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Professors Debate Education of Teachers

Panelists disagree over not just the extent, but even the existence, of the problem

Professors and deans of schools of education heatedly disagreed over the direction of education schools in a panel discussion at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy’s conference Oct. 26. The critics decried numerous flaws with the schools and complained that the school establishment refused to admit problems, while the defenders said they didn’t recognize those problems.

“How Well Is North Carolina Preparing Its Teachers?” was the title of the panel, which featured Dr. Madeleine Grumet, dean of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education; Dr. Martin Kozloff, Watson professor of education at the UNC-Wilmington Watson School of Education; Dr. Marilyn Sheerer, dean of the East Carolina University School of Education; and Dr. J. E. Stone, professor of education at East Tennessee State University College of Education. The panel was moderated by Lindalyn Kakadelis, director of the North Carolina Education Alliance.

Grumet, who spoke first, talked of the principles of teacher education. She said teachers needed to realize that students come into their classrooms with preconceived notions of how the world works. She said the tabula rasa view of students was no longer governing, and that teachers should elicit through diagnostic testing and conversation the children’s ideas of what they are about to study in order to instruct them effectively. “If their initial understanding is not engaged,” Grumet said, “they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn then for the purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom.”

Grumet said that in order to develop competence in a subject, “students must (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.” For teacher education, Grumet said, this means finding ways to teach teachers the academic disciplines to give them the depth of knowledge in how students learn those disciplines, as opposed to requiring teachers to take all the general math and science courses.

Grumet also spoke of the teaching philosophy of meta-cognition. She said it required defining learning goals, charting progress toward those goals, and achievement of those goals. The increasing popularity of distance education was helping, she said, because it forced institutions to be clearer with their learning goals.

The ‘features of a cult’

The next speaker was Kozloff, who listed many challenges to the ed-school establishment. “There is a war in public education,” Kozloff said. “The war is over beliefs about how children learn and what they need to learn; about the most effective ways to teach reading, math, science, and other bodies of knowledge; about accountability and moral responsibility for educational outcomes; about what teachers need to know how to do and who should train and certify them.”

That war pits the education antiestablishment against the establishment of education schools, Kozloff said. One front out of many in that war is the direct-instruction challenge to the establishment’s focus on “intuitive learning.” One example of direct instruction vs. intuitive learning that Kozloff provided is teaching phonics vs. “whole language” instruction.

Kozloff also said critics took issue with the establishment’s “social-change focus,” in which schools try to “facilitate” rather than impart knowledge. He said the establishment chooses not to stifle creativity through the use of logical instruction, which involves practice, repetition and correction — the route to mastery, Kozloff said.

The establishment also rejects the idea of independent truth. This philosophy is in keeping with the establishment’s dislike for self-examination, Kozloff said, ignoring or dismissing critical reports and reviews. “This self-imposed and self-defensive ignorance helps to ensure that what education professors believe and teach remains, to them, unchallenged,” he said. Education schools offer no curricula backed by a solid body of empirical research, he said.

Because of this ignorance, Kozloff said, they are “vulnerable to the charge that ed schools have many of the features of a closed society, or cult.”

Sheerer was next, and she defended teacher’s education. She offered her definition of what teaching is: a thorough knowledge of content, of the pedagogy needed, and of students.

Sheerer next discussed the Higher Education Performance Report. The report, she said, measures the success of teachers education programs, and it does so in a variety of ways, from test scores, involvement in public schools, and others.

Education schools need to do a better job of showing the link between student achievement and teacher preparation, Sheerer said. Although that link isn’t obvious, she said, “Continuing evidence suggests to me that we’re doing a pretty good job, despite the myriad of challenges.” She said that was her answer to the panel’s topical question of how well North Carolina is educating its teachers.

“I don’t recognize the portrait painted by Dr. Kozloff,” Sheerer said.

Stone said that a key flaw with educational assessment is that it is “often assessment of education by educators.” Most assessment of an industry done by the industry itself, he said, tends to be self-congratulatory and inclined to putting a positive spin on results.

“The true measure of a teacher is his ability to produce gains in student achievement,” Stone said. There is a lack, however, of objective data for this measure, he said, so most studies rely on indirect indicators to gauge it. One system, the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, is a longitudinal system that follows individual students and teachers — an advantage of which, he said, helps to match the measured classroom effectiveness of novice teachers to their training program.

Stone said there was no way to improve teacher effectiveness through a regulation of teacher training. He said people have been working on the regulation of teacher training for most of the 20th century, and that “if this approach were productive, you would think that with all 50 states working on it there would be a breakthrough somewhere.”

Stone spoke favorably of U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s recent report that proposed elimination of pedagogical training for licensure in favor of disciplinary training (letting the schools decide their own pedagogical goals). He said teacher licensure and certification needed to be judged according to how well they were meeting their original purpose, which was to protect students from bad teachers and faddish practices, among other ills.

1996 law ‘not necessary’

Grumet was asked what had been done since 1996 with the passage of a law that required the UNC system to modify its reading-instruction courses for teachers. The law delivered a mandate that instruction reflect science-based reading research. Grumet answered that “the law, at least in my institution, and, I believe, in many across the state, was not necessary.”

She said “balanced reading instruction — which combines both the specific skills of decoding text with an orientation toward the kinds of information and world knowledge that you get from literature” — has been the case far more than what those attack whole-language would want acknowledge.

“There were very few classes where some instruction in phonics, some instruction in word study, some of both the cognitive and semantic skills to reading, were not being used,” Grumet said. She said the balanced-reading combination had been in use in the state before 1996.

“According to the antiestablishment, the word ‘balance’ is code for ‘business as usual,’” Kozloff answered, “and to say that there is a little bit of phonics instruction in schools is exactly opposite to what the research says.”

Palasek is assistant editor of Carolina Journal.