Not So Fast, Pundit

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Nationally accredited teacher education programs do make a difference in teacher performance.

With a new administration at the helm in Washington, it is exciting to see education continuing at the top of the nation's agenda. The public dialogue and the attention education issues are receiving in the media, in statehouses, and in Congress promise to be beneficial in the long run. But it's also important not to let misinformation and old stereotypes go unchallenged.

In a recent editorial, the syndicated columnist George F. Will blames poor teacher training for the plight of education in our nation's schools. What is the point of putting more teachers in the classrooms, he asks, if students will merely be taught by inadequately trained teachers? A good teacher, this pundit asserts, needs training only in his or her subject matter, and a degree in education is needless—and possibly even detrimental.

Mr. Will suggests that if he were ill and could miraculously be treated by either Hippocrates or a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins University medical school trained in the most modern techniques, he would choose the latter. But if, on the other hand, he could choose to have his child taught either by Socrates or by a "freshly minted holder of a degree in education," he would choose Socrates.

Who wouldn't choose a wise person as one's teacher? The very purpose of education is the transformation of information into knowledge, and of knowledge into wisdom. But there is no reason why, in preparing our teachers, we must choose between either the wisdom represented by Socrates as teacher or the modern techniques of teaching being offered in schools of education.

At my institution, Indiana University, we take the education of teachers very seriously. Teachers must be skilled at teaching. They must be able to motivate their students to learn, to plan challenging and engaging lessons, and to organize their curricula to ensure that students learn what they really need to know. Education students learn how to do this in their methods courses, through the use of instructional technology, in internships at schools, and through field-based courses in schools and at community organizations. They learn about the history and philosophy of education, and yes, even Socrates and his teaching method, the Socratic dialogue, are taught and debated.

Students learn about America's constant concern for education reform, from Thomas Jefferson's proposals for the education of the citizens of a new republic to more recent debates on standardized testing and accountability. They learn to see education in a much richer perspective informed by politics, philosophy, history, and the arts, and they begin the lifelong process of translating their own and their students' knowledge into wisdom.

We should not accept anything less than rigorous professional preparation for our nation's teachers. Our children deserve better.

But teacher education students are also expected to obtain a deep understanding of the subjects they will teach. On our campus, the 21st Century Teachers Project, begun in 1999 with special support from our board of trustees and president, is an initiative that will enhance teacher education by bringing together the best ideas about teaching and learning from the arts and sciences faculty, from the school of education faculty, and from teachers in K-12 schools. The project focuses on methods courses taught by education faculty members, but especially on content- discipline courses taught by arts and sciences faculty members.

With this kind of collaboration, we can better identify the subject knowledge teachers must have, evaluate key university courses teachers take to obtain this knowledge, and propose course reform where needed. The goal is to restructure the disciplinary training of future teachers to foster the mastery of subject knowledge, along with the development of innovative and effective teaching methods that will bring that content to life for elementary and secondary school students.

As a program accredited by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, we are required to offer proof that teacher education graduates have acquired in-depth knowledge of subject matter and can explain important principles and concepts in the classroom. A study by the Educational Testing Service that tracked 270,000 teacher-candidates who took subject-area- specialization exams found that teachers who had completed a teacher- preparation program accredited by NCATE outperformed teachers who had completed a nonaccredited program. And both groups of candidates outperformed candidates who had not entered any teacher-preparation program.

Nationally accredited teacher education programs do make a difference in teacher performance. As the demand for qualified teachers grows nationally, however, states are hiring increasing numbers of unlicensed individuals to fill classrooms. Some people, like George Will, suggest that if these unlicensed individuals know the subject matter, they can teach it as well as or better than licensed teachers. Yet these same people would not dream of suggesting that we let doctors, nurses, architects, or engineers practice without a license.

Those professions require rigorous professional preparation, and the public demands it. We should not accept anything less for our nation's teachers. Our children deserve better.

Gerardo M. Gonzalez is the dean of the Indiana University school of education in Bloomington, Ind.

Vol. 20, Issue 26, Page 44

Published in Print: March 14, 2001, as Not So Fast, Pundit
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