Tuesday, February 12, 2013

To Fix Public Education


I've been asked several times what I think the number one problem in public education is. More specifically I've been asked if I could change one thing about public education what would that be. Most people are going to assume that I would said we need to get rid of standardized testing or get rid of homework or get rid of the bloated curriculum the we are required to teach. Some might think I would say we need more technology or that every kid should have access to a device every single day they are in school. Any one of those ideas would be worthy of discussion and certainly have been. However, if we want to make real change in education I think we may have to start at square one. By square one I am referring to our teacher preparation programs.

You don't have to look very far to see first year teachers in classrooms with the deer in the headlights look. Many of them are ill prepared for the challenges of the daily job of a classroom teacher and are frankly scared out of their mind. Now that's not to say that the colleges and universities are not doing the best they can. However, what they are doing is just not good enough anymore.

For starter, let’s look at the time these individuals actually have to practice the art of teaching. How long are most student teaching experiences and how many hours are preservice teachers required to be in a classroom before they student teach? While this number varies greatly, a majority of student teaching experiences last one semester. If the college or university is on trimesters, the time is significantly shorter. While many other professions require intense internships, why is that teachers do not? Why do we not have a minimum requirement of a one-year internship for all teachers? What better way to prepare them for their first year then by giving them a first year with an experienced mentor teacher?

Another issue that comes to mind is that way in which preservice teachers are pushed on through the program regardless of their abilities. I have seen first hand student teachers that should not be left alone in a classroom with children and leave me scratching my head about how they made it this far. Why is it that we feel an obligation to push these students through even though they are not cut out for the job? Are we feeling we owe it to them because they have invested an insane amount of tuition money? Should we push a student through just because they have put their time in and “earned” it? Why not give them more experience earlier in programs and provide more critical feedback to help improve these future teachers or provide them an opportunity to seek another career path?

One issue that may not win me many fans is with the college professors themselves. Frankly, a lot of these professors are poor teachers. For me, I was a history degree major when I was studying in my undergrad. I will tell you I had some of the most brilliant historians teach my history classes. Yet being a master of history does not make you a good teacher. Nearly every single professor I had stood and delivered everyday, every class for four years. Any teacher work their paycheck knows that is not good pedagogy and certainly won’t work in a K-12 environment. Again these people were brilliant historians and scientists and mathematicians but they were not trained as teachers.

Education professors by in large are working on a model that has existed for 100 years and are continuing to perpetuate these ideals through their undergrad and even graduate programs. While the professors are pushing methods and procedures thought best practice in the 1920s, our future teachers are not in touch with current trends or movements. Do we have a place for healthy debate about educational theory in practice in our undergraduate programs? Should we? Are we more concerned about the way in which a college senior is writing a lesson plan or about what they believe about student learning and instructional practice? That is not to even mention the lack of technology training that is a whole issue unto itself.

If we want to change the system of public education in this country, it has to start at the college and university level. These are the students that will come out to be the future teachers in our country. These are the ones that have not been jaded or beat down by curriculum or incompetent administrators. They have yet to be burdened with education politics or incessant hoop jumping. Colleges and universities have a tremendous opportunity to do this.

We don’t need programs like Teach for America or any other one-stop shop cookie cutter convenient drive thru teacher prep programs. We need colleges to adapt to the changing landscape of public education. Colleges have value and have a place in preserving education in America and pushing it to where it should be.
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