Sunday, July 31, 2005

Is there a better way?

How do we teach someone to think a certain way? And do we really want to do that?


July 31, 2005
Who Needs Education Schools?

THE whistle-stop town of Emporia, Kan. (population 27,000), has two claims to fame: William Allen White, the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper editor and confidant of Theodore Roosevelt, and turning out teachers.

Emporia State University was established as a "normal" school - dedicated solely to the training of teachers - in 1863, two years after Kansas became a state. The esteem in which teaching is held there can be seen in the one-room schoolhouse maintained as a kind of shrine at the edge of campus. The National Teachers Hall of Fame is in Emporia, and tourists come to see the dollhouse models of classrooms from the early 17th century onward and to read the plaques of inductees - 70, so far.

"Teacher education on this campus is one of the more rigorous majors," says Teresa Mehring, dean of the teachers' college, pulling out the ACT scores of entering students to prove a point that most education deans would be hard-pressed to make and defend.

A visit to classes suggests that raw material is not the only difference. The Emporia State curriculum is heavy on traditional courses like "Using Children's Literature in the Elementary Classroom" and "Reading for the Elementary Teacher." The college's plain-spoken mission statement: "To develop the professional: critical thinker, creative planner and effective practitioner."

If Emporia State is a throwback to an earlier time, when preparing teachers for the classroom was a high calling, it is also a reminder of how many teachers' colleges have strayed from the central mission of the normal school. For decades, education schools have gravitated from the practical side of teaching, seduced by large ideas like "building a caring learning community and culture" and "advocating for social justice," to borrow from the literature of the Hunter College School of Education, part of the City University of New York. With the ambition of producing educators rather than technicians, in the words of Hunter's acting dean, Shirley Cohen, schools have embraced a theoretical approach. But critics say that ill prepares teachers to function effectively in the classroom.

Attrition statistics tell the dismal story: 14 percent of teachers leave the classroom in the first year, nearly half by the fifth year.

Today, education schools face pressure to improve from all directions. A flurry of new studies challenges their ideological bias and low admissions standards. Critics now question their very existence, with competition from fast-track routes to certification threatening their long-held monopoly on training teachers. The soul-searching has accelerated with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which demands a "highly qualified" teacher - state certified, with a bachelor's degree and proven knowledge of subject - in every classroom by the end of this coming school year.

In fact, No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on standards and hard data, has placed national policy in direct conflict with the prevailing approach of many colleges, where the John Dewey tradition of progressive education holds sway, marked by a deep antipathy toward testing.

Some analysts are now calling for teachers' colleges to follow the Emporia State model - "to give them a lot of practical experience so they're not shocked when they come into the classroom," says Diane Ravitch, the education historian, who is working on a book entitled "Forgotten Heroes of American Education: The Great Tradition of Teaching Teachers." She adds: "There is a disconnect of professors of education just not being capable of equipping future teachers with the practicalities to be successful. And if teachers are not successful, they will not be retained; they will either move to a different district that is not as difficult or leave teaching altogether." The idea of "preparing excellent teachers who are excellent in their subject," she says, has been overtaken by other concerns - "professors wanting to be respected in the university, and teachers' colleges wanting to become places where research is done and to be agents of transformational change."

"At the end of the day, what would principals and parents value most?"

just what do education schools teach? in a report published last year that put many educators on the defensive, researchers found that top education schools were not equipping their students to deal with the standards movement - nor giving them an understanding, going back to classical sources like Plato and Aristotle, of what constitutes an educated person.

David M. Steiner, co-author of the report, is director of arts education at the National Endowment for the Arts and on leave as department chairman in educational administration, training and policy studies at Boston University. With his associate Susan D. Rozen, he reviewed the curriculums of 16 teachers' colleges, 14 of them among the nation's best, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report.

Since there is little data on which educational approach translates into effective teaching, they looked for a balance in material. Instead, they found little effort to present opposing schools of thought. The general posture of education schools, they concluded, was countercultural, instilling mistrust of the system that teachers work in. Among the texts most often assigned were Jonathan Kozol's "Savage Inequalities," an indictment of schooling in poor urban neighborhoods, and writings by Paulo Freire, who advocates education to achieve political liberation. Theories of how children learn, like the multiple learning styles advocated by Howard Gardner of Harvard, were more likely to be taught than what children should learn, like the Core Knowledge curriculum advanced by E. D. Hirsch, a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia.

Finally, Dr. Steiner wrote, prospective teachers were not being taught methods that would help their students do well on standardized tests. Most texts used to teach reading had been written by proponents of whole language methods, and there was only fleeting exposure to the kinds of scripted, phonics-based curriculums, like Open Court, that are increasingly being adopted in the nation's schools.

