kitchen table math, the sequel: "Are Teacher Colleges Producing Mediocre Teachers?" TIME

Saturday, October 24, 2009

"Are Teacher Colleges Producing Mediocre Teachers?" TIME

TIME article by Gilbert Cruz.

Are Teacher Colleges Producing Mediocre Teachers?

OK, but is there anything constructive or promising here?

The article was based on a speech by Arne Duncan on Thursday to Columbia University's Teachers College. Duncan said:

"By almost any standard, many if not most of the nation's 1,450 schools, colleges and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st century classroom,"

"By almost any standard."

{I'll ignore the 21st century remark.]

Then, Cruz quotes David Steiner, New York's education commissioner as saying:

"And if we can't identify the skills that make a difference in terms of student learning, then what we're saying is that teaching is an undefinable art, as opposed to something that can be taught."

"Until recently, Steiner served as dean of Hunter College's School of Education, where he was a vocal critic of the typical ed-school approach, in which teachers-in-training study theories and philosophies of education at the expense of practical, in-the-classroom experience."

Then Duncan is quoted as saying:

"I am urging every teacher-education program today to make better outcomes for students the overarching mission that propels all their efforts."

But what is the "standard" that should be used? It's one thing to argue mediocrity "by almost any standard", but there has to be some agreement over what that standard should be. The only standard that seems to be available is a mix of 50 state standards - all low. Some apologists of bad results complain that the bad scores on the tests mean that the tests are fundamentally flawed or that the schools didn't teach the specific material of any particular question. Apparently, these people are quite capable of arguing the "by almost any standard" position.

But the problem is not just poor implementation and a lack of focus on outcomes. It's philosophy. It's low expectations. The problem is that people disagree on standards. We can't even get started.

Actually, I'm more encouraged by Duncan's arm-twisting in states to force them to open up more charter schools. I can't imagine a top down solution to the problem of education that won't be watered down or manipulated. Either parents have to be allowed to send their kids elsewhere, or schools have to provide parents with choice. TERC or Singapore Math. I don't expect the education world will give up control easily. They will accept (low) accountability and weak standards first.


Obi-Wandreas, The Funky Viking said...

There are multiple issues at work here.

First is that of raw material. I haven't seen the numbers for a few years; if memory serves, however, If one were to compare the SAT/GRE/etc. scores of education students vs. students in other majors, one is essentially left with the impression that education is a haven for those unable to withstand the academic rigor of basket weaving. I can't tell you how many people in the building in which I teach can't figure out how to fix a paper jam on a copier whose screen gives verbal instructions with pictures.

Next, you have the coursework itself. There are a growing number of articles, see "What's So Complicated About Elementary Mathematics?" and "A Math Paradox: The Widening Gap Between High School and College Math" showing the importance of subject knowledge on the part of Math teachers specifically. Most education schools spend their time with such things as "Multicultural Social Studies" and other such claptrap. There seems to be such an emphasis on "learning how to teach," that they forget one actually has to know something in order to teach it.

Any teacher will tell you that the only way to learn how to teach is to get in the classroom. An educational degree is a classic case of a requirement which is purely a bureaucratic one, not a practical one. We would be far better off if teachers had rigorous training in their subject areas, then extended periods student teaching and working alongside teachers, in such a manner as doctors do.

Instead, we flood schools with teachers who have been trained in precisely two things: the first is Jack, and I leave the second to the imagination. Schools are forced to put up with this, because states require them to have certified teachers, and require the teachers to go through years of useless crap to get certified.

There are many knowledgeable people who would be perfectly happy to teach. But since they don't have "education degrees," they are pushed aside in favor of those with such degrees, even if they don't know the order of operations from a hole in the ground.

SteveH said...

I heard about one comment (Duncan?) that said that schools of education are cash cows for colleges. I've always thought that with the modern drive towards having everyone go to college, colleges will do their best to find ways to make sure that happens, even if it means offering degrees in basket weaving.

Sara R said...

I went to ed school and hated it. It was a profoundly anti-intellectual environment.

