A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Education Schools-- Are They Relevant?

Over at Jenny D's place there have been a few people trying to have a discussion about the efficacy as well as the relevance of education schools, plus a lot of other people trying to call each other names. Nonetheless, a commenter named Elizabeth posted the following question/comment:
Help me with something. What makes ed schools so special? In all seriousness are ed schools truly needed and if so, why? Why can students not have a liberal arts major and an education minor, student teach and then go into the classroom with full knowledge of the subject they are teaching. I guess a better question might be if I were to be a teacher what classes do I take as an undergrad and how many (and which) of those classes are truly meaningful and challenging? Which of the classes truly prepare me to teach?
...Just something I have wondered about -- Today, it might help more people want to become teachers if they could teach something they were passionate about. Again, I do not know what classes education majors are required to take.

This is a serious question that deserves careful consideration, by people who have been in education schools and then tested out the theories taught there in the classroom. Unfortunately, serious and civil discussion is all too lacking. So let's try. Here's an expanded version of a comment I made:

The program that I went through lo, many years ago, had education as a minor. I had the equivalent of a full bachelor's in English. I graduated with 145 credit hours.

Nonetheless, precious little in many of my education classes addressed the real nuts and bolts of teaching as it really is. I thought I had been prepared. I hadn't.

It took experience for me to become a good teacher. For instance, I saw that my students had little of what Robert Marzano calls Background Knowledge but I called Frame of Reference-- a common language of ideas, concepts and vocabulary to help make sense of allusions in both fictional and non-fictional reading selections.

My students didn't understand terms such as "Achilles' heel," "having a cross to bear," or "Eureka," -- they thought that last one was a nearby town. They didn't know that Snow White had a sister named Rose Red and that there was one dwarf and he was mean. They didn't know what "indivisible" meant although they said it every day. They didn't know that Wednesday is spelled weird because it's named after Wodin. I was told that students should only read out of their basal reader, (like many of the people who now drone on and on about Direct Instruction insist will work.) I made sure the kids read that and that we discussed it, but I also slipped in fairy tales, mythology, poetry, drama, Bible stories-- this was a Catholic school. I taught them their disjointed spelling words but also Greek and Latin roots and affixes so that they could decode words for themselves in the sciences, in mathematics, in music. You get the idea, and I don't want to go on and on and on. It was teaching as a subversive activity! When the principal saw the improved test scores, she thought it was due to the basal reader, but oh, well. The scores might have been even better if school discipline had been predicated upon something other than an inverse relation between family income and consistent behavioral expectations, too, but that's another topic.

I saw that there is a place for memorization as well as a place for creativity in a child's education. I saw that moderation in educational trends is key. It doesn't have to be "whole language" versus "hooked on phonics"-- they need both! It wasn't "Writing Workshop" verus "Drill and Kill"-- they need time to be imaginative but they also need structure, not to mention exposure to great literature as well as high-interest young adult stuff.

Unfortunately none of that was really the subject of ed school. And a little more practical discussion of discipline and motivation issues would have been great, too.

I think the big question today is how to motivate students to want to craft their own educations-- for education can not be handed to you or forced upon you, nor can you be tricked or bribed into it. It's not always going to be "fun," or entertainment, but it's should never be mindless worksheet completion. It MUST be demanding, which means it is often going to be uncomfortable and, like all things worthwhile, a struggle. Our society today-- especially many students, some parents, and sadly some educators-- believe that education can be delivered to someone like a cheeseburger on a plate: simply put it in front of the kid, and they'll wolf it down. A more troubling question is why some students don't believe that their education is worthy of as many hours of practice as their jump shots. But ed school didn't really give me an idea of HOW to do this high-wire act and solve problems like that.

We live in a society that SAYS that education is important yet looks with suspicion upon those who are intellectual or who would rather read than watch Survivor: Cutthroat Caribbean. We say education is important but vilify teachers as the Root Of All Evil. Teaching is one of the oldest of human activities and yet the least understood. The goofball in me wants to wisecrack that good teaching is like the famous quote about pornography: "I know it when I see it." But good teaching is an art, hopefully art that looks like this

and not like this

It is currently all the rage in our society to paint a picture of abject failure in public education because that supports some personal political goal like the perpetual Cassandras who talk about some "good old days" in which American education was so much better. To them, 2/3 of students are illiterate monkeys who can't add 2+4 but feel good about themselves. To them, teachers are organ-grinders for the monkeys, involved in a nefarious plot to further the cause of ignorance everywhere in order to cover up the fact that teachers themselves were the poorest students. Never mind that if that were true, we certainly wouldn't be facing a teacher shortage right now, would we?

