Thursday, August 04, 2005

Why oh why can't we have more Emporia States? 

Should education schools be like medical schools, working student-teachers for long hours between pedagogy and subject matter? In the New York Times we learn that Emporia State outside of Kansas City has been cracking the whip:

"Teacher education on this campus is one of the more rigorous majors," says Teresa Mehring, dean of the teachers' college, pulling out the ACT scores of entering students to prove a point that most education deans would be hard-pressed to make and defend.

A visit to classes suggests that raw material is not the only difference. The Emporia State curriculum is heavy on traditional courses like "Using Children's Literature in the Elementary Classroom" and "Reading for the Elementary Teacher." The college's plain-spoken mission statement: "To develop the professional: critical thinker, creative planner and effective practitioner."

If Emporia State is a throwback to an earlier time, when preparing teachers for the classroom was a high calling, it is also a reminder of how many teachers' colleges have strayed from the central mission of the normal school. For decades, education schools have gravitated from the practical side of teaching, seduced by large ideas like "building a caring learning community and culture" and "advocating for social justice," to borrow from the literature of the Hunter College School of Education, part of the City University of New York. With the ambition of producing educators rather than technicians, in the words of Hunter's acting dean, Shirley Cohen, schools have embraced a theoretical approach. But critics say that ill prepares teachers to function effectively in the classroom.

The SCSU College of Education has a conceptual framework which must be good, because I can't understand what it says. But I'm told that it's based on "The Educator as Transformative Professional." It has seven "knowledge arenas", of which subject matter is only one (at least it's first). The College's Teacher Development department says:

Our Statement of Philosophy commits us to principles which guide a democratic community and emphasizes critical thinking, problem solving, and the importance of students becoming active participants in their own professional development.
Meanwhile, students at Emporia are being drilled to learn whether or not they are cut out as teachers, facing the statistic that one in seven teachers leave the field after their first year teaching.

At Emporia State, undergraduates spend their entire senior year in surrounding school districts, including Olathe, Topeka and Kansas City. They are assigned to observe or teach classes during regular school hours. They take college classes after hours in the districts they are assigned to, not on campus. By the second semester, they are expected to function as head teachers. Supervising professors know the curriculum of those districts as well as any district employee. "I know Olathe's program inside out," says Tara Azwell, a professor who until recently supervised students there. "I could step into any classroom and teach it."

Ms. Azwell says medical training is a good analogy for what Emporia State interns go through. "They get no sleep," she says. "They're working 24 hours a day. There are those who have no money because they can't work a job, so they're not eating. They're in a classroom 8 to 4 every day. They really think they're going to die.

The NYT article makes clear that SCSU is the norm, and Emporia is the exception. a report published last year that put many educators on the defensive, researchers found that top education schools were not equipping their students to deal with the standards movement - nor giving them an understanding, going back to classical sources like Plato and Aristotle, of what constitutes an educated person.

David M. Steiner, co-author of the report, is director of arts education at the National Endowment for the Arts and on leave as department chairman in educational administration, training and policy studies at Boston University. With his associate Susan D. Rozen, he reviewed the curriculums of 16 teachers' colleges, 14 of them among the nation's best, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report.

Since there is little data on which educational approach translates into effective teaching, they looked for a balance in material. Instead, they found little effort to present opposing schools of thought.

The general posture of education schools, they concluded, was countercultural, instilling mistrust of the system that teachers work in. Among the texts most often assigned were Jonathan Kozol's "Savage Inequalities," an indictment of schooling in poor urban neighborhoods, and writings by Paulo Freire, who advocates education to achieve political liberation. Theories of how children learn, like the multiple learning styles advocated by Howard Gardner of Harvard, were more likely to be taught than what children should learn, like the Core Knowledge curriculum advanced by E. D. Hirsch, a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia.

prospective teachers were not being taught methods that would help their students do well on standardized tests. Most texts used to teach reading had been written by proponents of whole language methods, and there was only fleeting exposure to the kinds of scripted, phonics-based curriculums, like Open Court, that are increasingly being adopted in the nation's schools.

"There is a vision here," Dr. Steiner said in an interview, "and it's all just one vision. It is a synthesis of what we call the progressivist vision and the constructivist vision" - that is, the theory that it is better for children to construct knowledge than to receive it.

But, he added, "The counterview has an equal and much longer tradition - the responsibility to engage the student, but to engage the student as the authority." To suggestions that his report was itself ideological, and conservative, Dr. Steiner says he's actually an old-fashioned liberal.

Bless him, Dr. Steiner is about to become dean of the ed school at Hunter College. Hope he gets them on the path.

Relatedly, James Seaton in OpinionJournal today attacks effectively the focus in literary studies on Theory. The language of Theory is not just confusing like our college's conceptual framework: It's just blather.

Homi Bhaba, a major theorist, refers to "the desperate effort to 'normalize' formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality." (Whatever that may mean.) The theorist Luce Irigaray asks more clearly, though not more cogently: "Is E=MC� a sexed equation? Perhaps it is. Let us make the hypothesis that it is insofar as it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to me to indicate the possibly sexed nature of the equation is not directly its use by nuclear weapons, rather it is having privileged what goes the fastest."
Don't laugh too hard. The people who write this drivel are teaching your kids' English teachers,when they're not learning "An exploration and critical analysis of education as a political endeavor within particular historical and sociological contexts." or "An exploration of the social, political and economic context - television, internet, film, day care, community, graffito, advertising and schools - within which reading and writing develop."