I got a bachelor's degree in English from a religious university. There, we were encouraged to think deeply, and back up our opinions with strong arguments. Though I had religious doubts at the time, I didn't feel a limitation in the opinions that the professors allowed me to express.

Later, I decided that I wanted to teach elementary school. I loved learning as a child, and I did well in all subjects. Elementary school teachers teach all subjects, and that was attractive to me. So I started ed school at a local state college with a decent academic reputation.

You would think that diversity of opinion would be more welcomed at a secular college than a religious college, right? Not in the education department. You were expected to parrot back what you were taught. Contrary opinions were ignored, ridiculed, or fought. About the only way to earn a bad grade in the ed school classes was to speak out against what they were teaching.

Academic expectations were very low. We didn't do essays or research papers, only 1-page "reflection papers" (glorified journal entries) about the concept taught.

My classmates were disappointing as well. Most of them were happy to just accept the professors' word and the educational fads of the moment. I hesitate to assume that people who disagree with me are stupid, because I recognize that educated people can and do disagree. In this case, however, there didn't seem to be critical thought going on. And there was nothing in the curriculum that encouraged critical thought. I became alarmed that my fellow students, so vulnerable to brainwashing, would become the teachers of my future children.

In the math methods class, I was alarmed at how many of my classmates were not confident with the very basics of elementary school arithmetic. This is the time when Mathland was standard in the California schools, and NCTM standards were preached, with no contrary opinions offered. Most of my fellow students accepted that the kind of math that they had learned in school was ineffective (and therefore reform was needed), because after all, they weren't good at math. I found Mathematically Correct's website (this was 1997 when the internet was new), and felt a little less crazy.

I couldn't figure out how to survive the ed school environment. Did I get through by lying, telling the professors what they wanted to hear? Or should I try to express and defend my opinion? Eventually, I had my first child, and gladly quit ed school to become a stay-at-home mom.

Some years later, I read the stat about SAT and GRE scores of ed school students. It said that the teachers with higher SAT scores tend to leave the profession earlier, or never get in it in the first place. That's what happened with me.

Now my oldest is 11. I have homeschooled and afterschooled my children. Books like "The Schools We Need" and "Left Back" have helped me make sense of ed school philosophies. I don't plan to go back to ed school. I enjoy tutoring, and hope to make a living correcting the academic deficits of the local schools.

Allison said...

Sara said:
You would think that diversity of opinion would be more welcomed at a secular college than a religious college, right?

No, I wouldn't think that; I've been to college. The level of indoctrination in secular colleges and universities is almost total. There is no diversity of opinion permitted. The rot goes back a long long way, before the Boomers really got going (William F Buckley chronicled it in 1951), and it has destroyed liberal arts education. It may yet destroy the sciences. Ed schools aren't actually significantly different from the rest of the college departments in viewpoint; they are different, in that their constituents leave and go into the classrooms rather than staying on in the academy, so they do much more damage with their terrible ideas.

Believing that ed schools are profoundly different is a mistake.
The people on this blog are trying to educate (theirs, and others') children so they can survive college. But if in the end they attend all but the rarest of colleges, their learning will largely have stopped at 12th grade.

Allison said...

Obi Wandreas said There seems to be such an emphasis on "learning how to teach," that they forget one actually has to know something in order to teach it.

"They" didn't forget. People actively created this. Just ask Bill Ayers. From the above prior KTM post comes this piece in the Weekly Standard:

Ayers is now a "distinguished" professor in the education school at the University of Illinois-Chicago and the author of numerous manifestoes and memoirs (his most recent, coauthored with his equally radical wife, Bernardine Dohrn, a law professor at Northwestern University, is Race Course: Against White Supremacy), and he is something of an AERA celebrity these days, having been elected vice president of its curriculum-studies division--which specializes in research on what teachers teach, both at the ed-school level and in the K-12 classrooms where most ed-school graduates find employment. He participated in no fewer than seven panels and events at this year's convention. AERA, by the way, with 25,000 members, is the leading scholarly organization for professors at U.S. education schools--the people who teach the teachers who teach your children. Its annual meeting drew nearly 14,000 people to the San Diego Convention Center in April.
The room quieted when William Schubert, a black-clad, armband-wearing fellow education professor at Illinois-Chicago, introduced the social-action theme of the session by declaring, "The project of education is the

