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Looking for Answers in the Wrong Places?

June 29, 2011

(Mitchell Sakofs is dean of the School of Education and Professional Studies at Central Connecticut State University and an occasional contributor to PhilanTopic. In his previous post, he wrote about investing for meaningful change.)

Lamppost_night One evening, a student of the great teacher Nasrudin found the sage down on his hands and knees under a lamppost. "Teacher, what are you doing?" asked the student. Nasrudin responded, "I am searching for my keys." The student offered his assistance and after an hour of searching he told his teacher he did not think the keys were there to be found. Nasrudin stood and said: "Of course we won't find the keys here; I lost them in my house." Incredulous, the student asked why he was searching under the lamppost. Nasrudin sighed with frustration and exclaimed: "Young man -- we look here because the light is much better."

Recently I participated in a meeting where the topic of conversation focused on improving student learning in public schools. In fairly short order, the conversation turned into an indictment of university teacher preparation programs, with a focus on such conceptual sound bites as:

Prospective teachers...

  1. need deep content knowledge;
  2. must be equipped with classroom-management skills, possess discipline-specific pedagogical knowledge, exemplify professional dispositions, and be action-oriented researchers so they can analyze student performance data and better differentiate instruction to meet the needs of the increasingly complex classroom environment;
  3. must be the best and brightest -- i.e., come from nationally ranked top-tier institutions.

The implication of the conversation was that prospective teachers, in general, did not possess any of the qualities identified above. Quite frankly, I had a problem with that. Here's why:

First, I agree with the first two assertions in the list; what concerns me, however, is the unsubstantiated assertion that they are not, in fact, being met. Ample data exists which shows that most teachers possess good content knowledge. While concerns on that score may have been justified in the past, most aspiring teacher professionals who graduate from university preparation programs today major in a content area like math, science, or history rather than education, and the vast majority have to pass discipline-specific tests before the university can recommend them for certification. Interestingly enough, a number of high-quality studies have shown that deep content knowledge alone is insufficient to make a good teacher, and that teacher education programs have evolved to take this reality into account. The comments made by superintendents in the meeting I attended would appear to be mired in misconceptions and informed by the unfortunate but all-too-common practice of scapegoating.

But what really concerns me is the way the superintendents linked the third assertion in the list with the first two. There is little research to support the assertion that nationally ranked top-tier institutions do a better job preparing teachers than regional institutions, and it is opinion rather than fact that a student with high SAT scores or one who graduated from an elite institution will be more effective in the classroom than one who enters the profession from a less-well-known regional college.

Indeed, rather than having a substantive conversation about what needs to be done to improve our nation's public schools, I sensed a disconcerting air of elitism in the conversation that was all the more disturbing as it mutated into finger-pointing and blame-placing. Unfortunately, the refrain, while it borders on caricature, has become all-too-familiar: Our schools are failing because teachers are bad, teachers are bad because universities are not preparing them well, and our salvation lies with our elite institutions.

As a college administrator whose work focuses on preparing future teachers, I could not remain silent and commented that any substantive conversation wishing to address the challenges of public education needed to move beyond a criticism of teachers, prospective teachers, and colleges and universities to issues such as poverty, family structure, parental commitment to and engagement with their kids' education, the professional preparation and skills of school leaders, budgets, and policies and practices that work against student learning (e.g., unreasonable increases in class size, a narrowing of the curriculum, lack of material resources, etc.) -- issues that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan alluded to in a recent "open letter" to America's teachers in which he acknowledged the frustration teachers experience when they "alone are blamed for educational failures that have roots in broken families, unsafe communities, misguided reforms, and underfunded school systems."

To my surprise, my comment was met with angry indignation from a former superintendent who, raising his voice and jumping up from his chair, said I was being condescending, that everyone knew the problems in public education were exacerbated by cultural and economic factors, and that it was insulting to think otherwise. When he finished, I wondered out loud why then such factors were not included in the conversation. A teacher's union representative who up to that point had been silent agreed.

Research tells us that having a well-qualified classroom teacher is a key factor in promoting student learning; research also affirms that other factors (e.g., socio-economic status, class size, quality and availability of resources) also correlate with student learning. Teacher IQ does not, nor is there evidence to suggest that regional institutions do not do as good a job of preparing teachers for the classroom as nationally ranked institutions.

Truth be told, today's teachers are some of the best prepared in our nation's history. Their content knowledge is strong, as is their understanding of pedagogy and curriculum design. Weak teachers exist, of course. But national standards coupled with evolving state regulations have greatly reduced their numbers.

With the above in mind, I believe private philanthropy is uniquely positioned to make a real and positive difference in public education by more fully illuminating the many challenges confronting public education in this country as well as the landscape of possibilities unfolding around us. Real and meaningful solutions to the education crisis will not be found if we limit ourselves to looking where the light already shines.

-- Mitchell Sakofs

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Posted by emc  |   June 30, 2011 at 10:48 AM

Teachers may be extensively trained and well-intentioned, but I don't believe our education system is up-to-speed on the plasticity of the brain. Teachers give up too quickly when students falter. The most dynamic teachers never make it to the classroom, because the system promotes people who are good at classroom management, and not necessarily at teaching. Many students are working with serious but undiagnosed handicaps. The best teachers find a work-around.

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