In search of the great teacher

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John Merrow
John Merrow

No visits. No interviews. No contrary opinions. That’s how a new survey of the nation’s schools of education went about its business.

John Merrow of “Learning Matters” invited e-mail comment on the National Council on Teacher Quality’s report on 608 schools of education. That’s half of the U.S. programs. As Merrow points out in his e-mail, the surveyors didn’t visit campuses or classes. But they rated the schools nonetheless. And 160 got no stars. Zero. Only 100 earned three or more stars out of a possible five. I doubt the departments of education learned anything useful from the survey.

Here’s my take on teaching training. I question assumptions lots of folk jump to. One is that the smartest people make the best teachers. Which the ed school quality survey seems to take for granted. Thus it matters that education majors score in the top third on standardized tests. I’m skeptical there’s much of a correlation.

I also doubt that competition among the schools for top students will get any one of the schools to improve. Anyway, what are the schools supposed to do? Have profs publish more scholarly articles? More methods classes? Fewer? Fire the veteran profs? Increase salaries despite the tight budgets?

Let me say this about competition. Sorry. Competition might get you better marketing. Might. It doesn’t get you a better product. Look at the best-selling widgets from cars to carpet that get low marks in Consumer Reports.

I liked what I saw in New York City’s District 10, which I wrote about a few years back. There, classroom teachers get a lot of mentoring by master teachers. Likewise, in Germany, with other Education Writers Association fellows, I saw new teachers receive the daily supervision of veterans, much more than the student teaching requirement here.

I cite my in-house expert, my wife Toni. She supervised student teachers for an area college after her career in schools. She had been a school principal, suburban and urban. Plus, for one stint, she was an assistant superintendent who oversaw professional development and curriculum. One year, she served as a program officer with the National Science Foundation. I’ve often heard her talk about how some people just don’t have what it takes to be a good teacher. No matter how good the schooling or desire or supervision. But some fairly good teachers can improve. Thus, the value of mentoring even experienced teachers.

I do think people who are serious about reforming teacher training would do well to interview educators with Toni’s background and expertise. As a sometime fellow with Arizona State’s Professor Alex Molnar’s program, now based at Colorado in Boulder, I haven’t always been impressed by these veteran professors of education. Big on theory. But I’ve never had the impression most regularly visit elementary and upper level classrooms.

In college, seminary and graduate schools, I had a few professors I’d give high marks to. No matter the subject. It can be a pretty idiosyncratic profession. My professor in Shakespeare at Xavier in the 1960s put his hands over his ears if a student dared raise his hand to ask a question. He got few questions either semester. I loved his class.

In recent years, some of the best teaching I saw was in seminars at Wabash College when I visited that school on a Lilly Endowment Fellowship. At another program I visited, Purdue engineering, I sat through huge classes which were pretty dull. Of course, I’m not a math or science guy. I was impressed that grad students would met privately with undergrads.

Some years ago, then Columbia Professor Linda Darling-Hammond found that teachers who had the highest test scores and best grades didn’t stay more than a few years in the classroom. Schools can be a tough environment for people with better paying options.

Making good teachers starts long before college and the school of education. It means spotting students with the potential to teach. That’s the student with a knack for explaining things to the other kids. It’s the student who wants to learn about everything. It’s the student who’s always telling the teacher or a friend about a great book he or she just read. That’s the stuff, demonstrated at an early age, of a good teacher.

Then, let the school of education be so good it inspires that student to see there’s no greater way to spend his life.

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Requiem for Sandy Hook

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Here it was a few days before we celebrated the birth of the Prince of Peace. So what does the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre say about the killings the previous week of 20 first-graders and six staff members by 20-year-old Adam Lanza with an assault rifle? LaPierre proposes putting an armed police officer in every school, all 140,000 of them.

No ban on high capacity magazines.
No ban on military-style assault weapons.
No background checks at gun shows.

None of these modest steps or other proposals to reduce gun violence in America will work. Forget it. At least that’s the gospel according to the NRA. Never mind that the country hasn’t attempted serious gun control in years. Never mind that the NRA has repeatedly blocked proposals in Congress to fund research on gun violence.

You have to understand that the firearms industry gave nearly $4 million to the National Rifle Association in the past few years. Controls on what kinds of guns and to whom they’re sold cuts into the industry’s profits. You want to know why there are so many guns in the hands of people who have no business with them? Follow the money.

Most people probably think it’s all about the Second Amendment. Here’s how most constitutional experts see that issue. In the language of the amendment, America’s “well-regulated militia,” is the national guard in every state. The history of the adoption of that amendment shows what the Framers were worried about. It wasn’t to protect our right to overthrow or protect us from the government. That was Charlton Heston’s rendering. Yet that doesn’t make any sense since that would destroy the rest of the Bill of Rights.

Rather, the Second Amendment guarantees that citizens have to means to put down rebellion. Which is what the Supreme Court understood until recently. Still, despite one recent decision, the conservative majority on the current U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t ruled out certain laws to regulate firearms.

You’d think if guns offer so much personal protection highly trained and armed police officers would rarely be killed. But in this country, over a recent 10-year period, 1,320 officers were killed by firearms. What about Nancy, Adam Lanza’s mother? He killed her with her own gun before he headed to Sandy Hook Elementary to kill children. (Most gun deaths, homicide and suicide, occur in people’s homes.)

To be sure, lots of schools have resource officers. But it’s hard to say these officers have prevent shootings. I couldn’t fine research to answer the question. Besides, school shootings are simply so rare. In Columbine High School, where two boys’ rampage left 13 dead in 1999, a sheriff’s deputy did get off several shots at the boys. That didn’t stop the carnage.

In theory, an officer’s presence should deter somebody with a gun who is intent on shooting students. But that assumes such a person is rational. That’s quite a leap. It also assumes the person’s real purpose isn’t to commit suicide.

My wife, a retired school principal, doubts a police officer offers protection against an school intruder. At her first school in a suburb, there were five outside doors. At her last school, in a densely populated urban neighborhood, there were seven. Lots of ways, then, for an intruder to enter a school and the officer might not be aware of the entry. Anyway, I’m not sure an officer is the best judge of who might pose a danger to students or staff.

We do know schools are about the safest place for a child anywhere. The chance a child would be killed from a gun assault in a school is about a million in one. Which of course is small comfort to the parents, family and friends who lost 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary. But let’s get some perspective on this.

Since 9/11, the country not only has moved to replace the twin towers. It has erected all kinds of memorials. It has launched two wars. It has spent billions upon billions of dollars to prevent another such attack. What’s the matter with us? Are we so impotent as a country, so lacking in political will, that we can’t reduce gun violence? Other advanced countries have figured it out. They experience a tiny fraction of our gun violence.

Tears won’t bring back those 20 first-graders. Or their principal. Or the other staff members. Letters of condolence to the surviving students and staff of Sandy Hook offer only painful reminders. Bouquets of flowers left at the school and throughout Newtown, Connecticut, fade and wither. The rest of us will read the pretty poems and sing the touching songs about Sandy Hook. In time, we’ll forget those. What about a lasting memorial?

A fitting one isn’t to attack the mentally ill, though lack of resources remains a national disgrace. It’s not to ban violent video games, though we could do without those. It’s not to put armed officers in all schools. That seems so inadequate and probably pointless.

We owe those beautiful first-graders and those caring adults something better. We owe them new, tough laws on firearms that protect school children. We can name it all the Sandy Hook gun safety legislation of 2013. Then for sure we’ll remember the kids.

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