Opinion
Teaching Profession Commentary

Mediocrity in the Classroom

By Thomas J. Lasley Ii & Gregory Bernhardt — September 11, 2002 7 min read
There's plenty of blame to go around.

A document called “Meeting the Highly Qualified Teachers Challenge: The Secretary’s Annual Report on Teacher Quality 2002,” which was published by the U.S. Department of Education in June, is essential reading for teaching educators in particular and educators in general. (“Paige Uses Report As a Rallying Cry to Fix Teacher Ed.,” June 19, 2002, and “Critics Claim Missteps On Execution of Title II,” Aug. 7, 2002.) The report’s message is straightforward: Having well-qualified teachers in every classroom will require new approaches to teacher preparation.

The secretary affixes blame for the current state of affairs in teaching clearly on traditional programs that have tolerated (and fostered) mediocrity, that have admitted intellectually inferior students, and that have flourished in states with over-regulatory state departments of education.

Whether the attributions of blame are accurate is debatable, but that considerable mediocrity exists within the teacher-preparation community is not.

What the report fails to document is that although the primary causes of poor teacher quality, teacher education institutions, may need to shoulder considerable blame, there are secondary influences that have been just as pernicious in engendering diminished teacher quality.

Just as second-hand smoke is putatively as compromising to one’s health as directly inhaling, so, too, the secondary causes of teacher mediocrity have to be addressed if the primary causes are to be ameliorated. Five such salient secondary negative influences are at work within teacher education.

Negative Influence I:
Higher Education Administrators

For the past several decades, teacher education has “enjoyed” second-class status on college campuses. Not until recently have presidents and provosts really attempted to recognize the importance of what teacher-educators do. Teacher education programs were, until recently, relatively low-cost. They were also a place where the “lowest common denominator” students could go if they failed to make it in engineering or business.

Institutional administrators emotionally beat up on teacher- educators, often (quite justly) deriding their quality, but then feeling no responsibility to invest resources to improve the programs or the faculty.

Teacher education was an academic stepchild that became part of the university family, but never realized full inclusion in the academic milieu.

Much of the current mediocrity is because higher education administrators perpetuated low-quality programs by investing limited funds in the educational curricula, including that for technology, and facilities.

Negative Influence II:
The National Learned Societies

Any institution preparing for the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education accreditation is fully aware of the multiplicity of learned-society guidelines. For almost any conceivable area of education, there is a vested “professional” interest group. Some of those learned societies are essential to NCATE accreditation (for example, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and similar groups); others are ancillary (the American Educational Studies Association, for example).

Secondary causes of teacher mediocrity have to be addressed if the primary causes are to be ameliorated.

The learned societies or professional associations at their best are about standards; at their worse, turf. Each defends its standards as essential for learning to teach. The result is a curriculum in teacher education that looks as if it has been built by a well-meaning committee, a situation often exacerbated by accreditation requirements and state and federal regulations, and by “bounded” faculty members who spend substantial time worrying about how to fulfill research, teaching, and service demands.

Accreditation is important, perhaps essential. However, the paperwork connected to the process reminds us of why mediocrity persists in far too many governmental and academic places: Faculty members who are focused on regulations are often not sufficiently focused on curricular integration and coherence.

Negative Influence III:
School District Politics

Placing preservice teachers in the right classrooms is still far too political. Many institutions must negotiate a maze of local contracts before they can place prospective teachers in the classroom of a master teacher who can truly serve as a professional mentor. Others must navigate the waters of administrators’ teacher preference. Specifically, some administrators want preservice teachers in regular classroom teachers’ rooms for the wrong reasons— because they need more help. Imagine placing dentistry students with overworked “free clinic” dentists, who average 150 patients per day and “hope” for a high-quality learning outcome, and you have the picture.

Who receives preservice teachers is a political process in far too many places. True, partnerships and new collaboratives are limiting this circumstance, but too many placements still are made in ways that mitigate teacher-candidate quality. A weak teacher with lots of seniority may be able to “demand” a preservice teacher, while a relative neophyte with the ability to mentor may be excluded. This situation is especially evident in many urban contexts, where, ironically, the need for effective mentors is acute. One of the dynamics associated with retaining teachers in urban settings is providing them with ongoing mentor support in the early years. Such mentor support cannot be provided through a political process. It has to evolve because mentors possess the content knowledge and interpersonal and academic skills essential for guiding the professional development of developing novice educators.

Negative Influence IV:
Teacher-Proof Curricula

Even assuming that quality teachers emerge from teacher education programs, there is a real danger sign on the urban horizon: all the scripted, teacher-proof approaches. Why would a bright, articulate, thoughtful, reflective, and intellectually astute individual want to teach in an environment where instruction is scripted?

What makes teaching rewarding is the autonomy and vitality of the learning process. What is now emerging in many urban districts is a scripted approach to teaching and learning. We understand the merits of such scripted regimens. We even embrace them in some instances as a means of engendering value-added results. Our question is whether someone with exceptional intellectual ability would want to teach day after day in such a regimented educational environment.

What do we tell that student with a 1300 SAT score who just entered an NCATE- accredited teacher education program? Teaching is a noble profession without autonomy? If you can work from a script, you can teach?

Negative Influence V:
Our Regulation

A bright and energetic person wants to enter the teaching profession today confronts a daunting array of requirements and regulations that must be met to be fully licensed. Legislative incursions into educator licensure rules mandate special courses and experiences, typically unsupported by any research. No other profession is micromanaged by legislation and state government bodies as teaching is. More effort needs to be devoted to identifying the competencies of teachers necessary to ensure student learning. Licensure should be more closely linked to those competencies than to current “coursework” requirements.

This new report from the Education Department is not flawed because it misplaces blame; it is flawed because it takes the road so easily traveled.

In his report, the secretary of education attributed blame for the state of uneven teacher quality to teacher-educators. We accept our share of blame. But the question remains: Even with a conviction for excellence and openness and a commitment to change, can our best intentions yield better teacher preparation if higher education administrators fail to provide financial support, if vested interests protect what currently exists, if unions limit the types of mentor assignments that occur, and if the emerging instructional conditions of classrooms limit teachers’ intellectual engagement?

This new report from the Education Department is not flawed because it misplaces blame; it is flawed because it takes the road so easily traveled— blaming those with primary responsibility without realizing the equivalent impact and responsibility of those who influence daily what can and does occur within teacher-preparation programs.

Thomas J. Lasley II is the dean of the school of education and allied professions at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Gregory Bernhardt is the dean of the college of education and human services at Wright State University in Dayton and the chair of the Ohio Teacher Education and Certification Commission.

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