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Topic: 'An Industry of Mediocrity'
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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
'An Industry of Mediocrity'
Posted: Oct 22, 2013 6:52 PM
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From The New York Times, Sunday, October 20, 2013. See
- our thanks to Albert Goetz for bringing this piece to our attention.

An Industry of Mediocrity'

By Bill Keller

"Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. And those who can't
teach, teach teaching."

WHOEVER coined that caustic aphorism should have been in a Harlem
classroom last week where Bill Jackson was demonstrating an exception
to the rule. Jackson, a 31-year classroom veteran, was teaching the
mathematics of ratios to a group of inner-city seventh graders while
15 young teachers watched attentively. Starting with a recipe for
steak sauce - three parts ketchup to two parts Worcestershire sauce -
Jackson patiently coaxed his kids toward little math epiphanies,
never dictating answers, leaving long silences for the children to
fill. "Denzel, do you agree with Katelyn's solution?" the teacher
asked. And: "Can you explain to your friend why you think Kevin is
right?" He rarely called on the first hand up, because that would let
the other students off the hook.

Sometimes the student summoned to the whiteboard was the kid who had
gotten the wrong answer: the class pitched in to help her correct it,
then gave her a round of applause.

After an hour the kids filed out and the teachers circled their desks
for a debriefing. Despite his status as a master teacher, Jackson
seemed as eager to hone his own craft as that of his colleagues. What
worked? What missed the mark? Should we break this into two lessons?
Did the kids get it? And what does that mean?

"Does 'get it' mean getting an answer?" Jackson asked. "Or does it
mean really understanding what's going on?"

At that point Deborah Kenny, the founder of the Harlem Village
Academies charter schools, leaned over to me: "That right there, that
is why we're starting a graduate school."

How America prepares its teachers has been a subject of dismay for
many years. In 2005 Arthur Levine, then the president of Teachers
College at Columbia University, shocked colleagues (and himself, he
says) with a scathing report concluding that teacher preparation
programs "range from inadequate to appalling." [ ] Since then the outcry has
only gotten more vociferous. This summer the National Council on
Teacher Quality described teacher education as still "an industry of
mediocrity." [See ]

The heartening news is that the universities that have so long
resisted pleas to raise their standards are now beginning to have
change pushed on them from outside. Governors (including New York's
Andrew Cuomo, last month) are raising admission standards for state
education colleges. Philanthropies like the Woodrow Wilson National
Fellowship Foundation, which Levine now runs, have been pouring money
into reform. And academic entrepreneurs like Kenny are arising to
compete with the established schools. [See

"Where charter schools were 10 years ago, that's where teacher
preparation is right at this moment," Kenny told me. With start-up
money from the media executive Barry Diller (who says he hopes to see
the venture amplified via the Internet) and a core of master teachers
like Jackson, Kenny has begun to build a graduate education school
that will be integrated with her K-12 campuses in Harlem. It will
join a young cottage industry of experimental teacher training.

Of all the competing claims on America's education dollar - more
technology, smaller classes, universal prekindergarten, school choice
- the one option that would seem to be a no-brainer is investing in
good teachers. But universities have proved largely immutable.
Educators, including some inside these institutions, say universities
have treated education programs as "cash cows." The schools see no
incentive to change because they have plenty of applicants willing to
pay full tuition, the programs are relatively cheap to run, and they
are accountable to no one except accrediting agencies run by, you
guessed it, education schools. It's a contented cartel.

Among reformers, there is a fair amount of consensus about what it
would take to fix things. The first step is to make teacher colleges
much more selective. According to one respected study, only 23
percent of American teachers - and only 14 percent in high-poverty
schools - come from the top third of college graduates. [See ]

The importance of selectivity comes through vividly in "The Smartest
Kids in the World," Amanda Ripley's engrossing new diagnosis of why
American education lags behind the likes of Finland and Singapore.
Ripley says she was initially skeptical, since most research shows
little correlation between a teacher's grade point average and
classroom results. Then she went to Finland, where only top students
get into teacher-training programs. [See ]

"What I hadn't realized was that setting a high bar at the beginning
of the profession sends a signal to everyone else that you are
serious about education and teaching is hard," Ripley told me. "When
you do that, it makes it easier to make the case for paying teachers
more, for giving them more autonomy in the classroom. And for kids to
buy into the premise of education, it helps if they can tell that the
teachers themselves are extremely well educated."

Once they are admitted, critics say, prospective teachers need more
rigorous study, not just of the science and philosophy of education
but of the contents, especially in math and the sciences, where
America trails the best systems in Asia and Europe. A new study by
the Education Policy Center at Michigan State, drawing on data from
17 countries, concluded that while American middle school math
teachers may know a lot about teaching, they often don't know very
much about math. Most of them are not required to take the courses in
calculus and probability that are mandatory in the best-taught

"There's a big range in this country," said William Schmidt, who
oversaw the study. "Some of our education programs are putting out
math teachers at the level of Botswana, a developing country in
Africa, and some rank up with Singapore." Unfortunately, Schmidt
reckons, the Botswana-level teacher programs produce about 60 percent
of America's future middle school math teachers.

Another missing component, reformers say, is sustained, intense
classroom experience while being coached by masters of the
profession. Too much student teaching is too superficial - less a
serious apprenticeship than a drive-by. The Woodrow Wilson program,
which has beachheads at 23 universities in four states, builds
teacher training programs in partnership with local school districts,
requires prospective teachers to spend a full year inside schools
working alongside veterans, and provides three years of postgraduate
mentoring in the classroom.

Kenny's plan in Harlem is to integrate teacher training with her K-12
campuses so closely that it will be analogous to a medical residency.

After my morning in Harlem I dropped by the red-brick edifice of
Teachers College to meet Susan Fuhrman, who succeeded Arthur Levine
as president and is a leader in the industry under siege. She began
by acknowledging the criticisms - "there is a lot of mediocrity" -
and added a couple of her own. States make it far too easy to get a
teaching license, she said. Bad schools are protected by politics:
"There's an ed school in every legislator's district, and nobody
wants to close ed schools." She favors raising admission standards
and figuring out ways to hold education schools accountable for their

But Fuhrman finds the birth of alternative teacher schools
"upsetting." "I worry about cutting that kind of preparation off from
the scholarship and from emerging research" that a university offers,
she said. "It can sound like I feel threatened. I don't. But it just
worries me as a trend."

There are 3.3 million public school teachers in America, and they
probably can't all be trained by start-ups. Raising up the standards
of our university programs should be an urgent priority. But one
reason for the widespread mediocrity is that universities have had a
cozy, lucrative monopoly. It's about time the leaders of our
education schools did feel threatened.
PHOTO SIDEBAR: Bill Keller. Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
A version of this op-ed appears in print on October 21, 2013, on page
A21 of the New York edition with the headline: 'An Industry of
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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