"There is a vision here," Dr. Steiner said in an interview, "and it's all just one vision. It is a synthesis of what we call the progressivist vision and the constructivist vision" - that is, the theory that it is better for children to construct knowledge than to receive it. But, he added, "The counterview has an equal and much longer tradition - the responsibility to engage the student, but to engage the student as the authority." To suggestions that his report was itself ideological, and conservative, Dr. Steiner says he's actually an old-fashioned liberal.

On Aug. 15, Dr. Steiner will step directly into the fray, as new dean of education at Hunter College. At Hunter, he says, he hopes to prepare teachers who "are scholars of their craft," both proficient in methods and curriculum and able to think in a sophisticated way.

Given all the sound and fury, there is surprisingly little disagreement with that.

"One of the biggest dangers we face is preparing teachers who know theory and know nothing about practice," acknowledges Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia, one of the leading avatars of progressive education. Historians note that Dewey himself had such concerns in the 1920's. But, Dr. Levine says, that is not what happens at strong - and philosophically diverse - education schools like Stanford, the University of Virginia, Alverno College in Milwaukee and Emporia State.

"They have a clarity of mission," says Dr. Levine, who is conducting a two-year study on the quality of education schools that will be published in November. "They know what they're trying to do. Their definition of success is tied to student learning in classes taught by those teachers."

It used to be that if you wanted to become a teacher, you went to an education school. Now a growing movement holds that these schools have become irrelevant, especially in urban areas.

Alternative programs to certification are now offered in 47 states and the District of Columbia. Organizations like Teach for America, a Peace Corps model that puts new college graduates in troubled schools for two-year stints, and the New York City Teaching Fellows, which promotes teaching as a second career, are taking it upon themselves to train teachers. Recruits with no experience are given a quick and dirty version of education school - a few weeks of classroom management, learning theory, literacy (the teaching of reading and writing), diversity training - then placed in the classroom, with coaching from mentors. People who enter through such routes are not exempt from state requirements, like a master's degree in education in New York; the advantage is they can teach and study for the degree at the same time.

Commercial organizations are also getting into the act. Harold O. Levy, the former New York City schools chancellor who helped found the Teaching Fellows, has developed an online teaching college for Kaplan Inc., the test-prep company. Similarly, David Levin, co-founder and superintendent of the KIPP schools, a network of 38 charter schools from Houston to the South Bronx, is working on a teacher-training program meant to produce the kind of teachers he needs in his schools.

"That would be our dream, to credential our own teachers," says Mr. Levin, who adds that he has found "a sizable gap between what people are learning in schools of education and what they need in public schools." Where education schools fall short, he argues, is in conveying the skills you might learn in business school: how to manage time, how to build motivation and evaluation into every lesson. "You need whatever the theory is, and you need to put it into practice," he says. "There needs to be immediate feedback on that practice."

There is consensus that apprenticeship along the lines of medical school - students learn the science of medicine in the classroom, then practice it in a hospital, supervised by faculty doctors - is a better model than traditional student teaching, which is often done for a semester or less and is loosely supervised, if at all, by university faculty.

At Emporia State, undergraduates spend their entire senior year in surrounding school districts, including Olathe, Topeka and Kansas City. They are assigned to observe or teach classes during regular school hours. They take college classes after hours in the districts they are assigned to, not on campus. By the second semester, they are expected to function as head teachers. Supervising professors know the curriculum of those districts as well as any district employee. "I know Olathe's program inside out," says Tara Azwell, a professor who until recently supervised students there. "I could step into any classroom and teach it."

Ms. Azwell says medical training is a good analogy for what Emporia State interns go through. "They get no sleep," she says. "They're working 24 hours a day. There are those who have no money because they can't work a job, so they're not eating. They're in a classroom 8 to 4 every day. They really think they're going to die."

Education schools are expected to do some things "that it's absurd to expect them to do," says Dr. Levine. One is to send teachers into the world "as a fully formed product," as if they needed no further mentoring, he says, and another is "to change the population of people applying to become teachers."

The most prestigious programs - Bank Street College of Education, Columbia, Harvard - attract the best students, but most teachers do not come from these.

For at least a decade, students who intend to major in education have had among the lowest SAT scores of all college-bound seniors - in 2004, they ranked 19th of 22 intended majors, two points in combined verbal and math scores below those who planned to major in agriculture. Even "undecided" ranked higher. And according to the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, those who leave the profession during their first few years have higher scores than those who stay. An institute report also shows that the weaker the undergraduate college, the more likely its students will end up teaching as a career.

Over the last six years, prodded by federal requirements to publish test results, teachers' colleges have begun screening students before or soon after admission for the ability to pass state certification exams. These exams are notoriously easy, says Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a policy institute; as a result, many education schools now have passing rates near 100 percent. But those rates say little about the quality of their programs. Hunter, for instance, has a 98 percent passing rate on the state's required Liberal Arts and Sciences Test, but students must register for the test their first semester and are not allowed to continue if they fail it.

