Article published in The Providence Journal
1965 was a big year for education enactments. As part of LBJ’s Great Society, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Higher Education Act (HEA). ESEA and HEA were not linked. Policies affecting higher education and the primary schools rarely are. They operate in separate universes.
In that same pivotal year, 1965, James D. Koerner authored “The Miseducation of American Teachers,” which clearly established the connection between a segment of higher education – the teacher-training schools – and the intellectual caliber of public elementary and secondary education.
Koerner, a leader of a back-to-the-basics advocacy group called the Council for Basic Education, identified the circular nature of the problem: “A weak faculty operates a weak program that attracts weak students.” He and other critics up to the present have documented a dominant view among the universities’ teacher-trainers that future teachers should not be transmitters of knowledge but rather “facilitators” of student discovery, even when students don’t know much.
Now, a strong bid is underway on Capitol Hill to use the 2003 reauthorization of the 1965 HEA to pressure universities, along with their 1,200 schools of education, and state departments of education to demonstrate they are producing teachers who know their subjects. Proposed legislation also would provide incentives for programs that make teachers of bright people who never attended a school of education.
The move to challenge this closed system is bipartisan, and traces to 1998, when, on the heels of a finding that 59 percent of Massachusetts’ teacher candidates failed a 10th-grade-level licensing test, President Clinton signed into law an HEA reauthorization requiring the schools of education to report their graduates’ passing rates on state examinations.
However, some institutions exploited a loophole: They reported their candidates who passed the required coursework and then passed the state exams, but neglected to report those who passed the courses but failed the state exams. Hence, they claimed 100 percent passing rates, an assertion at odds with real performance and common sense.
The House Education and the Workforce Committee has approved without dissent a new reauthorization that is intended not only to tighten the reporting of ed-school data but also to stimulate sweeping reform. Led by Georgia Republican Phil Gingrey, Congressional reformers seek to explicitly align collegiate teacher-training programs with the results-oriented No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the K-12 reform package signed into law by President Bush in 2001 that mandates a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom by the 2005-06 school year.
One of the reform incentives under consideration would fund “charter colleges of education” similar to K-12 charter schools. The innovative ed-schools could disdain the conventional counting of education credits in favor of “value-added” assessments showing that their graduates actually increase student academic achievement.
Federal grants would go to states and education partnerships that ensured teacher preparation programs were based on “rigorous academic content, scientifically based research (including scientifically based reading research), and challenging State student academic content standards.”
Surveys have shown that relatively few schools of education teach aspiring teachers how to use phonics in teaching their pupils how to read. Because extensive research establishes that teacher-directed instruction and phonics are essential for most students, the intent of the HEA reauthorizers to shake up teacher education is evident.
In addition, federal incentives would reward states that, among other steps, (1) set up alternate routes to the classroom that enable mid-career professionals to become teachers without encountering process-filled barriers, (2) develop merit pay for exemplary performance as well as differential pay for principals, teachers of hard-to-fill subjects such as reading, math, science, and special education, (3) develop teacher advancement and retention strategies, and (4) produce mechanisms to ensure that local school systems can expeditiously remove incompetent teachers.
The federal government has no constitutional role in prescribing curriculum on any level of education. However, it is reasonable for federal aid to go to states and institutions that seek to break the cycle of notoriously weak teacher preparation. At long last, the ground broken in 1965 may bear fruit for American education.
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