In search of the great teacher

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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