To the Editor:
In his Nov. 10, 2004, Commentary (“No More Silver Bullets”), the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Vartan Gregorian so exaggerates the extent of the problem of teacher qualifications and the blame attributable to schools of education that I find it necessary to reply rather than simply applaud.
Despite my basic agreement with him on the nature of many of the problems with teacher quality and preparation and the proper steps to solve those problems, I must take issue with his broad-brush critique. It is simply not true, as Mr. Gregorian contends, that “schools of education” are doing “a pitiful job” in preparing our teachers.
First, I would like to join in Mr. Gregorian’s request to university presidents to make teacher preparation a central preoccupation of their institutions and to cease relying on them as a source of income for the rest of the university.
Teacher preparation, more than any other professional field of study, is thoroughly dependent for its quality on the quality of a university’s arts and sciences departments. A universitywide commitment is essential, since 70 percent to 80 percent of a teacher’s preparation takes place in the arts and sciences.
Future teachers acquire their general education and specific academic preparation alongside their peers bound for all fields of endeavor. Despite persistent myths to the contrary, universities do not have special content courses for teacher-candidates. Virtually all candidates headed for secondary schools and many bound for middle and elementary schools major in an academic discipline. Thus, those who prepare for teaching as undergraduates and certainly those who prepare at the graduate level acquire the same academic preparation as all college students. Arts and science faculty members generally are unaware of their students’ career intentions, a fact that may or may not be in the best interest of teacher-candidates. If the content preparation of teachers is inadequate, university presidents and arts and sciences deans bear the central responsibilities for ensuring high-quality instruction in the disciplines.
The good news is that 700 of the nation’s 1,200 universities and colleges that prepare teachers are on course to provide Mr. Gregorian’s “gold standard” of teacher preparation. His standard is a paraphrase of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education’s most important standards. NCATE standards require that candidates preparing to teach must know the subject they plan to teach and how to teach it effectively. Universities must provide multiple measures of these outcomes, along with evidence that candidates can teach so that students learn.
Universities also must work with school systems to provide practical experience, so that candidates develop and demonstrate the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to help all students learn. The standards are working. How do we know it?
NCATE, with nearly $2 million in support from the Carnegie Corporation, as well as additional support from other foundations, initiated a performance-based accreditation system in 2001. Institutions report that NCATE’s new candidate-assessment requirements have stimulated much-needed coordination between arts and sciences faculties and education faculties. Since the majority of teacher preparation takes place in the arts and sciences, institutions have recognized that such coordination is essential to a positive accreditation decision. With each passing semester, institutions are providing more and more data demonstrating that their graduates have the knowledge and skill to begin the demanding profession of teaching.
Next, I strongly agree with Mr. Gregorian that there are an unacceptable number of unqualified teachers. Tragically, these “teachers” are disproportionately assigned to at-risk schools. The blame for these teachers lies not, for the most part, with the colleges of education. Most of these individuals have never prepared as teachers. Our educational system has not created proper incentives for qualified teachers to teach in these schools, and the system has not created a support network for those who choose to teach there. I have suggested a plan for teaching teams that could be used in these schools (“Teaching Teams: A 21st-Century Paradigm for Organizing America’s Schools,” Commentary, Sept. 29, 2004).
I would be the last to say that teacher preparation is as strong as it needs to be, but many university faculty members are working very hard these days to meet the rising expectations of the profession and the public. Universities and colleges must invest as much in their education schools as they do in other professional schools. And states and school districts need to improve teaching conditions, pay market-sensitive salaries, and create incentives and support structures for teachers in at-risk schools.
Arthur E. Wise
National Council for Accreditation of
To the Editor:
Vartan Gregorian’s Commentary, subtitled “Let’s Fix Teacher Education,” argues for reform of teachers’ colleges. What we really need is their elimination. These schools will never abandon process over content: teaching teachers how to teach vs. the subject-matter content of what they are supposed to impart to students. The truth is that the best math teachers are the ones who know math, the best science teachers the ones who know science, the best literature teachers the ones who know literature. We should abandon teachers’ colleges. Teach method in only a few classes embedded in the real disciplines.
Gregory J. Pulles
To the Editor:
Vartan Gregorian’s essay hits the mark. Let’s hope that an influx of cash from the Carnegie Corporation of New York does, indeed, set a new standard for teacher education nationwide.
Two suggestions: First, enlist the “superstar teachers” now retired to mentor our teacher-candidates. With benefit of the accumulated teaching knowledge and tricks of the trade of mentors with 30 or more years, new teachers should be able to complete those first few years of actual practice more successfully. And this, in turn, may lessen the steep dropout rate we have among teachers in their first five years on the job. In-house mentoring is great, but a non-school-district employee could do wonders to get a new teacher up to standard and beyond.
Second, let’s convince the teachers’ unions to change tactics. For the past 30 years, they have established through hard-nosed negotiations our beginning teachers’ salaries, and then they have locked in these low salaries through 10 or more slow, incremental steps before a new teacher arrives at a living wage. This practice of not negotiating higher entry-level salaries, so that “experienced teachers” can get a larger piece of the pie, is shameful.
A simple solution is for the unions, which are controlled by older teachers, to give up some of the percentage wage increases near the top (yes, I know how we figure retirement payouts) and spread it near the bottom of the salary schedule, where the new teacher resides. A few hundred dollars a year from the top 10—say, $10 a week—could increase beginning salaries by thousands of dollars at the entry level.
If I were looking at teaching as a career today, I’m not sure I’d choose to join up, due to the depressed beginning-teacher salaries that continue to be negotiated by shortsighted unions.
Sidney I. DuPont
Harbor Day School Corona del Mar, Calif.