Sunday, September 24, 2006

No Teacher Left Behind

A new report shows American educators to be woefully unqualified

Schools of education have gotten bad grades before. Yet there are some truly shocking statistics about teacher training in this week's report from the Education Schools Project. According to "Educating School Teachers," three-quarters of the country's 1,206 university-level schools of education don't have the capacity to produce excellent teachers. More than half of teachers are educated in programs with the lowest admission standards (often accepting 100% of applicants) and with "the least accomplished professors." When school principals were asked to rate the skills and preparedness of new teachers, only 40% on average thought education schools were doing even a moderately good job.

The Education Schools Project was begun in 2001, with foundation funding, to analyze how America trains its educators and to offer constructive criticism. Its report card this week is significant for two reasons. First, it is based on four years of broad and methodical research, including surveys of school principals and of the deans, faculty members and graduates of education schools. In addition, researchers studied programs and practices at 28 institutions. No matter how many establishment feathers get ruffled by the results of these inquiries, miffed educators can't easily brush off the basic findings: There are glaring flaws and gaps in our teacher-training system.

The study also comes at a uniquely challenging moment in American education. The final report was written by ESP director Arthur Levine, a former president of Columbia's Teacher's College. Mr. Levine notes that we're currently facing a national shortage of nearly 200,000 teachers--at the same time that, "to compete in a global marketplace and sustain a democratic society, the United States requires the most educated population in history." Society now demands that teaching success be measured no longer by what children have studied but by what they have actually learned. (A copy of "Educating Teachers" is at

The report's most stunning revelation--to outsiders at least--is that nobody knows what makes a good teacher today. Mr. Levine compares the training universe to "Dodge City." There is an "unruly" mix of approaches, chiefly because there is no consensus on how long teachers should study, for instance, or whether they should concentrate on teaching theory or mastering subject matter. Wide variations in curricula, and fads--like the one that produced the now-discredited "fuzzy math"--make things worse. Compare such chaos with the training for professions such as law or medicine, where, Mr. Levine reminds us, nobody is unleashed on the public without meeting a universally acknowledged requisite body of knowledge and set of skills.

Mr. Levine also outlines many recommendations. Some seem obvious: more in-classroom training, for instance. Some are perennial: The report notes that one way to attract the best and the brightest to teaching would be to pay them the same salaries as other professionals--although it more realistically mentions special scholarships and merit pay as alternative incentives. The report also reveals that many failing teacher programs operate as "cash cows" for universities, which encourage their education departments to admit (and graduate) almost anybody for the sake of tuition dollars. It suggests closing some of these schools and directing students toward more rigorous academic institutions. Some critics in the education establishment already have labeled that idea "elitist," saying that it would deprive many people of a chance to become teachers.

Yet there's one idea that seems more important and urgent than the others. That is the recommendation that all states begin collecting information about how much their schoolchildren have learned from kindergarten through high school so it can be correlated with information about how their teachers were trained. Until this fundamental question is explored and answered--what kind of training produces teachers who get the best results from their children--we'll be holding classes in the dark.



One of the biggest concerns of parents for the new school year is this: What kind of kids are in my child's classroom? The answer to this question is particularly difficult for parents of average students, the most forgotten group today.

All parents want their children to be with the nice kids, the bright and well-behaved types who will pull classes up, rather than with kids who will drag them down. In big, economically and ethnically diverse high schools such as mine, T.C. Williams in Alexandria, Va., where there is enormous variation in academic abilities, average kids run the risk of ending up in one of two tracks: in classes full of students with weak skills and lousy attitudes or in so-called advanced courses where they find themselves in over their heads.

A major part of the problem is the anti-tracking movement, which began in the mid-1980s. Since then, tracking has become to education what abortion and gay marriage are to politics - an incendiary topic with fanatics on both sides. So-called progressive teachers and administrators, whose mantra is "every child can learn," want to do away with tracking.