The City University of New York, which produces a third of the city's teachers, hopes to attract a higher caliber of student by starting a Teacher Academy modeled after its successful Honors College, which uses free tuition and other perks to try to lure students who might go to Ivy League universities. The academy will open in fall 2006 with 300 freshmen majoring in mathematics and science, subjects that are short of teachers. Students will take education courses and spend 1,000 hours over four years - as opposed to the usual 250 or less - in public school classrooms learning methods, observing and teaching.

The academy is an experiment in "reforming" the education of teachers at CUNY, says Selma Botman, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs. "What we thought about is why teachers are leaving teaching, why the retention rate is not as strong as we would like it, and given the fact that CUNY educates so many teachers, how can we educate and train teachers so they stay in teaching?"

Among the historically intractable problems in retaining teachers are low status and low pay, says Anthony Carnevale, a senior fellow at the National Center on Education and the Economy. Because the public sector will never pay as much as the private, he says, and because unions have resisted extra pay for high-demand skills like math teaching, the gap in ability between teachers and other white-collar professionals will become bigger, not smaller.

In Mr. Carnevale's bleak picture, learning will no longer be an act of discovery but a process of drilling in predetermined principles of success. Teachers will become part of a docile force of assembly-line workers, trained to execute someone else's plans, with little room for serendipity. Some teachers complain that this is already happening in urban systems, including New York's.

In this model, education schools will have to compensate for a meager talent pool by idiot-proofing teacher training. "You tie their teaching methods to standards so that in a very aggressive way they learn to teach to the results of those tests, like a soldier," Mr. Carnevale says. "The voluntary military didn't always get the best of human capital. But what you did was make the training so rigorous it didn't matter."

To Mr. Carnevale, Emporia State is an aberration. People choose to teach in states like Kansas, Maine or North Dakota because they have fewer economic opportunities than do people who live in New York or Chicago, he says. "You've got an economic development problem in Kansas," he says, "so you have these vestiges of talent in states that have no jobs for college graduates." This recalls an earlier era in the profession, when talented women and minorities became teachers because they had few other options.

Emporia State officials confirm the demographic forces. Most students, says Dean Mehring, are women who are the first generation in their families to get a college education. Most come from small agricultural towns in western Kansas, where job opportunities are limited. They are women like Jan Alexander, who grew up in Ulysses. Her brother, Brian, lives in Ulysses and works at County Feeders, which boasts that it is the biggest feedlot in the world. Ms. Alexander, a top student at Emporia State, has been to New York several times and dreams of moving there to teach some day. If she does leave Kansas, she will be the exception. About 80 percent of students remain close to home.

Emporia State classes strive to balance the theoretical with the practical. Professors not only talk about the theories behind reading, writing and literature, but also demonstrate in painstaking detail how to teach specific lessons.

In an introductory reading class last spring, Professor Azwell urged her students to listen to the language of children's literature. Her enthusiasm for the books she had selected, and was passing out to her students, was contagious. Of "The Ghost-Eye Tree," she said, "It's a great scary story for little kids." Of "Flossie and the Fox," she said, "I love this one because it uses wonderful dialect. One character speaks Southern dialect, and the other one speaks very literary language, so the contrast is great."

She tells her students what a professor once told her: that a teacher should know at least 300 children's books intimately and be able to pick the right book for the right child at the right moment.

Ms. Azwell says she believes in whole language, the system of teaching children to read by exposure to literature, but she does not reject phonics. The politics of teaching reading, she says, has turned whole language into a caricature of how she learned to teach reading. "To me, phonics was never not part of whole language," she said. "I was taught all the language cuing systems: graphophonics, sound-symbol relationships; semantic, the meaning system; syntactic, the language structure system. So phonics is an integral part of that."

How do Kansas schoolchildren fare? Its eighth graders rank above average in reading and math nationally, and fourth graders rank second in the nation in math.

While Emporia State teaches the children of farmers, Lehman College in the Bronx, part of CUNY, teaches the children of immigrants. A majority of its education students, says the dean, Annette Digby, are part time and already teaching on a temporary or fast-track license, without going through education school.

One undergraduate course, "The Teaching Profession: Birth to Grade Six," is described in the catalog as a "study of the professional lives of teachers and the diverse roles they assume in urban schools." A graduate course, "Ethics and Professionalism in Childhood Teaching," is a "study of the childhood teaching profession, its multiple historical, philosophical and social foundations." Even the description of Lehman's basic reading course for undergraduates, "Understanding and Documenting Young Children's Literacy Development and Concepts of the World Around Them," has a theoretical tone.

