Teacher, Teacher, Can You Teach Me?

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

All the major education rags focused on it today. The Chronicle of Higher Education, InsideHigherEd.com, and Education Week all covered US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s speech on teacher education at Teachers College in New York City, mostly because they weren’t sure what he was going to say. Only a few weeks earlier, Secretary Duncan lambasted teacher preparation programs in a speech at the University of Virginia, and, while more conciliatory yesterday, the Secretary still pushed his criticism further. Secretary Duncan said “many, if not most” of the schools of education across the country were doing a “mediocre” job of preparing teachers. “America’s university-based teacher-preparation programs need revolutionary change—not evolutionary tinkering.

Isn’t it about time we had someone in a leadership position say something real about education? From Day One, Secretary Duncan has come out of the gate firing on all cylinders and being more critical about almost every aspect of education, from teacher education to student aid programs. No prior Secretary of Education has been as provocative as Arne Duncan. Dick Riley, the longest-standing Secretary, was a thoughtful and reliable person, but he didn’t take on the establishment like Duncan. It is as if Duncan, like his boss and fellow Chicagoan, President Obama, take their responsibilities seriously and understand they have a limited amount of time to effect change.

Of course, this approach has its downsides. As with the Clinton Administration, staffers at ED are getting tired. I’ve spoken with a few colleagues within the Department and their eyes roll at the level of effort committed over the past nine months. Change can be good, but too much change in too short a period can have its ramifications. ED staffers can’t keep this pace up for long without realizing cracks in the Department’s veneer. Secondly, such a strong push attracts dissent from the opposition, and, in this case, over two million teachers across the nation and over 1,000 teacher education programs. It isn’t a way to influence friends or enemies.

But should it? On Thursday, Duncan tried to focus more on the successes. But his message was still clear: we aren’t doing the job. And we aren’t for many reasons, most of which were outlined by Art Levine in his scathing 2006 report on teacher education. Levine, the former President of Teachers College and now President of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, called teacher education programs ‘ “unruly and chaotic” that lack a standard approach to preparing teachers.’ He, too, was right.

As an alumnus of a teacher education program in Canada, I would subscribe to the same notions as both Duncan and Levine. Today’s teacher education programs do little to instill creativity into the teaching and learning arena and make poor use of a four-year time period to train teachers. Today’s classrooms, while not “bad” by most measures, have not harnessed technology, have not rethought the learning process in our schools, and have not, to any significant manner, utilized our knowledge of how children learn to influence how we teach. In the 21st century, this is simply outrageous. We need to do a better job teaching our children.

In response to the Secretary’s address on Thursday, Sandra Robinson of the College of Central Florida said that she has seen “radical changes to colleges of education in the last 10 years.” Really? Where are these pockets of change, Dr. Robinson? I’m not suggesting some places aren’t doing good things; even Secretary Duncan pointed out some gems in teacher preparation programs. But there have never been radical changes in teacher education. Never. Duncan said it best: we have, at best, tinkered with teacher education and we need a “revolutionary” change.

This fall, the Educational Policy Institute commenced the evaluation of the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Institute, or SciTech, as it is known. This is the first year of the school, developed after three years of careful planning. SciTech currently serves 250 students, chosen through a lottery system in the city of Pittsburgh. Within the next four years, the student population will grow to 550. We won’t understand the impact of its approaches for some time, but the creative energy in SciTech needs to be replicated across the country. Some of SciTech’s strategies include a longer school day, a unique science and technology curriculum developed specifically for SciTech, and increased time and effort focused on professional development. Every teacher gets at least one-quarter of his or her day to focus on planning and professional development. Teachers have a hand in designing the professional development and are focused on data-driven outcomes for students. In preparation for opening this year, a number of SciTech personnel, including teachers, were able to prepare curriculum and lesson plans for a full year before any students showed up. Other differences? The school didn’t just hire regular teachers; they hired people from industry. The hiring process? A four month, intense process. Teachers were often interviewed several times (as many as four times) before being offered a job. A five-week mandatory summer institute for all teachers. Oh, and every student gets a laptop.

SciTech also has the advantage of being housed on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, giving the teachers, staff, and students access to some of the top science and technology experts in the nation. Each week, students walk four blocks to one of Pitt’s lecture halls for a short (about 35 minutes) presentation from someone of interest. During my site visit, I sat in on one of these lectures to see a top computer scientist engage students on the issue of computer programming.

We won’t know for a couple of years how the Pittsburgh project will fair, but in my three-day site visit in September, I was impressed. There exists a sense of change, and a sense of challenge. Here is an example of taking “revolutionary” steps to serve students better. This is the type of thoughtful restructuring we need to embrace in K-12 education.

Back in 2006, Art Levine recommended the following changes to teacher education programs:

Transform education schools from ivory towers into professional schools focused on classroom practice.

Focus on student achievement as the primary measure of teacher education program success.

Rebuild teacher education programs around the skills and knowledge that promote classroom learning; make five-year teacher education programs the norm.

Establish effective mechanisms for teacher education quality control.

Close failing teacher education programs, strengthen promising ones, and expand excellent ones by creating incentives for outstanding students and career-changers to enter teacher education at doctoral universities.

In response to the report, UMichigan’s Deborah Loewenberg-Ball said that there had been a lack of support at the national level to make the change that Levine recommended in his report. “A report like this can help attract the nation’s policymakers to the fact that if we want quality schools, teacher education has to be at top of our agenda.” It didn’t.

But during the last nine months the issue as certainly moved way up the chain. I’ll be watching to see where this one goes.

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