Good teachers, and fancy sounding course labels such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate, are supposed to raise the level of all students no matter how varied their skills or abilities. In truth, social engineering - mixing of races and ethnic groups in classes - is what many administrators really prize, while giving lip service to academic rigor.

On the other end of the tracking wars are fanatical parents - usually white, in my experience - who think their kids are geniuses, who must be protected from less talented kids and who are entitled to every advantage and resource the school system has to offer. Parents at a school for gifted children on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, for example, have been outraged by Chancellor Joel Klein's decision to have part of their school share facilities with a new charter school intended to help poor kids. They have filed a lawsuit.

T.C. Williams has seen its share of the tracking wars. In the 1970s there were five "tracks" in English, resulting in a type of de facto segregation with the top tracks virtually all white and the lower tracks virtually all black. But while the five-track system was grossly unfair to low-income minority students who populated the lower tracks, today's two-track system shortchanges average students, who have the choice between regular classes, many of which are in fact remedial, or Advanced Placement classes, which they can't handle.

The reasons the needs of average kids are ignored are many. In the first place, most parents are not going to be too eager to acknowledge that they have an average kid. I have heard teachers in neighboring Fairfax County, Va., joke that every middle-class white kid is labeled either gifted and talented or learning disabled. The LD label goes over with parents because it implies that the kid is brighter than his or her work shows.

School systems ignore the average kids for somewhat the same reason: They don't help confer status on the school system. Schools have become so busy worrying about getting their worst students to pass state exams that they have let the average kid who can easily pass those dumbed-down exams fall through the cracks. Raising the test scores of minority students from low-income families is the surest way for administrators to get recognition and win promotions.

What is happening more and more around the country is that average students are being pushed into Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes to make schools appear as though they have high standards. In a sense, average kids have become a pawn of school boards and administrators who want to get good PR for boosting the numbers in supposedly rigorous courses. Administrators here in Northern Virginia boast about the numbers of kids taking AP courses but don't talk much about students' test scores.

What is needed is a middle track for average students - call it college-bound or some other name that will please parents. The fact is that every child can learn, but every child cannot learn as fast as, or learn as much as, every other child. Given the present obsession with raising the test scores of the weakest students, average kids will not get on the radar screens of schools until their parents band together to bring pressure - the same way that parents of the learning disabled and gifted kids have. Until that happens, average students will continue to get a below-average education.



Not even if you spend millions on them

Ten years after the Ridings gained national infamy as "the school from hell", it is once more in serious trouble. The West Yorkshire secondary hit the headlines in 1996 - a year after it was formed by merging two schools - when staff threatened to strike unless 60 pupils were disciplined or expelled. A supply teacher had allegedly been groped and a brick was said to have been thrown at the new head teacher, who resigned.

By 1997, the school was the pet project of the Labour Government. Anna White was appointed head teacher in 1997. The school received o6 million, became the target of various initiatives, had 14 visits from inspectors in two years and a succession of ministers praised its remarkable turnaround.

By October 1998, the Ridings, where 42 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals and 45 per cent have special educational needs, was taken off the list of failing schools. Ofsted praised its "remarkable transformation". Mrs White was appointed a CBE in 2000. Tony Blair visited the next year during the general election campaign. By 2003, 25 per cent of pupils gained five or more A*-C GCSE grades, up from 3 per cent in 1998. But within a year, the GCSE pass rate had fallen to 14 per cent. Mrs White left last year to become an educational consultant.

Ofsted paid a sudden visit last autumn, shortly after a new head teacher had been appointed. The report was damning. The Ridings was given a "notice to improve" and warned that special measures could follow. The school had only recently ended its participation in yet another Labour initiative, the three-year Octet programme under which eight schools joined a research project "to find new and innovative ways to raise standards" in "exceptionally challenging circumstances".



For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

The NEA and similar unions worldwide believe that children should be thoroughly indoctrinated with Green/Left, feminist/homosexual ideology but the "3 R's" are something that kids should just be allowed to "discover"

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