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From the dean: Are ed schools really the problem?

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Bill McDiarmid

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Later this week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will deliver a speech highly critical of schools of education. So, what’s new? Since first established within universities more than a century ago, ed schools have been the frequent whipping boy of politicians, commentators, liberal arts faculty and others. In 1928, no less a master curmudgeon than H.L. Mencken set the standard for ed school bashing: “... (T)he great majority of American colleges (of education) are so incompetent and vicious that, in any really civilized country, they would be closed by the police. ... In the typical American State they are staffed by quacks and hag-ridden by fanatics. ... The profession mainly attracts ... flabby, feeble fellows who yearn for easy jobs.” Secretary Duncan will be hard pressed to top Mencken’s invective.

Do ed schools need to improve? Absolutely. Do we need to better prepare educational professionals capable of helping all students maximize their potentials? No question. Do we need to conduct research focused squarely on the problems that practitioners, policymakers and families face? You bet. Do we need to work closely with school educators, students, families, communities, businesses and others to meet high academic standards, close the achievement gap, reduce dropout and ensure that every student can read, write and use mathematics? Undoubtedly. Rapidly evolving globalization and technology also demand that ed schools evolve. In their need to change and evolve, ed schools are no different than other enterprises in our society. Finance and health care, anyone?

To listen to the critics, nothing good ever comes from ed schools. Yet, the list of contributions from ed schools is extensive: value-added modeling and other statistical innovations; authentic assessments; research-validated programs for literacy and all the subject-matters; school reform models; effective practices for preparing educators; discoveries of how students learn; effective supports for helping students make transitions; proven methods for helping special needs students; and so on. Somehow none of these achievements finds its way into editorials and speeches excoriating ed schools.

So, why, across the decades, have ed schools been the target of such unrelenting criticism? Some charge that education is not a proper academic discipline like physics or history. The fact is that education draws on multiple disciplines ─ history, philosophy, psychology, economics, anthropology, sociology, statistics, mathematics and the physical and biological sciences ─ for both its content and its research methodologies. Interestingly, although the study of medicine also draws on a range of disciplines, med schools do not suffer similar opprobrium.

Other critics hold ed schools at least partially responsible for the distressingly large number of failing schools because they prepare educators poorly. Yet, even in past decades when much of the world envied the U.S. public schools, ed school critics were as caustic as they are today. As the achievement gap persists and U.S. students slip lower in international comparisons, critics, in their search for scapegoats, have lighted on ed schools. An irony here is that several countries are actually increasing university-based professional preparation for educators at the very moment critics are calling for its abolishment in the United States.

More recently, ed schools have been criticized because, it is claimed, they enroll students who have inferior academic credentials. If this were true ─ and in some, but by no means all, places it is ─ is it because ed schools are intellectual “wastelands” (as Arthur Bestor claimed in the 1950s) or is it because many students with strong academic credentials are likely to pursue higher-status, better-compensated professions such as law, medicine and business?

Anyone who really knows what teaching involves understands that it is unusually demanding, difficult work. Compensation, relative to other professions and to working conditions and public expectations, is low ─ and, in states like North Carolina, salaries plateau after eight years or so.  Yet, ed schools are blamed for not attracting the so-called “best and brightest.” Incidentally, making sweeping generalizations about candidate and program quality across more than 1200 higher-ed-based teacher preparation programs seems questionable, at best. Although candidates and programs across medical, law and business schools are also of uneven quality, critics rarely condemn these enterprises in their entirety.

Critics also fail to point out that most educator preparation occurs not in ed schools at all but in arts and sciences departments. Typically, elementary teachers take more than 60 percent and secondary teachers more than 80 percent of their pre-certification courses in A&S departments. Consequently, better preparation depends critically on the collaboration between ed schools and A&S departments. Opportunities to master subject-matter knowledge, absolutely essential to effective instruction, lie largely outside the ed school.

Underlying many of the criticisms of ed schools is an underestimation of the complexities of the job, a job that has changed dramatically since I began teaching 39 years ago. Not only are schools much more racially, ethnically and linguistically diverse, but the mainstreaming of special needs students makes demands on educators unknown when I started. And the truth is, many educator preparation programs have been slow to respond adequately to these new challenges. Educators in North Carolina and across the country typically report that the weakest area in their programs was adequate preparation to differentiate their instruction to ensure that every student has the requisite opportunities to master the curriculum. This is another area in which ed schools must improve ─ immediately.

Creating multiple learning opportunities for diverse learners is an extraordinarily demanding task. This involves a teacher knowing both the content and the students intensively enough to be able to transform her own knowledge of the curriculum content into the multiple learning opportunities necessary to address the backgrounds, interests and capacities of each student. Too many people view teaching as merely “standing and delivering” ─ the image of teaching that pervades popular media such as television and movies. As we have learned, this approach works for only a small minority of students. Yet, for many ed school critics, this is the image that underlies their disdain for educator preparation programs. What’s so hard about teaching? Just get up there and tell the students what they need to know and make sure they learn it. Who needs preparation for that?

Finally, we as a society seem to be eternally in search of the silver bullet, the quick fix that will improve failing schools immediately. Returning to our friend Mencken, he also famously wrote: "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." Improving failing schools, preparing effective educators, aiding students and families in poverty, designing and building needed data systems, providing professional development and so on are all complex problems. Taking on and addressing these and other complex problems is the mission of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education. But they won’t all be solved tomorrow and we won’t solve them alone.

I repeat: Ed schools, particularly in research institutions, need to be looking hard at themselves. Are we collecting the data we need to determine the effects we are having on schools, students and their families, and using the data to continually improve our preparation programs? Are we conducting the rigorous research of instructional programs, learning and development, assessments, curricula and professional development essential for educators and policymakers to make the best possible decisions? Are we providing the support to schools, especially high-needs schools, needed for improvement? Are we engaging as we must with others within and outside the university to maximize and coordinate the resources available to help schools, educators and communities?

I don’t think the data exist, however, that would justify further marginalizing or even, as some suggest, abolishing ed schools as a means to improving the quality of teachers. On the contrary, as the New York City Pathways study recently demonstrated, the students of university-prepared teachers do achieve better initially than those who come through other routes. That the students of alternatively prepared teachers catch up by the third year may be due, in part, to the fact that their teachers typically are concurrently enrolled in various teacher education courses and programs.

I don’t imagine these findings or any other empirical data will change the minds of the critics. But I hope they give pause to those who think all would be well in schools if we only got rid of those darn ed schools. The fact is that ed schools represent a very valuable resource in the overall effort to improve students’ learning and lives. The task of improving these opportunities is too important and too urgent to ignore or exclude any available resource. On our end, ed school faculty need to reassess the work we do, holding ourselves to this standard: Are all our activities ─ teaching, research and outreach ─ focused on improving learning opportunities and are we continually evaluating the effects of these activities?

In my next column, I plan to write more specifically about the School of Education’s efforts to address this standard. In the meantime, I hope you will send us your thoughts on the role of ed schools.