Article, Policy Review
American schools need more teachers. American schools need better teachers. Practically everyone with a stake in the education debate agrees with those two premises. However, there is sharp disagreement as to whether more regulation or less is the way to go.
The differences of perspective begin over just how vital to transmitting knowledge a teacher is. No one is more certain about the overriding importance of a teacher in a child’s academic progress than Tennessee statistician William Sanders, who has developed a value-added instrument that might revolutionize how good teachers are found and rewarded for productive careers.
Speaking before the Metro school board in Nashville in January, Sanders risked friendly fire when he disputed the connection much of the education world makes between poverty and low student performance.
“Of all the factors we study – class size, ethnicity, location, poverty – they all pale to triviality in the face of teacher effectiveness.”
That flies in the face of a widespread conviction in the education Thoughtworld that poverty is a powerful depressant on learning that even the greatest teachers may only partially overcome. As Diane Ravitch documents in her new book, Left Back, education “progressives” long have believed that many children shouldn’t be pushed to absorb knowledge beyond their limited innate capacities; that they are better off with teachers who help them get in touch with their feelings and find a socially useful niche. However, Sanders has volumes of data to back up his contention.
While at the University of Tennessee, Sanders developed a sophisticated longitudinal measurement called value-added assessment that pinpoints how effective each district, school, and teacher has been in raising individual students’ achievement over time. His complex formula factors out demographic variables that often make comparisons problematic. Among other things, he found that students unlucky enough to have a succession of poor teachers are virtually doomed to the education cellar. Three consecutive years of 1st quintile (least effective) teachers in grades 3 to 5 yield math scores from the 35th to 45 percentile. Conversely, three straight years of 5th quintile teachers result in scores at the 85th to 95th percentile.
The state of Tennessee began using value-added assessment in its public schools in 1992, and Sanders is in demand in many other states where legislators are considering importing the system. The “No Excuses” schools identified by an ongoing Heritage Foundation project – high-poverty schools where outstanding pupil achievement defies stereotypes about race and poverty – buttress Sanders’ contention that teaching matters. Consider, for instance, Frederick Douglass Academy, a public school in central Harlem that has a student population 80 percent black and 19 percent Hispanic. The New York Times recently reported that all of Frederick Douglass’ students passed a new, rigorous English Regents exam last year, and 96 percent passed the math Regents. The grades 6-12 school ranks among the top 10 schools in New York City in reading and math, despite having class sizes of 30 to 34. And what makes the difference?
“Committed teachers,” said principal Gregory M. Hodge – teachers, he said, who come to work early, stay late, and call parents if children don’t show up for extra tutoring. The disciplined yet caring climate for learning set by Dr. Hodge and principals of other No Excuses schools also is due much credit.
Those who believe in deregulation of teacher licensing see in value-added assessment a potential breakthrough. Principals (like Dr. Hodge) could hire and evaluate their teachers not necessarily on the basis of credit-hours amassed in professional schools of education but in terms of objective differences instructors make when actually placed before classrooms of children. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation published in April, 1999 a manifesto on teacher quality that argues strongly for a “results-based accountability system,” disaggregated by teacher, along the lines of what Dr. Sanders has devised. However, much of the education establishment has lined up behind the opposing view – that what is needed is much more centralized control of teacher preparation and licensing under the aegis of a single accreditation body that would be controlled to a great extent by the teachers themselves – or, more precisely, their national unions.
The one point on which both camps agree is that the existing system of teacher certification badly needs reform. Hence, a brief look at that system is in order.
Currently, state departments of education and collegiate schools of education are the gatekeepers to teaching careers in America’s public schools. This is a collaboration dedicated to the use of government power to standardize and centralize education, or, in the economist’s lingo, “regulatory capture.” Government licensing agencies that are charged with protecting the public interest are effectively controlled by the interests — in this case, the teacher-trainers — they are supposed to be regulating.
As a result, an aspiring teacher typically must complete a state-approved program of teacher education that is heavy on how-to-teach or pedagogical courses. All 50 states require new teachers to obtain a bachelor’s degree, and all 50 require course work in pedagogy. In some states, the teacher’s degree must be in education, while other states require an academic major but specify that within that degree there must be a considerable number of education courses (about a semester’s worth) and also a period of student teaching (another semester). In addition, many teacher colleges tack on additional training requirements, so that pedagogy can consume well over a year of college. Most states require prospective teachers to pass one or more tests, but these often ask for regurgitation of nostrums taught by education professors.
Critics of the schools of pedagogy are legion. Seventy years ago, H.L. Mencken (never one to mince words) asserted that most pedagogues “have trained themselves to swallow any imaginable fad or folly, and always with enthusiasm. The schools reek with this puerile nonsense.”
In the early 1990s, Rita Kramer took a nationwide tour of leading schools of education from Teachers College at Columbia to the University of Washington and reported in Ed School Follies on the intellectual emptiness of teacher preparation – hours spent on how to teach Tootles the Locomotive with the proper attitude, but precious little depth in history, mathematics, science, or literature. Recently Heather Mac Donald took a close look at ed schools for City Journal and summed up teacher educators’ dogma in the phrase “Anything But Knowledge.” She found teachers of teachers still holding fast to the doctrine laid out in 1925 by Teachers College icon William Heard Kilpatrick to the effect that schools should instill “critical thinking” in children instead of teaching them facts and figures, which (he surmised) they could always look up for themselves as they became “lifelong learners.” Today, Teachers College mandates courses in multicultural diversity and has students act out ways to “usurp the existing power structure.”
Jerry Jesness, a special education teacher in a south Texas elementary school,
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