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For Lasting School Reform, First Look to the Teachers

In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times this weekend, Teachers College President Arthur Levine said that in the search for a quick fix for America's schools, the teacher is often overlooked. For school reform occur, we "have to get serious and put the teacher at the center of any equation to reform education." "Day in and day out," Levine said, "the teacher in the classroom remains the heart of student learning." To provide skilled professionals, Levine said that we need strong schools of education that are not considered to be "the bottom of the academic hierarchy." The article, entitled "For Lasting School Reform, First Look to the Teachers," appeared in the January 30 edition of the LA Times.

America is looking for a quick fix for its schools. But if we really believe

that higher standards, which definitely are needed; better testing, which ideally should assess the full range of student skills and talents; and technology literacy, a vital requirement for the Information Age, will add up to a remedy for what ails far too many of the nation's schools, then we're thinking wrong. Something significant is being left out.

To get it right, we have to get serious and put the teacher at the center of any equation to reform education. That goes for the increasing number of charter schools, the nations' public schools and private schools, sectarian and nonsectarian, supported by vouchers or not. They all must put a priority on teaching. Whatever structural and academic game plan states choose for revitalizing schools will take the revitalization of teaching to succeed.

Since the famed government report of 17 years ago, "A Nation at Risk," which declared in almost apocalyptic terms that America's survival is threatened unless public schools are strengthened, we've managed to focus on reform in a way that too often ignores teaching. Worth noting is the fact that this seminal report never mentioned the word "teacher," even as it triggered a tremendous amount of government legislation that tied improvement to requirements: more of this, more of that, longer days, longer years. Let's not leave the teacher out this time around.

What's essential now is a teacher-reform movement, not to replace or diminish school-reform efforts but to buttress them, to make success more likely. Day in and day out, the teacher in the classroom remains the heart of student learning. It's she or he who translates standards, assessment, curricula, instruction and lessons of the day into action, while bringing creativity and inspiration to the task. Reform will wither on the vine if the teacher is not the primary focus of the agenda.

The key is how well schools of education do in providing professionals who can deliver. It's clear that while excellence is a reality at some schools of education, far too many are less than satisfactory. The latter have caused the belittling of all schools of education and, worse yet, the students who are educated at them and who make a difference in the lives of children. Some critics have gone so far as to say education schools should be shut down, the argument being that it takes no special knowledge other than that of subject matter to teach. So get students with liberal-arts degrees in, say, math, science or history, and turn them loose on schools as teachers. How patently silly.

Following this prescription would turn current school shortcomings into disasters. A good teacher, the kind we want to educate our children, not only needs to know the subject well, but also must know curriculum design; developmental psychology (how and what students learn at different ages);

classroom management (let's see someone function effectively in a class with 30 teenagers or more without this skill); not to mention the fundamentals of pedagogy and the ability to communicate. Anything less diminishes performance in the classroom.

Teacher education is where this all begins. We now have a unique opportunity to provide a new generation of teachers for a new century. More than 2 million teachers will be needed in the next decade due to faculty retirements and burgeoning population growth. Remarkably, given the pay scales, the number of idealistic young people willing to accept the challenges and sacrifices inherent in the profession is the highest it has been in 20 years.

In a society in motion with rapidly expanding knowledge needs, the last thing that should be tolerated is for schools of education to remain lackluster institutions. Indeed, they are where the teacher- reform movement should begin. These schools have to become more academically rigorous, intellectually at the cutting edge and leaders in advancing effective practice. Education schools must not be considered the bottom of the academic hierarchy, well below law, medical and other professional schools on campus. They have to reform themselves to gain status, and thereby give status, to their students- -tomorrow's teachers.

It's late in the day, but not too late. Only consider that in another professional field, medicine, conditions at the beginning of the 20th century were comparable. Then, in 1910, under the auspices of the Carnegie Foundation, an educator named Abraham Flexner carried out a study and wrote a sobering report on medical education, pointing out models of excellence as well as the generally poor quality of U.S. and Canadian medical schools. The Flexner report brought about the closing of bad schools and the strengthening of weak ones. States established more rigorous standards for both doctors and medical schools. Foundations, philanthropists and government invested in better medical schools.

