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Teach Your Teachers Well

Ohanian Comment: The college that gave an honorary degree to the man who put DISTAR into Houston schools, playing a leading role in the Houston "miracle" that gave us NCLB, now wants us to believe in their plan to transform teacher education. Although I agree fully with Susan Engel's call for teachers to learn far more about children, I am deeply offended by her call for "a better pool of graduate students" to form the future teacher pool. This sounds like the inadequate teacher who whines she could do a better job if she just had better students. And it plays into the current mantra that teachers just aren't smart enough for the job.

Teaching requires a lot of qualities besides grade point average, qualities seldom acknowledged: flexibility, determination, patience, curiosity, inventiveness, courage, grit, ability to bounce back from disappointment. Teachers need to have the character not to hold a grudge against children (grudge-holding against adults is another matter).

Why do so-called education reformers have the need to demean current teachers? Why don't so-called education reformers talk about strengthening the specific teacher ed programs that need strengthening? Instead of casting a net of inadequacy over all teacher ed programs?
I happened to take absolutely ridiculous teacher ed courses at Hunter College night school, but in the ensuing decades I've come to know outstanding programs, and so I don't let personal experience blight my judgment.

As for Williams College leading the way in teacher ed reform, are they ready to recant this award of an honorary degree?

June 8, 2003: Thaddeus Lott famous for implementing a "direct instruction method," received an honorary degree from Williams College. Here is how they described him.

Doctor of Humane Letters
Thaddeus S. Lott Sr.

Dr. Lott is an educational innovator driven by a simple creed: "Students given opportunity and direction can learn."

As principal of the Mabel B. Wesley Elementary School in the predominantly black community of Acres Homes in Houston, he built Wesley's reputation as a school that academically rivaled white suburban schools. His unconventional teaching methods gained national recognition in 1989, when his first graders were reading at the third-grade level, and fifth-graders were working eighth-grade math problems.

Dr. Lott was so successful at Wesley, that in 1995, the board of education approved a partnership that included Wesley and three other schools, establishing the first cooperative charter in the state of Texas.

He was named the project manager for the charter, which became the Coalition for School Improvement.

Dr. Lott's "direct instruction method" is a form of basic skills education and a strong curriculum, now known as "Reading Mastery and Connecting Math Concepts."

"I searched for and I think I found the best education concepts available," Dr. Lott said. "If my staff and I find better ways of educating our students, we would not hesitate a minute in implementing the new concept. The children are what matter, always the children.

"Most of my children do not have the trappings of self-esteem -- good clothes, good toys, vacations, and the like. [My] commitment is to give these children a foundation for more enduring self-esteem, that is, intellectual independence."

He received B.S. and M.E.D. degrees from Texas Southern University and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from Liberty University.

In 1998, Policy Review at the Hoover Institution swooned over the miracle results Lott achieved in Houston using Direct Instructional System for Teaching and Remediation (DISTAR).

As governor of Texas, George W. Bush drew on the purported success in Houston to support his educational accountability program, which became a national model and the basis for the No Child Left Behind Act.

Ms Engels makes very sweeping generalizations about professors teaching future teachers as well as sweeping generalizations about those future teachers. Although she makes some points worth considering, she owes a lot of people an apology.

Teach Your Teachers Well
By Susan Engel

New Marlborough, Mass.

ARNE DUNCAN, the secretary of education, recently called for sweeping changes to the way we select and train teachers. He's right. If we really want good schools, we need to create a critical mass of great teachers. And if we want smart, passionate people to become these great educators, we have to attract them with excellent programs and train them properly in the substance and practice of teaching.

Our best universities have, paradoxically, typically looked down their noses at education, as if it were intellectually inferior. The result is that the strongest students are often in colleges that have no interest in education, while the most inspiring professors aren't working with students who want to teach. This means that comparatively weaker students in less intellectually rigorous programs are the ones preparing to become teachers.

So the first step is to get the best colleges to throw themselves into the fray. If education was a good enough topic for Plato, John Dewey and William James, it should be good enough for 21st-century college professors.

These new teacher programs should be selective, requiring a 3.5 undergraduate grade point average and an intensive application process. But they should also be free of charge, and admission should include a stipend for the first three years of teaching in a public school.

Once we have a better pool of graduate students, we need to train them differently from how we have in the past. Too often, teaching students spend their time studying specific instructional programs and learning how to handle mechanics like making lesson plans. These skills, while useful, are not what will transform a promising student into a good teacher.

First, future teachers should continue studying the subject they hope to teach, with outstanding professors. It makes no sense at all to stop studying the thing you want to teach at the very moment you begin to learn how.

Meanwhile, students should learn their craft the way a surgeon learns to operate: by intense supervision in a real setting with expert mentors. Student-teachers are usually observed only twice during a semester and then given a written evaluation. But young teachers, like young doctors, should work side by side with skilled mentors, getting plenty of feedback, having plenty of opportunities to observe and taking on greater and greater responsibility as they improve.

Teacher training can also learn from family therapy programs. Therapists spend a great deal of time watching videotapes of themselves in action, reflecting on their sessions and discussing the most difficult moments with senior therapists to explore other ways they might have responded. In much the same way, young teachers need to record their daily encounters with their classrooms and then, with mentors and peers, have serious, open-minded conversations about what's working and what isn't.

Teachers must also learn far more about children: typically, teaching students are provided with fairly static and superficial overviews of developmental stages, but learn little about how to watch children, using research and theory to understand what they are seeing. As James Comer, a professor of child psychiatry at Yale, has argued for years, if we disregard the developmental needs of our students it's unlikely we'll succeed in teaching them.

One more thing is required-- give as many public schools as possible the financial incentives to hire these newly prepared teachers in groups of seven or more. This way, talented eager young teachers won't languish or leave teaching because they felt bored, inept, isolated or marginalized. Instead, they will feel part of a robust community of promising professionals. They will struggle and learn together. Good teachers need good colleagues.

To fix our schools, we need teaching programs that are as rich in resources, interesting, high-reaching and thoughtful as the young people we want to attract to the profession. Show me a school where teachers are smart, well-educated, skilled and happy to be there, and I'll show you a group of children who are getting a good education.

Susan Engel is a senior lecturer in psychology and the director of the teaching program at Williams College. She also writes a sometime column for the The New York Times.

— Susan Engel
New York Times





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