An Apple for the Secretary

An Apple for the Secretary

By Ruben Navarrette - October 28, 2009

SAN DIEGO -- By stalling on issues ranging from Afghanistan to immigration reform, President Obama has earned a reputation for being indecisive. Yet Obama did make one decision that was positively brilliant -- naming Arne Duncan as secretary of education.

Duncan proved this again last week when he zeroed in on an often-overlooked part of the education reform equation: the nation's teachers colleges. In a speech at Columbia University's Teachers College, Duncan delivered a stinging critique of the schools that trained most of the more than 3 million teachers who currently work in U.S. public schools.

"By almost any standard," Duncan told an audience of student teachers and faculty, "many if not most of the nation's 1,450 schools, colleges and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st-century classroom."

The word "mediocre" had extra bite because teachers colleges are, as Time magazine put it, "the stepchildren of the American university system."

Duncan is onto something. With so much scrutiny aimed at measuring student performance from kindergarten to high school, many education reformers never get around to asking embarrassing questions about how well teachers are doing in their profession, where they got their training, how much they learned, and what can be improved. Until we start scrutinizing this part of the process, and look at who is teaching the teachers, we'll never empower students to reach their academic potential and create a work force that is globally competitive.

Most of the criticism I hear about teachers colleges -- from education professors, student teachers and teachers in the classroom -- centers around the idea that teachers are being shortchanged. Critics say that the training teachers are getting is 20 years behind the times and that it is too heavily steeped in theory and not useful in the real world of the classroom. They say that those who teach in schools of education are clueless about how to reach children with dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, Asperger's syndrome or other learning challenges. Lastly, they say, there is no tolerance for dissenting views and that once a professor states an opinion about anything from standardized testing to bilingual education and selects the research to back it up, students are expected to fall in line.

Duncan must be hearing the same sort of criticisms. He understands that the only way to evaluate a teacher-training program is to look at how the teachers perform once in the classroom; the only way to do that is to measure how the students are doing. It's all connected.

"I am urging every teacher-education program today to make better outcomes for students the overarching mission that propels every single one of their efforts," he said.

Duncan especially likes what Louisiana did as part of the rebuilding effort after Hurricane Katrina. The state takes student test scores in grades 4-9 and traces them back to their teachers, who are then traced back to whatever institution gave them their training and certification. The state shares that information with the schools of education, and urges the schools to improve. Duncan wants other states to follow suit, and he's dangling part of a $4.35 billion fund under the administration's Race to the Top initiative, whose emphasis on standards and accountability bears a striking resemblance to the Bush administration's education reform law -- No Child Left Behind.

The "trace back" is groundbreaking stuff. Imagine tracking students back to teachers, and tracing teachers back to schools of education. Now that's accountability. It is no wonder that concept always scares the daylights out of some people. For all the complaints that teachers have -- about parents, students, administrators, salaries, testing, budget cuts, etc. -- there is one thing that still makes it a great job for those who don't like taking responsibility or accepting blame: anonymity.

When students graduate from high school, whether it's at the top of the class or at the bottom, they may have had dozens of teachers since kindergarten. All of those teachers, it could be argued, are at least partly responsible for a student's academic success or failure.

So it's easy to hide bad teaching and mediocre training, which only ensures we'll get more of both. As it stands, it's also easy for principals and superintendents to give lip service to the idea that the entire system is responsible for how well students perform.

And when everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.

Copyright 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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Ruben Navarrette

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