Wednesday, May 03, 2006
I am new to The Wall but not new to education and its social foundations. Since 1985, I have devoted enormous amounts of time and energy to the education of teachers. I use the term “education” (rather than training or even preparation) to emphasize one critical point about teaching at any level: one must be broadly and deeply educated to teach well. It matters not if one is teaching second graders, sophomores in high school, seniors in college or adolescents in Sunday school.
The precise nature of that education has generated lots of heat and occasional light over the past century. Perhaps the most astute commentary about the effort to improve teacher education was offered by former Harvard President James Bryant Conant when he called the issue “a power struggle among professors.” (The Education of American Teachers, 1963). It remains a power struggle. In today’s iteration, the debate seems to pit teacher unions and ed schools (“the education establishment” bent solely on maintaining their monopoly) against “reformers” operating out of institutions like the Fordham Foundation (who seek to bring sense, rigor, and of course “choice” to teacher education). That characterization is, of course, too simple.
At a minimum, I’d argue, a teacher should understand some body of knowledge quite well and, moreover, understand how that body of knowledge crosses paths, overlaps and leavens other bodies of knowledge. A teacher should know quite a lot about human behavior, seen in its individual, social and cultural faces. And that teacher should recognize that education is a political act, that schools of any kind embody political and economic values, serve political and economic purposes and have political and economic ramifications. (By the way, it’s not “bad” that education is a political act; it just is. It is only bad if we fool ourselves into thinking our own motives and understanding are pure, while the motives of others are political.)
I find it helpful to think about education as human interaction with two aspects -- one academic (what’s worth knowing), one moral (what’s worth doing). It is, I think, possible to view any educational scenario from either of these standpoints. It is not so easy – given the limitations of human attention and the tendency to categorize -- to recognize both at one and the same moment. But it is in fact impossible to avoid – ever – either aspect of what we do when we educate. Our impact is always both academic and moral.
I say all this not simply by way of introduction, but by way of response to an editorial by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof that appeared last week. Kristof joined the chorus of voices who maintain that teachers need no credentials (or competence) beyond “intellectual brilliance” and “personality.” He addresses a growing teacher shortage by recommending that we “relax the barriers so people can enter teaching more easily.” The barrier he has in mind is teacher certification, a function of the work that I do. I find myself grateful to Kristof who forces me to examine my lived reality as a teacher educator just as I join the merry band at The Wall.
Kristof rightly highlights the role that changing gender expectations has played in our present teacher shortage. Forty years ago, smart women who sought careers would have few options beyond teaching. Today their options seem limitless. Forty years ago, those smart women would have accepted relatively low wages, grateful to be working in a setting that challenged them intellectually, psychologically and emotionally. Today, women recognize that they can and ought to be compensated for the level of challenge a position offers. Forty years ago, women did not expect to support anyone but themselves. Today, women are often supporting a family.
The puzzle is that Kristof fails to follow his own logic. If the smart women (and men) who were teachers forty years ago have departed, both because of unattractive wages and unattractive professional constraints, then why not reconstruct a teacher’s position to make it more attractive to those with intellectual brilliance and personality? Provide teachers with the interlaced autonomy and (multi-faceted) accountability that NCLB has removed and pay them a wage that reflects the difference they make in children’s lives. Teacher education will have to change to accommodate the new reality of the teaching profession.
Instead Kristof is saying that there are brilliant, personable folks who want in and we would solve all our problems (quality and quantity) if we would just let them in. A little bit of training (such as that offered by Teach for America for instance) would focus the brilliance and personality in the right direction. Young graduates of prestigious schools and accomplished career-changers should be welcomed. (I agree with that last claim, by the way.)
The problem is that Kristof takes the other side in a false dichotomy that teacher educators have helped to construct – i.e. either teachers must be graduates of a university-based teacher preparation program or they need no particular education at all. Both positions beg the real question: how does one learn to teach?
The answer is deceptively simply but extraordinarily complicated. One learns to teach by teaching -- if one is able to see and interpret the relevant circumstances and factors, frame possible options for action, and anticipate the consequences of any particular instructional interaction. If any readers perceive a Deweyan spin on this view, you’re not imagining. It’s there.
This, by the way, is not an answer unique to teaching. One learns to practice medicine by practicing, but in the absence of background science knowledge, understanding of human development, and coaching by master practitioners it’s hard to make sense of the practice. One learns to write by writing, but without being able to recognize good writing (through reading) or having a basic skill set, it’s slow going. One learns to walk a tightrope by doing so, but doesn’t start on the high wire without a net.
So the real question is when is someone “safe to practice”? At what point do we allow a doctor or a writer or a high wire artist – or a teacher -- to ply their craft without a net? When is a brilliant person with personality going to do children more good than harm?
We are all guilty of failing to face up to that question. Teachers unions, school administrators, and policy makers join teacher educators and folks who share Mr. Kristof’s viewpoint in missing the point. The question is not whether teachers need a degree in education or not. The question is how do we structure an educational system that builds in roles and supports that let prospective teachers (preferably brilliant persons with personality!) grow in understanding of the factors, the options for action, the possible consequences – and the shared values that ultimately ground decision-making?
Universities have a role to play in the education of teachers but I’m pretty well convinced they simply can’t do it alone. Differentiated staffing and compensation probably needs to be an element in this picture. Restructured schools, collaborative teaching and learning, individualized instruction, IEPs for every student – these actions would make it possible for bright young liberal arts graduates and career changers to make a contribution to schools while learning what Alan Tom called “a moral craft.”
Nicholas Kristof is wrong when he assumes that teaching requires nothing more than good intentions, a quick wit and an agile mind. Like other professions, it is a practice. Like other professions, teaching must be learned in the presence of and with support from those who have mastered the practice. But it will not be learned in the absence of prior and simultaneous learning about some body of knowledge, about the nature of human action and interaction, and about the social and institutional contexts in which teaching and learning take place. The challenge is to create the system that does that while also safeguarding the precious time and talent of the learners entrusted to us.
I look forward to responses to this post and to the opportunity to share my (always developing) thoughts in the weeks and months to come.
Posted by Barbara Stengel at 10:40 AM