Wednesday, November 20, 2013
by Mike Rose (cross posted from his blog)
As the current education reform movement took shape in the 1990s, public schools were in the crosshairs. Then teachers. Then their unions. And though teacher education programs have long been a target of criticism, now they are in the center of the scope. A recent report from the National Council of Teacher Quality, a group advocating for alternative ways to train teachers, calls teacher education programs “an industry of mediocrity,” and opinion page writers gleefully assail them. The former executive editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller, began his recent demolition with the old chestnut “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach teaching.” If you worked in an ed school, you knew you’d better take cover.
Teacher education programs are widely varied by size, region, student body, nature and focus of curriculum, talent of instructional staff, status within home institution, balance of coursework and practice, relation with local district, and more. Some are excellent, some are good and experimenting with ways to get better, some are weak in some ways but decent in others, some are marginal and poorly run. The language of the criticism, at least the most public language, doesn’t allow for this variability. Nor does the dismissive rhetorical stance of the critic, that is the tone and attitude running through the language.
Reading these reports, I thought of the concerns about such language and stance I expressed in Possible Lives, a documentary of good teaching across the United States and a defense of public education. In essence, the assault further contributes to the problem it addresses by reducing the nature of the problem and providing one-dimensional solutions to it.
I reprint below a few paragraphs from the preface and introduction to Possible Lives. Whenever I write “public schools” or “public education” substitute “teacher ed programs,” and you’ll have an elaboration of my concerns:
“During the 1980s and ‘90s, a trend was developing in the national discussion of public education, a tendency to condemn it as a failure and, in some cases, to seek private, market-based alternatives to it. This tendency blended with broad claims about the schools’ responsibility for our economic woes and social problems. One result was despair and retreat from the public school. Another was the search for large-scale, single-shot solutions like vouchers, or charter schools, or high-stakes testing. This way of thinking about public schools and their problems has intensified, heard in legislative debate on educational issues, on talk radio, in newspaper and magazine commentaries. “We can all agree,” writes a contributing editor for The Weekly Standard, “that American public schools are a joke.” This is our new common sense.
Now, God knows, there is a lot wrong with our schools. This book is not a defense of the status quo. The reader will gain sharp perspective on the ills of public education from the teachers and students in the classrooms we visit. It is necessary for a citizenry to assess the performance of its public institutions. But the quality and language of that evaluation matter. For that fact, before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its variables and intricacies, its goals and purpose. We would also want to ask why we’re evaluating. To what end?
The sweeping rhetoric of public school failure does not help us here. It excludes the important, challenging work done in schools daily across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us. It constrains the way we frame problems and blinkers our imagination. The classrooms in Possible Lives, replete with details of teaching and learning, are offered to spark our imagination and enrich our assessment.
A question that runs through Possible Lives is how we might develop a critique approach to public education. How to craft an approach and language that is critical without being reductive, that honors the best in our schools and draws from it broader lessons about ability, learning, and opportunity, that scrutinizes public institutions while affirming them.”
I’ll have more to say about teacher education in a future blog. View Mike’s blog here.