The pendulum swings, and choices await

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As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

(See more of the interview with Emily Feistritzer on this topic here.)

Time was, this country had about 130,000 school districts; today we have somewhere around 14,000. The pendulum has swung toward centralization.

No question that the pendulum swings. Not all that long ago about the only beers you could buy were Budweiser, Miller and Coors, but today you can choose from among thousands of microbrews. And that’s just the pendulum swinging back to the days before the Coors/Miller/Budweiser ‘beeropoly’ because in an earlier day, your parents could buy Schiltz, Schaefer, Piels, et cetera.

When I was a kid, there were thousands and thousands of radio stations; today Clear Channel owns about 1250 stations and dominates the market. But perhaps not for long, because the internet makes it possible for anyone to have his own ‘radio station.’

Pendulum
... and so the pendulum continues to swing...

Time was, the only way you could become a teacher was to go to a normal school, later called schools and colleges of education. Not any more, thanks to Wendy Kopp and Teach for America, the New Teacher Project, Troops for Teachers and a host of other alternative certification programs.

I could go on, because consolidation and expansion have occurred and are occurring in television, the music recording industry, health care and a ton of other industries.

It must be clear by now that I am not one of those who feels the sky is falling in because of monopoly or near-monopoly conditions. The strength of this country is our stubborn insistence on both change and independence. Take the consolidation of school districts as an example. Yes, the number of districts has dropped by close to 90 percent, but many of those districts are now experiencing their own mini-revolts, in the form of charter schools, which can actually resemble a school board — largely free of central regulation but accountable for results. Take New Orleans, where 70 percent of students are in charter schools. Is that one district, or 40+?

Did I mention textbooks and testing, where Pearson and McGraw-Hill now rule the roost? Their domination upsets a lot of observers, who fear and resent what mass testing seems to be doing to our children’s learning.

But that too will change in time. In fact, when I read that more families are home-schooling these days, I wonder if we are now seeing the beginning of change, because I have no doubt that a major motivation for some families is to escape the ‘cookie cutter’ schooling that they feel the testing regime imposes on schools.

When the Secretary of Education says, as he did in his Twitter Town Hall, that any more than 10 days spent on testing and test-prep was a cause for concern, that could be a sign that the times will soon be a-changin’.

And as McGraw-Hill and Pearson are well aware, school systems are moving away from textbooks and embracing the iPad and other tablets.

That the pendulum swings is undeniable. Whether the arc is toward equality, fairness, opportunity and justice is largely up to us.

The wild card in education today is emerging Common Core standards, which inevitably will lead to pressures for national testing. This pendulum is swinging strongly toward centralization. So the question is “Can we have high national standards without narrowly prescribing the single path that schools must follow to get there?” Can we ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ in our schools?

My bet is, we can. What do you think?

Six premises, seven ideas for better teacher training

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As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

At the Twitter Town Hall with Education Secretary Arne Duncan (related: the full transcript of that dialogue is online) on August 24, he promised some new initiatives regarding schools of education. In the hope that the suggestion box is still open, I have a suggestion — not for the Secretary but for schools and colleges of education.

Full disclosure: I do write as a graduate of one (Harvard) and a Trustee of another (Teachers College at Columbia University), but nothing I say should be construed as either representing those institutions or having their stamp of approval.

Regarding both undergraduate and graduate schools of education, I begin with six premises so the reader knows where I am coming from.

Premise No. 1: The world of teaching has to change — and is slowly changing. Despite the harsh attacks on the profession by too many shrill voices, others are working to improve pay and working conditions. When these changes take effect, the exodus from the profession will slow down. That will change the economics of training, simply because the system will not need as many new teachers. Right now, too many schools and colleges of education resemble diploma mills that actually benefit from the churn in the profession. That’s a disgrace, and the leading colleges and schools of education must be working for teachers. Teaching and learning cannot be beholden to ‘the three Ts’ — companies that sell technology, tests and textbooks — or anyone else.

Premise No. 2: Schools of education are an endangered species. Somewhere around 1,400 institutions now prepare teachers, and that’s about twice as many as we will need in the future, because the profession is changing — even the best are at risk if they don’t adapt.

Premise No. 3: The old way of paying teachers — based on years of service and graduate credits — is dying, with only the date of death yet to be decided. That means the end of a ‘cash cow’ for the schools and colleges of education that now get a lot of cash from teachers who take a course here and there to get a pay boost. Moreover, no reputable school of education can afford to be seen as hanging on to this way of doing business just because it’s currently profitable. In some districts, contracts are being negotiated that ‘front-load’ the rewards, a practice in countries and regions that are now outperforming the United States.

