogue who seems out of touch with practical realities.

I’m sure more examples of my awakening abound. As I begin a semester anew with a fresh cohort of pre-service teachers, more evidence will emerge of my newfangled confidence and wisdom. In all seriousness: I think I’m a much better professor and a much better teacher as a result. All I needed was a little jolt to both my intellectual and professional identities to give me new purchase on the teaching of teachers. Beyond the effects on my academic efficacy, I’ve established a valuable new relationship with this school that I hope continues throughout the year and next summer. I feel for the hard work that these younger folks who are running the school have ahead of them. I appreciate the close commitment they have to the community and the personable relationships they have with parents. Also, who can deny that their students, even the most troubled ones, have a unique story to their lives, relevant to success in the classroom and respected by all in the school who care very much about all the students’ well-being?

As an aside, there was one student, the strict third-grader I referred to earlier, who became obsessed with these little energy cubes from a health food store that I snacked on throughout the day. She was such a great person and did such great work that I sneaked one to her from time to time. I wanted to give her a bag at the end of the program as a gift, but alas, the store was sold out. I’ve since bought her a bag and am off to the post office shortly to send it to her. At the moment I write this, I’m reminded of why I got into this profession. I’m reminded of what makes me good at what I do and it’s been a shame to be out for so long. Now that I had a brief return to elementary teaching this summer, I challenge both education professors and those in other disciplines to do the same.

Shaun Johnson
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Shaun Johnson is assistant professor of elementary education at Towson University. His blog is At the Chalk Face.


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