Fixing Teacher Education While Improving Teaching

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To the Editor:

The Commentaries published in your Nov. 10, 2004, issue go to the core of education reform in this country. "No More Silver Bullets" by Vartan Gregorian and "Creating a Culture of Attachment" by Milbrey McLaughlin and Martin Blank represent two convergent points of view about the importance of teacher quality and curriculum as the primary factors for student achievement. Both essays are powerful reminders of why learning and teaching have to remain the sine qua non of improving schooling, and they are as applicable to urban schools as they are to suburban, exurban, and rural ones.

Sadly, the concepts advocated are given short shrift in the education reform movement due to a relentlessness to search for panaceas, or, as Mr. Gregorian puts it, the “silver bullet.” All too often the proverbial cart is put before the horse. Testing and textbooks remain the primary educational driver, and in too many teacher education colleges, there is a disconnect between content, pedagogy, system-change theories, and the relentless, high-profile pull of research.

Education Week readers will recognize the theoretical framework behind the “community-as-text approach to learning.” These readers understand the need for real-world context for accelerated learning. Concurrently, they are cognizant of how one incorporates highly specific and broadly based strategies for students so that these strategies become skills that build relevance, integration, synthesis, and elaboration for the learner.

Readers also understand the importance of incorporating universal themes into classroom instruction, such as life and death, perseverance vs. surrender, hubris as opposed to humility, and love and hate. These themes play important roles in an instructional calculus that combines high standards and high content to open up communities and the world to students.

Allowing the activation of the personal and collective background knowledge of students enables them to apply what they know to what they do not know, ultimately teaching them how to “read the world.”

Our work together on the TRUST (Training and Retaining Urban Student Teachers) Initiative in Birmingham, Ala., applies this work to training teachers for urban settings and speaks to Mr. Gregorian’s charge to schools of education to be part of a larger picture. We are integrating teacher preparation with schools, the community, and national partners, and we are building a model in which the universal themes of teaching reflect the universal themes of learning.

The isolation traditionally felt in teacher education is being changed to a feeling of community, a partnership in which we all support the high achievement of our students. This joint effort is the only means we have of ensuring that new teachers will possess the skills and experience they need to be successful in the context of today’s schools.

Eric J. Cooper
National Urban Alliance for
Effective Education
Council of the Great City Schools
Lake Success, N.Y.

Michael J. Froning
School of Education
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Birmingham, Ala.

To the Editor:

Vartan Gregorian makes important, valid points in his Commentary "No More Silver Bullets" (Nov. 10, 2004). But he also overlooks some crucial considerations.

His premise seems like common sense, but it ignores the reality of what needs to happen in schools. Fundamentally, Mr. Gregorian confuses teachers with teaching. One is a person, the other a process. Understanding the difference is critical.

Yes, we need to improve teaching. But improving teachers is only part of accomplishing that goal. Failures in the use and management of the competence teachers already possess are far more serious (and fixable) problems than is the lack of competence teachers bring to their task.

Currently, individual teachers play a critical role in student success primarily because of the present feudal system of school organization. Success hinges unduly on a teacher’s competence, because each teacher is largely an independent, isolated performer. This approach makes teachers central, and teaching and learning secondary.

A range of competence among any groups of workers—professionals or not—will always be with us. General quality can be raised, but the range will remain. Inevitably then, some students will have better teachers than others.

This isn’t to say, of course, that raising the general quality of teachers isn’t desirable. That should always be an aim. However, it wouldn’t be the cure-all Mr. Gregorian assumes. Making better use of existing staff should be our first priority. Rather than having to wait for satisfaction until the arrival of a whole new crop of superbly trained teachers from totally overhauled colleges of education, we would begin to feel the results from better use of existing staff members almost immediately.

We should be pursuing both a radical rethinking of teacher education and the reorganization of existing staffs. We should improve teachers and improve teaching.

Three things must happen in addition to improving the education of teachers—teachers who are presently destined to function as individuals. First, disciplines must be integrated. Second, students must routinely be exposed to teachers working in teams across the traditional artificial, arbitrary subject-matter divisions and grade levels. Third, instruction must be genuinely individualized, with all that implies for concern for student interests and abilities.

Faculties should see individual student performance as their collective responsibility, and schools should be organized to provide the time and space for, and to encourage the use of, methodologies that facilitate meeting that collective responsibility. This would translate into managing teachers in order to improve teaching.

Yes, we must rethink the future of teacher education. But our problems are immediate. The present random, minimal investment in the professional development of our current crop of teachers is disgraceful. We must make professional and organizational development a vital and regular part of every teacher’s workweek and year.

Robert Barkley Jr.
Worthington, Ohio

To the Editor:

In his call for reform of teacher education, Vartan Gregorian does not go far enough. At least one-third of public elementary schools now have prekindergarten programs, and this number is likely to increase. These programs require well-prepared teachers similar to those Mr. Gregorian describes as necessary for successful K-12 education. In fact, early-education programs that show positive outcomes for children are all staffed by certified teachers.

Mr. Gregorian, however, does not include the education of prekindergarten teachers in the Teachers for a New Era initiative. As public education increasingly begins at the prekindergarten level, teacher education reform efforts must not leave prekindergarten teachers behind.

Ruby Takanishi
New York, N.Y.

To the Editor:

In his Commentary "No More Silver Bullets," Vartan Gregorian asks, “Why hasn’t teaching flourished, following the path of other professions?” Yet he has answered this question with his reference to the economic rules of supply and demand.

The biggest difference between the teaching profession and many others is that teaching is a public good, and therefore supported by public funds. This effectively removes teaching from participating in a supply-and-demand cycle. Schools produce no monetary profit or revenue. They do, however, produce invaluable social benefits.

Yet, for society as a whole, schools create considerable monetary operational costs. There is no way around this. You cannot privatize the school system and deny education to those who cannot pay (technically, you could, but it would be unconstitutional). The only thing that can be done is to streamline the entire system, truly eliminate the bureaucracy, and place school budgets at the very top of a long list of other public goods that are sustained by taxpayer money.

“We are all fooling ourselves,” Mr. Gregorian writes, “if we think that the past 20 years of standards-based education reform will ever result in our nation’s children being provided with the quality education they need without a dramatic parallel reform effort in the training of teachers.”

I say, we are fooling ourselves if we think that all it takes is better teachers. The best teacher in the world cannot compete with parents’ failure to teach their children how to behave in school and to value their opportunity for a free education. We don’t need teacher education reform. We need parent reform.

Nancy Brodsky
New York, N.Y.

Vol. 24, Issue 14, Pages 41-42

Published in Print: December 1, 2004, as Fixing Teacher Education While Improving Teaching

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