But anyway, education schools, just like America as a whole, suffer from the Flavor of the Month Syndrome. Has anyone really considered that part of the problem with students' reading and math abilities on tests might be that there has been, for instance, aboout six kinds of "New" math and language arts theories introduced-- and jettisoned--since I was in school as a wee lass?

There's always THE NEXT BIG THING in education. The current BIG THING is teaching students as individuals now-- individualized instruction, for example, and IEPs-- as increasingly my class sizes bloat because my students' test scores are pretty good and my minutes per class shrinks as we try to rejigger the limited school day to meet AYP and still have a championship football team. (As fat as I've become, there's still not enough of me to go around! ) Then we give kids a one-size-doesn't-fit-all test. Those who care about education fail to see that primary disconnect, among others.

Test scores are a flawed indicator when standing alone. For instance, when I was in high school I got a 36 on the ACT in science. My science teacher and I laughed ourselves SICK over that one. It was all about vocabulary-- which I DID have-- versus science knowledge, which was hit-or-miss in my case, unless you count a passion for geology and botany but a loathing of chemistry. That's the objection many of us have against some very unreliable tests that we have had to administer.

Many of the people who propose charter schools-- free schools from intrusive government regulation and bureaucracy!-- ladle ever more layers of bureaucracy onto public schools like ugly on an ape with the very next breath. Many people who want to get reimbursements from tax dollars to send their children to private school nonetheless really don't want to see the exclusivity of those schools dropped if vouchers meaningfully give everyone the means to attend those same private schools. And if you think I'm exaggerating about this possibility, see what a massive infusion of government dollars into higher education known as the GI Bill did to the exclusivity of a college degree in this country from 1945 to 1960, people. Education schools also do not do any real investigation into these questions. I do know that several of the charter schools around here have seen failure to raise test scores themselves, not to mention the ones who have "lost" hundreds of thousands of the taxpayers' money due to that vaunted "relaxed accountability."

Many have suggested that teachers have a bachelor's in a subject and then have graduate degrees to become teachers. I know several teachers who have done that. I personally could not have afforded that option, especially considering that my first teaching job paid the whopping sum of just less than $11,000 a year in a Catholic school. No room for more student loans there. (Hell, no room for health care much less insurance, or even Hamburger Helper, either!)

I do teach what I am passionate about. I do think that many education schools are totally disconnected from the reality of life in the classroom. But you also can't just throw someone who is "passionate" in there, either, even "passionate and strong in content" if they drone like bees when they talk or don't know what to do with young Jezebel if she disrupts the learning chances for others. Some research into cognitive development a bit more recent than Piaget would be good for prospective teachers to learn. Time to actually engage in reflective practice as both a pre-teacher and as a practicing teacher would certainly go a long way if teachers were not shoehorned into a thousand disjointed meetings every time we have a "staff development" day. I think teachers should constantly be seeking to perfect their craft. I think teachers should be primarily able to focus on teaching and that schools should be primarily about learning. Simple enough, right?


Once you get a credential to teach, no matter what you call it, the journey has just begun. If teacher development in this country encouraged this, any number of sins of omission or commission in education schools could probably be ameliorated. If we backed up our supposed support of education with actual deeds and respect, that might go even further.

Oh, and did I mention I would also like to not have to purchase my own dry-erase markers?? Just a thought.


At 3/31/06, 6:07 AM, Blogger Mike in Texas said...

I'm susupicious of the call for the reform of ed schools, as the same people doing the calling are supporting NCLB and the 65% delusion.

I am a graduate of an outstanding program, where I spent hundreds of hours in internships learning from experienced teachers, so it is hard for me to see a reason to change things.

At 3/31/06, 7:01 AM, Blogger Jenny D. said...

I think this is wonderful. I'm tempted to make everyone at my ed school read it. Thank you for the insight. You're my next post.

At 3/31/06, 7:15 AM, Blogger Jenny D. said...

One question that still nags though is about the "frame of reference." We talk a lot about that at my ed school, and also about solutions.

One problem that comes up is in the response of young teachers to a student's lack of knowledge of phrases based on literary knowledge. Or another example is of first graders in an high-poverty, urban area who don't know anything about camping.

We at the Ed School believe that some teachers see this lack of background knowledge as an indication of lack of intelligence, rather than lack of knowledge. We spend time trying to teach young teachers to see it as "different" knowledge, and use whatever is there as a place to start building better frames.

I wonder if that assumption is correct, that young teachers take that stance. What do you think?

At 3/31/06, 8:42 AM, Blogger NATHAN D WILSON said...

Youth, Culture and Religion

The Reverend Nathan Day Wilson will deliver the 2006 Rockefeller Lecture on Youth, Culture and Religion. The title of his lecture is "Caught and Taught: The Art of Generating Faith with Older Adolescents."

