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12 September 2015 @ 11:03 am
Bash-ful  
I know I am not perfect. I know the education system is not perfect. I happen to believe that precious little is perfect. But when I see someone within my own profession sling arrows, it gets my dander up (and here is a link to the origin of that phrase: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/get-your-dander-up.html). My friend Donalyn Miller sent me a link recently to an op ed i the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/08/opinion/teachers-arent-dumb.html?smid=tw-nytopinion&smtyp=cur&_r=0. The title TEACHERS AREN'T DUMB was an intriguing one. "Aha!" I thought. Here is someone who will quiet the critics. Boy was I wrong. The op ed piece begins with incredible generalizations such as: "But the problem in American education is not dumb teachers. The problem is dumb teacher training." And then it goes downhill from there.

I have worked in a college of education for more than 25 years now. First, we do not TRAIN teachers (please see previous blog post about the idea that we can be trained), we EDUCATE them and PREPARE them for the classroom as best we can. No program, however field-based it is, can prepare and educate teachers for every eventuality. But I do not want to pause too long this early in this opinion piece as there is so much more to discuss.

I agree with Willingham that teachers need content knowledge and a knowledge of how to work effectively with students. Where we part is on the research he offers, research that has been discredited by others in the field. However, it is the research often cited by the reformist movement. You know those folks, right? They are the critics who have never taught one day and yet believe themselves to be experts.

So the research cited here has to do with reading teachers being unable to isolate phonemes, teachers who struggled with morphemes. I guess if this is the gold standard for reading teachers, many of us would fail. This idea that reading is about phonological awareness just fails miserably when it comes to what teachers should know. And I would argue that someone who can define the terms Willingham finds so essential might not be someone who can take that knowledge and decide when or even IF it applies to instruction.

But Willingham goes on to suggest a way to determine if teachers have been trained well: "A more direct measure of teacher training is to test, at graduation, whether a teacher has learned what he or she was meant to learn." We call that certification here in Texas (and I know it exists in other states as well). To suggest we need a system in place indicates to me that someone is unaware of the certification exams that do exist. All of our students have to pass the TExES in order to be certified to teach in Texas. And the universities are held accountable in this process: our passing rates determine whether or not we maintain our accreditation. This holds true for undergraduate and graduate programs.

The op-ed concludes: "Much of what makes a teacher great is hard to teach, but some methods of classroom instruction have been scientifically tested and validated. Teachers who don’t know these methods are not stupid; they’ve been left in the dark." Parsing a bit here.

1. Yes, much of what makes teachers great is hard to teach. It is hard to measure as well. How do we, then, make lists of what to include? And what will the states do when colleges of education want more credit hours to prepare students? I wonder if the author knows that education hours have been slashed in Texas and why? I am betting he does not.

2. Scientifically validated instructional techniques have been the way that, in the past 25 years or so, programs that talked about whole language or the reading writing workshop approach have been bashed to bits by those folks who want to go back to morphology and phonics and skill, drill, kill techniques. Their "research" does not hold up under close scrutiny either.

3. As for teachers being in the dark, I know that when I graduated with my undergrad degree, there was much I still had to learn. No amount of field-based work or classroom work or even reading of research would have prepared me to deal with some of the situations in which I found myself. I do know that today's grads from our program have a better grasp of working with diverse students, dealing with behavior more effectively, etc. I think the teacher education programs have come increasingly better. What has declined is the environment in which these newly minted teachers are having their autonomy stripped from them. They are handed the day-to-day script for their classrooms and forced to engage in mindless test-prep and idiotic "methods" that fly directly into the face of their education.

So, I agree that teachers are not dumb. Nor are the teacher education programs to blame. Rather, I would point a finger (or maybe many fingers) at the reduction of teaching to rote drills so that test scores can be published and politicians and real estate developers can brag about how good the schools are. The reality is, of course, that test scores tell us little beyond how kids performed on one "assessment" on any given day.

Enough. Time to climb off the soapbox. And time to dive into a good book. You see, I may not be able to identify all of the phonemes, but I sure as heck can tell you about the book beyond the four corners of the page. Maybe that means I am dumb? I think it means I am a reader. And that is what is key for teaching my students.
 
 
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