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Education Professors Live in the Real World (Despite What a Recent Survey Says)

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A recent national survey of education professors suggested that academics who prepare teachers differ with elementary and secondary teachers and the public over what to teach and how. ("Professors' Attitudes Out of Sync, Study Finds," Oct. 29, 1997.)

The survey, by the nonpartisan research group Public Agenda, found that education professors stress teaching kids to be active learners and encourage lifelong learning. Public Agenda contrasted this survey with earlier ones it did which showed teachers and the public putting more emphasis on basic reading, writing, and mathematics skills along with discipline.

Teachers, survey officials, and even some education academics have responded to the survey by saying how we in "the ivory tower" of higher education ought to get our heads out of the clouds and consider the needs of teachers, and ask ourselves if we are arming our students to become teachers in the "real world."

Are we at such odds? Are college professors of education so insulated? And are teachers and the public that narrowly focused?

I will be first to admit that colleges of education and schools must form closer partnerships with each other. It is through these partnerships that professors learn about everyday challenges teachers face, and that teachers search for solutions not only with academics but also with their peers in class. We in higher education can and do influence how teaching is done, and teachers can and do influence how we prepare professionals. Theory and practice should go hand in hand.

Many of the faculty members at my university were once teachers, and a major part of their responsibilities here involves actively working with school teachers in mutually beneficial ways. For example, several local school districts have invited one of our professors, who is an expert in mathematics education, to work with their teachers on teaching and assessment methods to address standards published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. This professor has to consider the practical impact these standards will have on local schools, and she also can apply the lessons she learns in the schools to the college courses she teaches.

Our educational leadership faculty members, who have real-world experience as teachers, principals, and superintendents, are in local schools nearly every day visiting their interns or advising on curriculum and administrative matters. School psychology faculty members recently received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help train school psychologists to understand the medical needs of children. They will be working in partnership with two urban school systems, as well as with several local hospitals and medical facilities.

So the classroom is our laboratory, and we work there every day. While we do have to be vigilant in maintaining close ties with schools, we don't have our heads in the sand.

Focusing entirely on discipline and the three R's is not the answer to the challenge of improving student learning, as some suggest. And I don't really believe that teachers and the public think this. I would note, however, that our professors discuss these topics all the time in their courses. The teachers in these classes understand and believe that creative teaching engages students in ways that can improve both behavior and the learning of these basics. The public certainly can appreciate this, too. All they have to do is remember a boring teacher, or, more recently, a dull speech or sermon. Then they can imagine repeating the episode every day for nine months and being graded on their retention of what was said.

I believe that teachers want to engage students. Where student failure rates are high, it is not because of poor teacher training or a lack of commitment. It is usually because of a lack of resources. There are wide funding disparities between the richest and poorest schools here in Pennsylvania, as in most states.

One of our young graduate students working in a Philadelphia school recently helped teachers there set up a more structured playground program to reduce aggressive behavior. But they needed a donation of playground equipment to do it. It's hard to build structure on a bare, macadam parking lot.

Teachers need the resources--time, books, materials, technology, support personnel--to do their work even better than they are now. Colleges of education are one more resource teachers can and should count on. We are partners with schools in educating our children. Colleges of education do need to consider the views of those who are experiencing public education on a daily basis, but teachers and other school employees should call upon the colleges of education as a resource for helping develop new approaches and methods for serving our children.

Learning the basics, behaving in school, and developing a love for learning are not only compatible goals; they also are interrelated in achieving success in the classroom. Professors, teachers, and the public know this, even if it gets lost in a survey.

Roland "Ron" Yoshida is the dean of the college of education at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

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