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Friday Interview: Schools of Education

A new Pope Center reporet says education schools not doing the job

Today, Carolina Journal Radio’s Donna Martinez discusses North Carolina’s teacher education schools with Jane Shaw, executive vice president of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. (Go here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Martinez: Jane, first of all, what do you believe is the appropriate mission of a school of education?

Shaw: It should be pretty obvious, shouldn’t it, that the students, who are potential teachers, can learn how to convey skills and knowledge to the children that they ultimately will teach. The problem is that at UNC education schools, as well as many other schools around the country, this simply is not happening.

Martinez: Now, that really surprises me, Jane, because what you’re saying seems to be common sense. So if that’s not happening in North Carolina’s schools of education, what is happening there?

Shaw: Well, the Pope Center’s new study, which was written by an insider, someone who had been an education school professor himself at the University of Louisville for a number of years…

Martinez: That would be George Cunningham.

Shaw: George Cunningham, right. In that paper, what he argues is that there really are two cultures, or two approaches to education. One — the normal one that you and I, and actually most political and policy people would tend to support — which is that schools are for academic achievement. But there’s another view, which is held by probably not the entire number of faculty members at education schools, but is widespread at education schools, and that is that we really should be concerned not about what the student accomplishes, but about the learning experience, the environment of the student. The idea is that the student should be allowed to find his or her own learning, and they have odd terms for this, like constructivism. They want the students to construct their own information. It’s as though the teacher — and, in fact, this is a term that’s used — the teacher is not supposed to be “the sage on the stage,” but is supposed to be the “guide on the side,” the facilitator to encourage, to just let the child become what he or she is sort of naturally going to become. That is a philosophy that has pervaded education schools.

Martinez: It sounds really idyllic when you describe it that way. But, in practical terms, if this is how teachers are being taught to teach in the classroom, how does that idyllic approach translate into, for example, teaching a child the multiplication tables?

Shaw: Well, that’s the problem — it doesn’t. And you have seen that students now don’t learn the multiplication tables.

Martinez: They don’t?

Shaw: No, they don’t. Some may, some will pick it up, and of course there some examples of — yes. But, by and large, that’s not the important thing to many teachers who have come from these schools. The important thing is that the student understand the concept that underlies multiplication tables or long division. There’s a kind of — again, as you say — idyllic view, that students should be learning higher-level mathematics rather than this rote stuff that is so dull and uninteresting, and of course you use computers and calculators anyway.

Martinez: Interesting, because I can remember the flash cards, and being drilled by my teacher and my mom — eight times seven, that type of thing.

Shaw: Exactly.

Martinez: Jane, how does this translate into how teachers are teaching kids to read? I think it’s pretty clear we all understand that reading is so essential to any sort of learning. Is the approach to reading done the same way?

Shaw: I’m afraid that it is. You may have heard long ago, there have been conflicts over whether students should be taught by phonics or not.

Martinez: I learned phonics.

Shaw: Well, over the years, it’s become very clear that phonics is one very important element of teaching, of teaching reading. It’s not the only thing, but it’s very important. It is largely ignored. Again, I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush because there are certainly some schools — and I believe that UNC Greensboro is one, for example, that does have a good reading program, that does teach teachers how to get kids to understand that words are composed of sounds, and that you can learn to read by this sounding-out process. But instead, what we find — and, in fact, I found it when my son was in school — what’s called whole language, which, again, is emphasizing the creativity of the student and the idea that the student is just going to pick up reading if he or she loves the story and maybe makes up their own stories, that kind of thing. But the actual difficult business of teaching sounds is largely ignored.

Martinez: While the Pope Center is focusing on North Carolina schools of education, UNC President Erskine Bowles is also focusing on the schools of education. He has laid out a plan that he would like to see those schools produce more teachers because North Carolina is growing, and we do need more teachers each year. Is he focusing at all on what you are?

Shaw: Well, I’m not sure. I think publicly he has emphasized the need for more teachers, and he hasn’t said that much about the need for better teachers, although he, of course, has brought that up. I do believe that the University of North Carolina is working with the State Board of Education in trying to set some standards for both principals and for teachers. I think that maybe something is being done, but we haven’t yet seen it in any significant change in the education schools. I think there is a long way to go.

Martinez: Jane, in this paper that George Cunningham has written for the Pope Center, you also lay out some recommendations. If you had the opportunity to sit face to face with Erskine Bowles, what would you suggest to him that you believe would help improve the quality of the teachers North Carolina is producing?

Shaw: I think the first thing is to look at the curriculum — look at the courses that are being taught. And then, secondly, look even at the conceptual framework, which is a fancy word for the mission statement of each school. If those do not meet proper standards — and I don’t think they do — then something should be done. And it probably starts with communication with the deans themselves. There’s another area — and we can only just touch on that [today] — and that is certification. Right now, the method of certification for the education schools is through NCATE [National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education], a particular organization that tends to encourage this idyllic, student-centered view rather than the teacher-oriented instruction. And that should be really removed as the body that certifies schools.

Martinez: Jane, as we wind down, this really does have some practical implications because the No Child Left Behind law now requires additional qualifications for teachers. So teachers really do need to be looking at this.

Shaw: They certainly need to be learning those ways of teaching skills and knowledge, and at the moment I don’t think it’s happening, but it certainly is necessary.

Martinez: You can find this paper written by George Cunningham at He is a veteran of the system. He has written this for the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, all about what our teachers are being taught in North Carolina schools of education.