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Maher: The Fallacy of Generalized Mediocrity

This is a guest post from Paola Sztajn and  Michael Maher [@mj_maher], who work at the NC State College of Education: 

image from farm1.staticflickr.comEvery day when we come to work, we have the privilege of interacting with amazing young people.  Many of them were among the top students in their high schools.  Their average score on the SAT was above 1100 and they had an average weighted GPA of 4.4. Further, they have college GPAs above 3.0 and many graduate magna cum laude (GPA above 3.5). These young individuals perform a large amount of service work in the community and they engage in international activities to learn more about the world around them.  We are sure many of you would like to work with such outstanding people and learn about the amazing things they are doing. And, you are wondering who they are…

If we tell you that we work at North Carolina State University, you would wonder in what technical field we teach. But actually, we work in the College of Education. And the wonderful people we are talking about, all intend to be teachers.  In fact, they are all future Elementary Teachers who will serve schools across the nation.  Let us say this again:  these amazing, smart, and hard working students all want to be Elementary Teachers.  NC State is a selective university and these high achieving college students, who have the option of choosing from a variety of majors, choose to become Elementary Teachers.

The current public discourse often paints teachers as ineffective, sub-professionals, who likely had no other choice than to teach.  These substandard professionals, the current discourse goes on, need more and more accountability through testing, performance regulations, and report cards to make sure they are performing their craft in an “effective” manner.  After all, those who can, do; and those who can’t, teach—or so the current discourse is trying to prove. This image of a less than qualified student who goes on to become a low performing professional does not match the reality we experience everyday.

The current attack on public school teachers is now taking the next step and attacking Colleges of Education. Or, as a recent (October 20th) Op-Ed in the New York Times put it: “those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach teaching.” 

In this piece, Bill Keller calls Colleges of Education “an industry of mediocrity.” He goes on to specify a laundry list of what Colleges of Education, according to him, are failing to do.  For example, Keller claims that those who teach in Colleges of Education do not know what masterful pedagogy is, do not select bright students into their programs, do not want to touch their “cash-cow” teacher education programs, do not require students to take content courses, especially in mathematics and science, do not provide prospective teachers with intensive classroom experiences coached by master professionals, etc…  Just like the statements about teachers do not match our experiences, these statements do not match the reality of our work.

Elementary Education, in our College of Education, and surely at many other institutions across the country as well, is a highly selective program. We have a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and our freshman are required to take calculus unless they are exempt via AP credit. They take a variety of STEM and humanities courses before their series of methods courses to learn how to teach. These methods courses are all coupled with field experiences, in which students are placed in schools, observing teachers, every semester beginning their sophomore year.  They complete a yearlong placement in one classroom during their senior year, under the supervision of selected teachers, which culminates with them teaching and being coached during the last quarter of their program. All together, students spend 800 hours of their program in schools and classrooms in preparation to becoming teachers.

All the new, innovative approaches that the Op-Ed listed as necessary for quality teacher education—and which the author is trying to convince us are inconceivable in Colleges of Education—are happening right here, in our program in Elementary Education within a College of Education.  Thus, the notion that only alternative teacher education programs can lead to the preparation of quality teachers is a fallacy. More important, it is a fallacy we should not buy, just like we should not buy the current fallacy that teachers in general lack content knowledge and do not work hard enough.

The most interesting part of the argument against teacher education programs in Colleges of Education is that faculty in these programs do not know what is important for preparing teachers. As if those who work in Colleges of Education were unaware of current advances in the field of teacher education and lived in some odd, distant past that is out of touch with reality.  But here is the interesting part: the practices listed as effective for teacher education in the piece criticizing Colleges of Education are coming out of educational research produced where?  Well, in Colleges of Education.  The claim that faculty members conducting the research and producing the knowledge that supports the innovations necessary to prepare high quality teacher education programs are not aware of such innovations is not only appalling, but imprecise.

We are not naïve to say that all teacher education programs in the nation are amazing.  Teacher education is not a monolith, we recognize that. Like all professional preparation programs, there is a continuum of quality.  There certainly are problems to be addressed and there is much space for growth.  In our own case, for example, we continue to work on fine tuning our methods courses in relation to the practice of teaching and building stronger relationships with schools and mentor teachers.  However, like all overarching generalizations, the characterization of all Colleges of Education as ineffective places preparing subpar professionals is not only incorrect, it is dangerous.  After all, only those who can and know teach. And it takes those who produce knowledge to teach teaching.

-- PS & MM @mj_maher 

Image via Flickr thost


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Absolutely true! And the same can be said for the other teacher education programs in the College of Education at NC State.

What a testament to the quality of students who wish to become teachers; they are our future! By and large, teacher educators have been teachers themselves so they bring their history of expertise as well as their knowledge production and research to their work with young people. Thank you for an alternate view that needs to be provided in this dialogue.

Thank you for this excellent reply to Keller's NYTimes OpEd. Readers should be aware that the 'Industry of Mediocrity' phrase was coined by NCTQ at the release of their "Teacher Prep Review" which has been categorically discredited for failure to meet basic research standards (including documented bias in promoting alternative certification programs). This collection includes an array of articles/links debunking the NCTQ study: http://bit.ly/res_eval It should be of grave concern to all in the field of Teacher Education that EdTrust (TFA-infused Gates' Foundation) is *basing* its policy recommendations for FEDERAL OVERSIGHT of Teacher Education on the unscientific NCTQ 'review.'
I wish it were a simple matter of inaccurate name-calling in the national discourse on Teacher Ed, but there are serious and pending policy decisions at play here. Duncan has bought in to the NCTQ spin, has been actively promoting the TP Review (as well as the Keller piece), and Federal oversight will likely soon be a done deal unless there's a massive organization among Ed schools and the public to protest.

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