After a few dismissive words apparently aimed at the practice of requiring education majors to obtain a basic arts-and-sciences grounding alongside their pedagogic fare, Schubert introduced the first panelist, Jennifer April Sandlin of Arizona State. Her research had consisted of email interviews with Reverend Billy, an Elvis-haired anti-Wal-Mart street preacher who is currently running as Green party candidate for mayor of New York and whom Sandlin presented as an example of public pedagogy.(snip)...More papers on the theme of public pedagogy and social action followed. In one, titled "Youth Talks Back," a rainbow wristband-wearing Sharon Chappell of Arizona State described a gay-teen theater project titled "Encounters in/through the Body" and a project titled "In My Hood," in which black teens in East Palo Alto, California, painted anti-gentrification murals on the walls of a community center. Brian Schultz of Northeastern Illinois University then denounced No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law that limits federal funds to schools whose students don't achieve desired scores on standardized tests."We don't allow a lot of creativity in classrooms," Schultz lamented, opining that in a truly creative setting, "the participants would decide what's appropriate for them to learn."

Read the whole thing.

The people in power in educational academy have an ideology, and it is political, too. To them, lack of content is a feature, not a bug.

SteveH said...

"The people in power in educational academy have an ideology, and it is political, too. To them, lack of content is a feature, not a bug."

There is a definite agenda. It may not be quite so blatant on our local level, but it's there. I see some of it as an academic turf issue. If you take these ideas away, they have nothing. But it's more than that. They have a social agenda and feel that it's their job to implement it. However, no matter how pure of heart one is, that is no guarantee that what's being done is not pure crap.

I don't think it's possible to fix the system in a top-down fashion. You can't tell ed schools to do something they don't believe in. Any attempt at a national standard will be watered down - low proficiency cutoffs will become the target, not the base. I see it in our state with NCLB. It will institutionalize slow improvement towards a minimal goal. Parents have to be allowed to get out of the system. That's no guarantee either, but I see it as a better mechanism.

Actually, I don't want to get out. I don't want the option to send my son off to another town for school. I want our public schools to get it right. I want them to acknowledge that many parents have a different view of education. I want them to offer the choice within our schools. This is my town, not theirs.

The problem is that if our schools offer real choice, then everyone will see clearly that this is not just about pedagogy, but low versus high expectations. Can you imagine what would happen after a few years with TERC versus Singapore Math tracks? This blows apart their social agenda of treating all kids the same.

Currently, the limited choice in our area (charter and private schools) does put pressure on our public schools. It's made it (barely) possible for us to bring our son back to our town - he no longer has to waste over an hour a day just on travel. We also don't have to pay $15,000+++ a year and still get Everyday Math. Then again, he is finally past the worst horrors of K-6 educational thought. I have had discussions with other parents (in our area) about how the best path is a good private K-8 school followed by the honors track of our public high school.

Katharine Beals said...

"You would think that diversity of opinion would be more welcomed at a secular college than a religious college, right? Not in the education department."

I saw exactly this in the math methods class I audited while researching for my book ("Raising a Left Brain Child"). The teacher was ostensibly practicing what she was preaching, i.e., letting the ed students "discover" that student-led "discovery" is the best way to learn math. That is, rather than lecturing, she used a sort of group-oriented Socratic Method. However, she selectively dismissed or followed up on student comments, such that comments about Singapore Math went nowhere, while comments about the virtues of group-centered discovery earned lots of approval and follow-up. I'm not sure how how many students caught on to the manipulation, but most seemed quite happy with the class, and, as Sara puts it, happy "to just accept the professors' word

"In the math methods class, I was alarmed at how many of my classmates were not confident with the very basics of elementary school arithmetic."

In the math methods class I audited, most of the students were female, had no interest in math, and had their boyfriends, or their husbands, or even their fathers, help them solve the rather easy weekly problems that were assigned as part of the course.