"Nathan is relentlessly curious and an engaging speaker," said Dr. Benjamin Woods, the Dottie M. Rae Chair of Classics.

At 3/31/06, 9:10 AM, Blogger Amerloc said...

Outstanding post, Ms. C. Thank you. I wonder when the NEXT BIG THING will actually be moderation...

At 3/31/06, 11:58 AM, Blogger KDeRosa said...


At 3/31/06, 1:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really don't want to type this but...

What are Ed Schools??

I went to JennyD's page and could not find the original post.

I am thinking that you all are talking about first time college students (like my twins, 20) who go off and get a B.A. in elementary ed (right now, I'm talking this very MINUTE, in our state results in a K-8 teaching certificate).

And I'm also thinking that there is a desire (could it be the next Big Thing, because it might be in our state) for the teacher to have a degree in, science, math, history or english literature, and another degree in educational theory and practice? B.A. or M.A.?

Also wondering how this would serve the elementary student who has one teacher covering all subjects?

I am a midlife teacher. I have a B.A. in Communications awarded at the tender age of 23. I have 20 years of experience with children, three of my own and all their friends.

I am now in a master's program. K-8 (unless the state makes their move, the subject of much anxiety for those of us who want to teach middle school). My classmates all have B.A. or B.S in math, chemistry, english literature, accounting, religious studies, police science, fine arts, business... a wide range of degrees. We range in age from 25 to 50-something. Most of us have children. We have two grandmothers.

All our teachers have years and years of experience in the classroom. About half of them are current teachers and half are retired after 25-30 years of experience. I think we are getting a stellar education. We are getting lots of current theory balanced with lots of in the trenches advice. We also have long discussions about how to marry best practices (and are they really the best?) in teaching with the current NCLB testing climate.
We will do our student teaching next fall. Many of us are working as emergency subs right now.

So what say you all? Are we going to be an asset to the classroom?
Are we missing something?

At 3/31/06, 4:43 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Mike, I think you are lucky. I am also suspicious. But while I was in college, our Ed school WAS abolished. Having said that, though, I think many schools of education could do a far better job of preparing teachers for their life in the classroom. I also wonder what any change at ed schools would do to the principals and administrators? No one seems to mention that.

Jenny, thank you for the very kind words and the link. I understand completely what you are saying. I have observed some of the same things myself. It seems to be lack of experience. There is also debate over whether intelligence is immutable, not to mention debate about the difference between knowledge and intelligence.

Ken, grow up.

Allen, I believe that Jenny D made an observation, which is a perfectly valid way to gather information. I expect posters to be polite. Knock it off-- use your own blog to be rude, where that rudeness can then be ignored or not as the public sees fit.

Amerloc, thanks a bunch. How are your humans doing?

I'll be honest-- I am certified to teach in secondary level schools. It is great that you have people with practical experience leading your classes toward certification. This certainly was not the case in my certification classes.

I worry about students not being exposed to enough content in the lower grades, I'll be honest with you, which is a concern I have with the generalist degrees in elementary education I have seen. I taught in middle schools for many years, and this was a big concern. As the number of specialists dwindled in the middle school, there was much less emphasis of content knowledge and more emphasis on affective development. I don't think we have three years to allow students to coast intellectually before they enter high school. As hormonal as they are, I believe middle school students are also capable of actually learning content, too.

I also think that much of this debate about teacher education is not fueled by a sincere concern to improve matters in American education but to advance personal agenda, not to mention some people just like to hear themselves sound like Rush Limbaugh.

I would like to see more reflection and less jumping to conclusions when talking about what to do when it comes to changing course in education-- that has to do with my criticism of the NEXT BIG THING.

At 3/31/06, 6:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why do you suppose education is so prone to The Next Big Thing?

At 3/31/06, 10:28 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

I am not sure.

But think about this: our society is addicted to THE NEXT BIG THING. Perhaps since education is a topic that affects everyone, this effect is exacerbated.

What I keep thinking about, though, is that as long as there have been humans living in groups, there has been education. Everyone thinks that they can teach. However, some are obviously better than others. I would like to see us be able to take seriously the improvement of teaching and find a way as a society to really value education.

What a Pollyanna I am!

At 3/31/06, 11:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We're probably always looking for the magical solution. A new study, a new pill, a new detergent, a new diet. (I'm a total sucker for new diet magazine headlines and I KNOW better!)

At 4/1/06, 12:51 PM, Blogger Smithie said...

Your post captures the subtleties of real teaching beautifully…thank you.