Perhaps we need a Flexner report on schools of education. It may provide the same kind of wake-up call, one that would, finally, lead to the fulfillment of the high-minded goals of school reform.

Op-ed's by President Arthur Levine

This article originally appeared in the LA Times on January 30, 2000

Published Tuesday, Sep. 18, 2001

For Lasting School Reform, First Look to the Teachers

America is looking for a quick fix for its schools. But if we really believe

that higher standards, which definitely are needed; better testing, which ideally should assess the full range of student skills and talents; and technology literacy, a vital requirement for the Information Age, will add up to a remedy for what ails far too many of the nation's schools, then we're thinking wrong. Something significant is being left out.

To get it right, we have to get serious and put the teacher at the center of any equation to reform education. That goes for the increasing number of charter schools, the nations' public schools and private schools, sectarian and nonsectarian, supported by vouchers or not. They all must put a priority on teaching. Whatever structural and academic game plan states choose for revitalizing schools will take the revitalization of teaching to succeed.

Since the famed government report of 17 years ago, "A Nation at Risk," which declared in almost apocalyptic terms that America's survival is threatened unless public schools are strengthened, we've managed to focus on reform in a way that too often ignores teaching. Worth noting is the fact that this seminal report never mentioned the word "teacher," even as it triggered a tremendous amount of government legislation that tied improvement to requirements: more of this, more of that, longer days, longer years. Let's not leave the teacher out this time around.

What's essential now is a teacher-reform movement, not to replace or diminish school-reform efforts but to buttress them, to make success more likely. Day in and day out, the teacher in the classroom remains the heart of student learning. It's she or he who translates standards, assessment, curricula, instruction and lessons of the day into action, while bringing creativity and inspiration to the task. Reform will wither on the vine if the teacher is not the primary focus of the agenda.

The key is how well schools of education do in providing professionals who can deliver. It's clear that while excellence is a reality at some schools of education, far too many are less than satisfactory. The latter have caused the belittling of all schools of education and, worse yet, the students who are educated at them and who make a difference in the lives of children. Some critics have gone so far as to say education schools should be shut down, the argument being that it takes no special knowledge other than that of subject matter to teach. So get students with liberal-arts degrees in, say, math, science or history, and turn them loose on schools as teachers. How patently silly.

Following this prescription would turn current school shortcomings into disasters. A good teacher, the kind we want to educate our children, not only needs to know the subject well, but also must know curriculum design; developmental psychology (how and what students learn at different ages);

classroom management (let's see someone function effectively in a class with 30 teenagers or more without this skill); not to mention the fundamentals of pedagogy and the ability to communicate. Anything less diminishes performance in the classroom.

Teacher education is where this all begins. We now have a unique opportunity to provide a new generation of teachers for a new century. More than 2 million teachers will be needed in the next decade due to faculty retirements and burgeoning population growth. Remarkably, given the pay scales, the number of idealistic young people willing to accept the challenges and sacrifices inherent in the profession is the highest it has been in 20 years.

In a society in motion with rapidly expanding knowledge needs, the last thing that should be tolerated is for schools of education to remain lackluster institutions. Indeed, they are where the teacher- reform movement should begin. These schools have to become more academically rigorous, intellectually at the cutting edge and leaders in advancing effective practice. Education schools must not be considered the bottom of the academic hierarchy, well below law, medical and other professional schools on campus. They have to reform themselves to gain status, and thereby give status, to their students- -tomorrow's teachers.

It's late in the day, but not too late. Only consider that in another professional field, medicine, conditions at the beginning of the 20th century were comparable. Then, in 1910, under the auspices of the Carnegie Foundation, an educator named Abraham Flexner carried out a study and wrote a sobering report on medical education, pointing out models of excellence as well as the generally poor quality of U.S. and Canadian medical schools. The Flexner report brought about the closing of bad schools and the strengthening of weak ones. States established more rigorous standards for both doctors and medical schools. Foundations, philanthropists and government invested in better medical schools.

Perhaps we need a Flexner report on schools of education. It may provide the same kind of wake-up call, one that would, finally, lead to the fulfillment of the high-minded goals of school reform.

Op-ed's by President Arthur Levine

This article originally appeared in the LA Times on January 30, 2000

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