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Lessons—Rx for Nation’s Troubled Teacher Colleges Is Medicine, Not Poison

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON MARCH 29, 2000]

Rx for Nation’s Troubled Teacher Colleges Is Medicine, Not Poison

By Richard Rothstein

Everyone agrees we need better teachers, but there is little consensus about how to get them.

Conservative advocates like Chester Finn, who was President Ronald Reagan’s assistant education secretary, think schools of education actually reduce teacher quality. Able candidates, he says, will shun teaching if they are forced to waste time and money in methods courses.

Dr. Finn argues that schools can improve only by hiring graduates with degrees in academic subjects. He wants to abolish almost all certification rules (he would keep criminal background checks). To improve math and reading scores, he thinks schools should simply hire teachers who are better at math and English. Summer programs on classroom management, plus on-the-job training (and a threat of dismissal if test scores stay low) should suffice to turn bright college graduates into teachers.

Prof. Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University disagrees. Bright graduates may make good teachers, she says, but not without extensive preparation, especially when we have growing performance expectations of even the most difficult children to educate.

Indeed, she suggests, academically proficient young adults who become teachers without formal training may start with a disadvantage. Because they never had difficulty learning themselves, they often cannot figure out why their lessons do not succeed for children who are less prepared.

So, says Professor Darling-Hammond, if we want higher student achievement, teachers need more course work in methods, not less. Certification should require a master’s degree in education after an academic bachelor’s degree.

Research does show that teachers who themselves had high test scores are better able to generate high student scores. But the least likely explanation is that teachers who know more math and literature are better able to tell what they know to 10-year-olds.

A more plausible explanation is that bright teachers can more effectively apply the tools they acquired in methods courses.

Teaching is more than simply telling what you know. If children are confused, teachers need to understand when to give an answer and when to design exercises to help pupils discover it themselves. Teachers need to distinguish students who rise to the challenge when called upon from those who are intimidated. And teachers must vary lessons for children of different abilities.

Knowing when to address a whole class, when to organize group work or when to help individual students is not a skill you pick up in math or literature classes. Schools are unlikely to improve if future teachers do not study these strategies.

Conservatives do not find these arguments persuasive. Dr. Finn cites a new study showing that where teachers major in math, not education, student math scores are higher. But the survey covered 12th graders only. Dr. Finn is probably right that college-bound seniors need teachers with stronger academic skills. But he is wrong about younger children. Even if seniors gain from having mathematicians as instructors, fifth graders need teachers steeped in child psychology and learning theory, not calculus.

Contempt for teacher training has merit because some colleges of education are of such poor quality. But there are also many good ones. Because quality varies so much, some bright college graduates without training would make better teachers than many graduates of inferior education schools. Until the worst education schools improve, good alternative routes to teaching that supplement an academic B.A. with high quality teacher training should be opened wider.

But the most essential reform is to abolish inferior methods courses and to raise standards for licensing teacher training institutes. Then, too, teacher pay must rise enough to attract high-ability college students to good training programs. But it makes no sense to correct cases of shoddy teacher preparation by throwing all pedagogical course work overboard.

More can also be done to improve the skills of teachers already on the job. One way to do this is to eliminate the common practice, in both union and nonunion school districts, of giving teachers pay increases for taking additional courses, with no control over whether these courses contribute to pedagogical skill. Pay increases for professional training that improves teacher effectiveness should be one of the easiest reforms to carry out in public education, but it is inexplicably rare.

We would never think to abolish medical schools, thinking we could improve the quality of care simply by threatening to fire doctors whose patients die. Experts know a lot today about how children learn. We may not understand as much about cognitive development as we do about physiology, but someone who wants to be a teacher should still have to study what the best practitioners have to offer.

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