Why does the idea of balance in teaching scare the crap out of people? Sorry, but when it comes to teaching Curly was wrong…there ain’t no “one thing”.

Your post has inspired me to get all reflective on my own Ed school experience.

At 4/1/06, 1:49 PM, Blogger Dan Edwards said...

Ms C., Good post. I will continue to advocate that wannabe teachers get into classrooms with experienced teachers and actually work. This cannot be done sitting in a university classroom. Then, after earning their credential and get their first teaching job, they should not be just thrown into their own classroom to sink or swim. State Legislatures need to provide the funds to ensure mentor teachers to actively assist these new teachers. This might help with the retention of new teachers, and probably at a lesser cost to the taxpayers than having to constantly have school administrators searching for teachers to fill vacancies at their schools.

One of the many interesting topics to be found in the edublogosphere!

At 4/2/06, 12:02 PM, Blogger graycie said...

Way back -- when we hauled stone tablets and chisels to class on which to take notes -- ed classes were useless. One of mine taught us that a totalitarianism (which we practiced pronouncing) was a form of government that told you what you wuld do as a career, but that a democracy (which we also practiced pronouncing) allowed a citizen freedom to do what htey wanted. Student teaching wasn't helpful -- but it was brutally efficient: on the fourth day, my supervising teacher went for coffee and I didn't see him again for six weeks.

What I've seen of young teachers over the last decade is that they get much much more -- and are much better prepared in terms os of both content mastery and teaching skills.

I tend to agree with Polski: there is nothing at all like time in real classrooms.

At 4/2/06, 2:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I first looked into teaching while working in social services. I was teaching sex ed to juvenile offenders and found the experience rewarding.
The first thing the U did was send you to a school to volunteer. I worked in a second grade classroom, twice a week, for half a year. Great plan. Then along came the twins and we tabled the second degree project for a while.

Now my grad program encourages us to get into the classroom as much as possible. Each teacher has different requirements for classroom observation. Some of us work as emergency subs, others as paraeducators and others have years of volunteering in the schools.

Real classroom experience beats ALL!

At 4/2/06, 9:39 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Yes, I think the only thing that saved me was the number of hours we were expected to either observe or teach in the classroom. Several of the practicum teachers I have had attend a program which requires them to do the full time teaching for only four weeks, though. This concerns me. Four weeks is barely enough time to establish a rhythm, but not enough to work out the kinks.

At 4/3/06, 9:24 PM, Blogger Mike in Texas said...

The program I went to involved 3 levels of internships.

Level I - we were required to spend 6 hours a week in an elementary school classroom doing whatever the teacher told us. This was a requirement in the first semester you were officially accepted into the program, so that you knew exactly what you were getting into.

Level II - the semester before we graduated. We were required to teach 3 hours a day, 4 days a week under the supervision of an experienced teacher.

Level III - the final semester. However, we did not have the typical student teaching experience. We were required to begin working when the teacher began. If you were doing this in August you started back when your supervising teacher started and sat through all of the first week's activities the teachers went through in preparing for the school year. If you started in January you began when the teacher came back from Christmas break.

At 4/5/06, 4:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really, I admit that some on the "other" side are villifying teachers and making them out to be a bunch of dummies worried only about self esteem of children. But the other side loves to paint those of us for vouchers and charter schools as selfish elitists or political opportunists...

All many of us want is a flexible educational system that provides choices for parents and students. Regardless of how good ed schools are or will be, there will still be differences in opinion in what exactly constitutes an "education". And those differences are not just between parents, but also between teachers. Wouldn't a teacher like the opportunity to "shop" schools and find the one closest to her philosophy of education?

It's the monolithic nature of the public school system and ed school group think that drives some of us crazy. Why should the producer have all the say (and only one say, at that), and not the consumer?

At 4/5/06, 5:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I received a B.A. in math umpteen years ago, but I just recently went back to school to get my certification. The program I was involved in was not particularly onerous (12 of my 18 hours were earned online), but it was also not particularly helpful either ("Principles and Philosophies of the Multicultural Curriculum", etc.). I had one class on "classroom management" but the only bright spot in that was Harry Wong's "First Days of School".

After my online classes, I spent six weeks in a high school and seven weeks in a middle school. That was more useful than any of the classwork had been.

I can't really say what, if any, value I received from my ed school, but I highly recommend some type of practicum before teachers are certified.

At 4/5/06, 7:57 PM, Blogger Fred said...

Thanks for this truly enjoyable rant.

By the way, have you noticed the overall skull pattern in Michaelangelo's Last Judgement?

At 4/8/06, 10:21 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Noooooo. Maybe my eyesight isn't what it used to be....
Enlighten me?

So did anyone catch what the second painting is?


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