Sunday, August 13, 2006

If I were Education King for a day

If there is one good thing to No Child Left Behind, it is the notion that there should be a well-qualified teacher in every classroom. Now, what "well-qualified" means, exactly, has been and continues to be debated, but it does sound like a pretty basic component of a good education system to have professionals working with kids who have been trained in their subject areas as well as trained to work with kids in a particular age group. The trouble is, there is evidence that suggests neither is taking place often enough.

For instance, something like a third of all new teachers leave the profession within the first three years of their teaching careers (and half leave after only four years). This begs for several questions to be asked, starting with: If new teachers were properly prepared for what they would be doing with kids in a classroom, would we expect such a large percentage of them to quit the profession in such a short period of time? A second question is: Would such a large percentage of new teachers quit if they had good support in the schools in which they went to work? In my mind, the answer to these questions probably not.

Ever since I went through a certification program twelve years ago, I often think back to those classes and try to figure out what I learned and how much I took awa from those courses, and to this day I can't think of many experiences that were useful to the reality I faced in an inner-city Chicago high school, where I began teaching. And I know for a fact I am not alone in having a severe disconnect between teacher training in college and reality in difficult schools. If I were Education King for a day, I would first get involved with reforming education programs in teaching colleges around the country. One example of reform would be to require professors and instructors who teach teachers how to teach to spend X weeks observing not top suburban schools, but some of the tougher schools in the area. Then, their classes would focus not on psychological theory, but rather the realities of actual classrooms and real problems and issues teachers face consistently, from day to day. Of all my professors I had in teaching certification classes, not a single one had ever taught high school, and I cannot remember any one professor who had spent more than a few days observing high school classes. Many of the courses focused on 'one size fits all' strategies and methodologies. I learned within the first two weeks of student teaching that most of what was taught to me was irrelevant, and that classroom teaching relies on figuring out, quickly, how to use multiple strategies simultaneously because of the range of ability and discipline from one student to the next. Teachers need to be prepared for the worst case scenarios in schools, and not ideal world models that do not exist in most places.

The next thing I would do as Education King would be to focus on teacher mastery of the subjects they are to teach. For instance, science teachers should have at least a semester's worth of actual science research under their belts, so they get a clear understanding of what science really is and how it really is done in a lab, and not just remembering a series of facts. Math teachers should have to take applied math courses in order to be able to explain to students why math is important in and relevant to modern life, so kids don't leave feeling like they simply are being forced to memorize a methodology to solving some type of problem, and then become lost when a slightly different problem (dealing with the same material) comes along. And math teachers should be trained to do simple experiments/hands-on activities where students collect data and use those data in solving a certain set of problems, again to make the math real and relevant.

I am using science and math for the moment largely because I teach science and there are some very good math related posts on Eideneuroloearning Blog. First, they note some reasons why children have difficulties learning math in the first place. A second gets into a comparison between how math is taught in China versus the United States, and also exam results taken by teachers. American teachers did far worse than their Chinese counterparts.

Often a goal of schools is to improve curriculum. Often, however, instruction is forgotten or takes a back seat to curriculum development. Instruction and preparedness is so important, though, that this needs to be the focus, especially in schools that are having academic troubles. One may have a worldclass curriculum, but if the teacher is terrible, it won't matter. Even if resources are limited and the curriculum is not demanding, a good teacher, with strong subject knowledge and preparation, can still work wonders in that situation. And if a teacher cannot answer the question "Why are we studying this?", chances are learning will suffer. There is much to be done to reform and improve education across all age groups and in all schools, and if teachers are not prepared our kids will continue to suffer the consequences. Much of that reform will not happen until we get serious about better teacher training from day 1 in the teacher colleges and universities. Contrary to much popular belief, teaching is far from an easy ob and profession; again, if it is so easy, we shouldn't be losing so many new teachers so quickly at the start of their careers.


mark said...

Agree across the board.

I have a saying about the common administrative mindset in education: "What happens in the classroom is the least important thing we do here!".

The unwillingness to systemically invest -I mean *invest* - budgets and more importantly, professional teacher time, in instructional preparation and on-task instructional time is extreme. Literally, everything else is a greater priority over the central reason for which the system has been created.

First, there is the view that teachers would " waste" such time that would be better employed in noninstructional supervision of students in order to reduce the overall payroll.

Secondly, what "off" time is allotted, usually the minimum mandated by the State for staff development, is usually given over to mandatory staff meetings dealing with non-instructional issues. Granted some of these issues also reflect State mandates but the amount of time-wasting administrative "filler" created to occupy this minimal stsaff development time is a joke.

There are exceptions, some administrators are very cognizant of improving the depth of teaching subject matter but they are the exception. The administrative focus as a nationally discrete class is generally elsewhere, where their own priorities exist; and usually having all the decision-making power, that's where the system invests.

The incentives and the structure of the American educational system is ass-backwards.

vonny said...

Likewise, I agree with your comments. At Evanston, we have begun to have substantial time to meet and plan, and I think it will certainly have a good return for the students, which is what this is all about anyhow.

I would also like to see more collaboration between different departments in schools. We can learn a great deal from each other, even if content is completely different...especially if we have common students.

Good luck preparing for the new year, and talk with you soon, bud.