Premise No. 4: Today most schools of education, especially graduate schools with their subject-specific ‘silos’ and tenure-driven organization, are insufficiently nimble to survive and prosper. They are constructed around tenured professors, a small tenure track, and lots and lots of adjunct (part-time) teachers. Leadership must challenge this structure, but not head on. Instead, schools and colleges of education should create an alternative path in addition to the tenure track and adjunct appointments.

Premise No. 5: Schools and colleges of education don’t do enough to develop brand loyalty among their graduates. Most students enroll in order to have their tickets punched and not much more. They may leave with loyalty to their ‘silo’ or their professors, but they have not been sufficiently changed or challenged by the experience in ways that make them loyal graduates (and contributors, as donation records reveal). That can be changed.

Premise No. 6: The time to change is now. Soon many ‘baby boomer’ teachers will be retiring and need to be replaced. The new generation will be digital natives, of course, but they must also be drawn into the profession because it promises opportunities to make a difference (not to ‘raise achievement’ or some other mechanistic formulation). Higher pay will help, but of greater value to teachers are opportunities to collaborate, to develop curriculum and to grow professionally. Colleges and schools of education need to take the lead in attracting this new breed, but they cannot do this by merely making cosmetic changes.

Enough of premises and preaching. Time for specifics.

Training
There are numerous ways in which our current model of teacher training could be more effective.

I suggest a seven-part strategy.

1. “Agents of change and inspiration:” Visits to the campus by people like Sir Ken Robinson and Tim Brown of IDEO, who will spend a week (at the very least) in close contact with students. For this series to be meaningful, the graduate school must host at least five of these thought leaders every year. Each of these bright lights will be paid handsomely for their week and will be expected to be enthusiastic and responsive. This is the epitome and exemplar of “Nimble.”

2. Taking on tenure: A significant number of five-year contracts for men and women who want to do cutting edge work at the intersection of teaching and policy and don’t care about tenure and the accompanying restrictions of that track (publish or perish, do research and so on). While this won’t end tenure, it will reduce the institution’s dependence on tenure and adjunct faculty, which has budget and pedagogical implications. It will also attract a new breed of teacher.

3. A new course for students: A required one-year course for all students, to be recreated each year by leading faculty (including some of the five-year folks in No. 2 above). One year this course (call it something like “The Heart of the Matter”) might focus on neuroscience and the brain, the next year on schooling’s public purpose, and so on. It will be cutting edge. Every education student must take this, but the small group seminars will be arranged randomly and not by department, so that students with different interests are forced to work together. Part of the curriculum will be lectures by the Agents of Change and Inspiration, above. This is not a dreaded ‘core course’ in the History of Education. Instead, it will be new every year, and it will be up to the President or Dean to select the men and women who will work together to create this course. To be chosen will become a badge of honor among faculty. If this is done well, this course will change the thinking and perspective of students (and create the kind of loyalty that, eventually, will be reflected in annual giving).

4. Engagement: All of the school’s graduates must be invited to share in this new curriculum electronically. They will be able to ‘attend’ the lectures by the likes of Sir Ken and others on line. Because these will be scheduled in advance, everyone will be able to submit questions electronically.

5. Necessary changes: Teacher training must change, because the world of education has changed. Prospective teachers must spend more time in real classrooms, working with capable teachers who themselves are not locked into ‘direct instruction’ but who practice collaborative teaching. Since we tend to do what was done to us, future teachers must be taught in ways other than direct instruction. Eliminate lectures on the importance of not lecturing! The job of the teacher of the future is more complex, but their focus will on formulating questions, helping students separate wheat from chaff. Those who train teachers must themselves change. One step would be for their classes to meet AT the public schools where the education students are doing their practicum. And — to repeat myself — much, much more training of the fledgling teachers must occur in real schools!

6. Evaluation: What school districts do now is inadequate, but it’s not enough to be cursing that darkness. Schools and colleges of education need to be in the forefront of developing complex measures of student learning and teacher effectiveness. Teach for America ‘walks back the cat’ to see how well its teachers do. Why can’t schools of education do this?

7. Payment: Because the old way of paying teachers is dying, graduate schools of education must get out in front on this issue as well. They should be able to say “Because you are attending our graduate school, you will be a BETTER teacher, and therefore will make more money under the new system.”

May the nimble and deserving survive and prosper. To the rest, adios, sayonara, farewell.

Editor’s Note: If you live around the New York City area and would like to see John in conversation with Eva Moskowitz and Dave Levin on September 21, click here for tickets.