In one of the last sessions of the school year, a mix of graduate and undergraduate students sat in small groups at hexagonal tables, the way they had been taught to seat children in the classroom, for a seminar on how to apply what they had learned and solve the problems that came up during student teaching. In perfect teacher script, Prof. Christy Folsom had written the day's agenda on the chalkboard: "1. Quiet write. 2. Share. 3. Go over portfolio. Questions." Dr. Folsom is a popular faculty member known for a down-to-earth manner and skill at teaching lesson plans. The mood was relaxed and trusting. She asked her students to write and then talk about their best and worst experiences in the class, and in education school.

Sharon Gallagher, a 33-year-old Irish immigrant, was working as a waitress and bartender while attending Lehman for a bachelor's degree in history with an education minor. As one of her best experiences, she described how she had learned the psychological differences between third and first graders. She had been taught a system of behavior management, using color-coded warning cards, in a third-grade class and had tried to apply the same system to first graders. But when she gave warning cards to the first graders, they started to cry. She realized that positive reinforcement worked better at that age than punishment.

When it came to discussing the weaknesses of education school, Ms. Gallagher and her tablemates, Melissa Noble and Carmen Pucillo, fellow seniors who also planned careers as teachers, were unanimous. "I didn't feel I learned a lot about literacy," Ms. Gallagher said.

"Especially balanced literacy," Ms. Noble interjected, referring to the latest curriculum shift in the New York City school system. "I was like, 'O.K., what do I do?' "

Ms. Pucillo was baffled by pedagogical questions like when children should stop inventing spelling and spell by the rules. "I just didn't get the answer," she said.

"I actually bought a book and started reading on my own," Ms. Gallagher said. Ms. Noble said she, too, had bought a book, "Guided Reading," by Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, which had been recommended by the "cooperating teacher" she worked with as a student teacher.

At Lehman, the primary course in teaching reading is integrated with teaching social studies. "We got more focused on social studies than we did literacy," Ms. Noble said. Dr. Folsom acknowledged that reading and writing instruction was a weakness at Lehman and said that beginning in the fall, social studies and literacy will be offered as separate courses.

While Dr. Folsom's class was focused on practical skills, "Ethics and Professionalism in Childhood Teaching" exemplified the research-and-theory wing of education.

On this day, teams of students were presenting their final projects, a 45-minute report on "an issue or dilemma facing the teaching profession." They had been asked to conduct what the professor called "in-depth research," using at least two Internet sources and two journals.

One team of three students had chosen the topic of violence in schools, including a widely publicized incident in which police officers were called to a class in St. Petersburg, Fla., because a 5-year-old girl was having a temper tantrum. The group screened a news videotape of the girl being put in handcuffs and of her mother defending her behavior. They then talked about it.

As an African-American sensitive to discrimination, one student, Tarsheen Jackson, said, "I thought it was a bit much for all those officers to come in." On the other hand, she continued: "I don't think children will learn a lesson if their parents are talking up for them."

Another student in the audience, Sarah Perone, spoke up: "I think if I saw my 5-year-old getting arrested by four police officers, I might be a little bit defensive also."

Aliex Ross, the professor, skirted the issue of handcuffing a child. "Look at the power and control the child gained by throwing a tantrum," Dr. Ross said instead. "As professionals, we know there's a lot more to the story."

The next presentation was called "Balanced Curriculum" - the coordination of standards and testing with students' abilities and needs. The team began by asking, "What is a balanced curriculum?" They invited the audience to make suggestions. ("An equal amount of time distributed between all subjects" was one.) Then they revealed that they had looked for the answer in the dictionary. "We decided to look up 'balance' and 'curriculum' because 'balanced curriculum' is not in the dictionary," Karen Dhillon, one presenter, told the class. Ms. Dhillon recited the dictionary definitions of both words - equilibrium and harmony, for the word "balance"- then stacked plastic blocks on a toy scale. She tried repeatedly to balance the blocks, without success, as she commented on how hard it was to maintain a balanced curriculum.

Both presentations got A's. "They're all going to be fabulous teachers," Dr. Ross said later. "They're really reflective. That's what really makes a competent educator, is someone who really reflects on their practice."

After class, Ms. Dhillon was less upbeat. She had come into teaching through Teach for America, and had been teaching math for two years at Middle School 399 in the Bronx while working toward her master's, and found it demoralizing. Though she did not mention it, only 9 percent of students at M.S. 399 meet city standards in math. She said she had trouble teaching the new math curriculum imposed by the city and had resorted to lying to her superiors, pretending she was using it.

She looked embarrassed by this bit of subterfuge. "But I'm leaving teaching," she blurted. "I just don't love it."

In June, not long after that conversation, she earned her master's in education. By then it was already too late.

Anemona Hartocollis is a Times reporter and the author of "Seven Days of Possibilities: One Teacher, 24 Kids and the Music That Changed Their Lives Forever."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company.


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