Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a provocative address on the future of teacher education when he appeared at Columbia Teachers College on October 22. Everyone involved in Trinity’s School of Education — all faculty and students here, our graduates and partners in the field, our colleagues who take continuing education courses — ALL should read Secretary Duncan’s speech and think about how Trinity should respond. I encourage you to post your comments publicly to this blog, comment link below, or send me an email message with your thoughts if you don’t want to post publicly.
I agree with many of the points Secretary Duncan makes. I especially agree with him on the point that improving public education is THE civil rights issue of our times. The future strength of our society and vitality of our economic and social institutions depends on great teaching and learning, starting in the earlierst grades. The ability of individuals to enjoy economic security and the rights and privileges of this democracy depends heavily on their educational attainment. All of us who work in higher education need to accept a special responsibility to make excellence in teacher education a top instituitonal priority. Arthur Levine, the former president of Columbia Teachers College, had an interesting column in the Washington Post about Duncan’s speech.
While agreeing with much that Secretary Duncan has to say, there are certain parts of the current political milieu for improving teacher education that we have to call out from beneath the rocks where serious dysfunctions are lurking — and threatening to wreck any efforts to reform the system.
For starters, teacher-bashing must stop immediately. Sure, there are problem teachers — but when I hear a politician or corporate CEO bashing teachers (as I often do at the many educational convenings that are my occupational hazard) and then I reflect on the troubles that some politicians and corporate leaders have visited upon our society and economy, I have to call out that particular brand of hubris. Just as there are great CEOs and some terrible, corrupt businesspeople (and media pundits and lawmakers and school system administrators), so, too there are great teachers and some bad ones — and the bad ones will not become great ones by bashing everyone else. However, the great and good teachers will (and have) become demoralized and increasingly ineffective when the constant drumbeat is criticism and dismissal of their voices in the discussion of the challenges of educational reform.
Get rid of bad teachers, absolutely; but do not drive out the good ones by scorning all of them. Do not discourage the rising generation of potential teachers by sending the message that if they choose this profession, criticism and disparagement will be their constant companions. Who will teach if we keep sending these hopelessly negative messages?
As a corollary, stop dismissing as wholly irrelevant the pupil’s home environment. I’ve heard so many educational “experts” dismiss as “excuses” legitimate and deeply serious problems that impede the ability of children to learn successfully. “All research shows” is one of the most tired sentence openings in the educational reform playbook. That phrase comes up in just about every official talk — high quality teachers will educate students regardless of the child’s environment, they say, but many experienced (and high quality) teachers would beg to differ. We have all kinds of special care and concern for students with physical and intellectual and emotional disabilities — but if a child is abused or hungry or saw his mother beaten up the previous evening or watched his brother die in a hail of bullets, we are told, “No excuses!”
Excuse me. Elegant educational reform plans created by educational elites need real world tempering and tailoring, as so many well-intentioned-but-naive urban school reform efforts have proven. Those of us who have some modest real-world experience with the results of failed urban public schools are not puppets for the teachers unions when we say that the reform plan must also include action plans to counter at least some of the effects of poverty, racism, classism, violence, familial drug abuse, parental illiteracy, teen pregnancy and the hardcore generational skepticism of institutions that diminishes the lifetime ambitions of too many children and youth. Too many children are raised in households where educational attainment is actively discouraged. Too many girls (the mothers and principal parents of the next generations) are specifically and sometimes brutally prevented from pursuing their dreams of a college education — so they drop out before finishing high school.
Educational reform must include the education of parents. This brings me to the situation in D.C. More than 35% of the adults in D.C. are functionally illiterate — this in the capital of the free world, a city that also has the highest per capita rate of advanced degrees in the nation. The adults who cannot read are the parents of the children in the public schools where the eyes of an entire nation are focused on the unfolding drama of educational reform. In the boiling cauldron of argumentation over what works and what doesn’t, who’s at fault and who’s going to fix it, there seems to be no time and no forum for discussion of something as important and useful as upgrading adult education to address the adult illiteracy problem in our nation’s capital. Yet, “all research shows” (!!) that when Mom can read, the children will learn to read, and the educational level of parents has a direct positive impact on the educational attainment of children.
If I had Secretary Duncan in my office right now (I might even do some dusting for that!), I’d like to ask him to take the lead in convening the D.C. Education Summit that Washington Post Writer Valerie Strauss calls for today in her column on the skirmish this week between D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee and the D.C. Council. I’d ask him to include the local Schools of Education in that summit, since we have not generally been included in any of the discussion of educational reform in our city. Standards for D.C. teacher certification have changed considerably, with little input from the universities — we tried to participate, but somehow the notices of the hearings last year often arrived the night before the meetings. Efforts to get various meetings with public officials have been difficult, as the article this weekend about the UDC situation reveals — there’s just not a lot of dialogue going on among the educational leadership of the city broadly.
Trinity educates more D.C. residents than any other private university in the nation. We know a little something about the educational challenges of this city. We are as concerned as anyone with making public education in the nation’s capital a highly successful venture for students and teachers alike — we are “all about the kids” as fervently as local leaders say they are, but we also know that a healthy educational environment must pay attention to, listen to, respect and learn from ALL of the stakeholders and participants in the total process of education. We ALL own that process, not just the various discrete parts we play. The health of the educational environment is everyone’s responsibility — let’s find more productive ways to clean it up. Secretary Duncan’s call to action is a good place to start.