Education Opinion

Credentials, Credibility--and Ed School

By Nancy Flanagan — August 21, 2010 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

We’re moving in a couple of months. Part of the anticipation and angst of uprooting is finding new services to replace those we established here. I asked my doctor if he could recommend a family practitioner in the city where we’re we’ll be living, about 200 miles

from here.

He had a great recommendation--a doctor he’d seen do a presentation on innovative treatment at a conference he regularly attends. My current doctor admired Dr. Wonderful so much that they’d had dinner together at the conference; he’d even visited Dr. Wonderful’s office, which is about five miles from my new home. All good.

I looked up Dr. Wonderful on the internet. There was lots to like--board certification, some awards, a coherent philosophy of health maintenance, insurance policies we could deal with, even a photo of a friendly face. And then I noticed that he’d acquired his medical training in Grenada. (Why did that sound so familiar? Here’s why.)

Suddenly, I had some doubts. Would you?

Last week, I got a thoughtful e-mail from frequent Teacher magazine commenter, sclgoya, who said:

You seem to have been in the enviable position of not only attending a truly great ed school, but also participating in terrific professional development because you say, "most of my best ideas, strategies and content came from coursework and professional learning experiences." You are probably aware that your experience (like weight loss programs) may not be typical. Most teachers complain about the lack of relevance and waste of time professional development represents. Education students suspect their professors have no significant teaching experience. Most of my best ideas, strategies and content came from voraciously reading journals and education magazines, and from unusually great professional development delivered not by outsiders, but by my own colleagues. I am just saying that good teachers can be good from the outset without necessarily having " fluent mastery of these common standards, assessments, curriculum benchmarks, 21st century skills..."

I agree. Much--OK, most-- great teacher thinking does come from practitioner-based collaborative learning, books and articles, and teacher networks (which include people who went to ed school, of course...). Heck, I would venture a guess that close to half of my best stuff came from the pure luck of being assigned the same lunch period as smart, thoughtful teachers on my staff.

The most profound professional development experience I ever had was sitting for National Board Certification (and doing it sans overly structured and prescriptive “support”). It was a rich and transformative solo experience that changed pretty much everything about my teaching. But it’s probably not a viable model for all teachers.

Here’s where the rub comes in, for me: Ed schools and professors are extremely variable in quality, but so are law schools, med schools, degree programs in British literature and accounting, and so on. The product they turn out is also variable. But are we willing to dismiss the need for teacher training--or decide that once you’ve graduated, your practice will always reflect the quality of your training?

I went to a university with a great national reputation (if you believe US News and World Report) for education programs. Some of the classes I took were uninspired hoop-jumping, taught by profs who didn’t spend time preparing (being busy with Important Research), and folks who couldn’t model effective instruction if their lives depended on it. But some classes were intellectual workouts, led by instructors with challenging ideas about philosophy, curriculum, learning theory and policy, culminating in products and ideas that I could effectively use in my own practice.

I probably got more out of ed school than the average student, simply because I was genuinely fascinated by the philosophy and history of education in America, curriculum development and policy. And I would argue that it’s important for teachers to consider the moral, traditional and intellectual foundations of the work they’ve chosen to do.

Even within highly-regarded education prep programs, there are strengths and weaknesses. And what people bring to the table matters a great deal--not only in terms of raw intelligence and content expertise, but also enthusiasm, persistence, cultural adaptability, and curiosity. There is a knee-jerk, “everybody-knows” viewpoint, these days, that ed school is worthless. You see this assertion everywhere in the media, often promulgated by people who should know better. It’s become kind of hip to take potshots at the collective IQ of the teaching pool and teachers’ training models.

We should be thinking about how to continuously improve the teacher induction/development process, however, not assuming that teachers can cultivate an effective practice on their own, or drop out after two years. Other nations do a vastly better job of this.

We need to increase the odds of beginning teachers being competent practitioners early in the game, and structure collaborative learning led by actual teachers. Just because it isn’t done very often, or very well, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aiming for this kind ongoing professional growth. Instead, we seem to be headed toward a model where we replace expensive veteran teachers with younger, barely-trained models who will compliantly follow packaged curriculum and instruction plans. We’re looking at credentials and cost rather than demonstrated competence. And we’re paying for it.

And--I’m thinking about scheduling a meeting with Dr. Wonderful, and deciding for myself if he’s got the right stuff.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.