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Secretary Duncan:
We need less scolding and more constructive ideas
on how to move forward

by Pedro Noguera
New York, New York

After taking aim at teachers and their unions with an unabashed endorsement of merit pay and charter schools, Secretary Duncan has now decided to focus on a target he seems to think might be more vulnerable -- Schools of Education. The Secretary has accused schools of education of being "mediocre" and of producing teachers who are largely unprepared to teach in the public schools.

I disagree. Although I too have been quite critical of schools of education and the role they play (or more often don’t) in helping public education, my criticisms are of a different nature than the Secretary’s. In fact, I think his critique will do very little to push the nation’s education reform agenda forward. Unfortunately, I believe these critiques on teachers and schools of education are a distraction that will only keep us from addressing the critical issues confronting our nation’s schools.

For the sake of full disclosure I will admit that I have been employed as a professor in schools of education for over twenty years (at Berkeley, Harvard and presently NYU), and I agree with the Secretary, many Ed Schools could do a far better job than they do now at preparing teachers. However, I believe that it makes no more sense to blame schools of education for the failings of public schools than it does to blame business schools for the collapse of our financial sector.

It’s true, many schools of education don’t recruit the best students into the teaching profession (that’s partially because the "best" students are attracted to more lucrative professions), and too often the research produced in schools of education is of little use to public schools. However, many of these criticisms could be directed at American universities as well. Instead of a more general critique of higher education, especially as private tuitions increasingly make college unaffordable, schools of education have been singled out for blame.

As is true for American universities, there is considerable variability with respect to quality among the nation’s schools of education. While some are poor to mediocre with respect to their academic standards, others consistently produce excellent teachers and support research that is critical to schools. For example, graduates of teacher credential programs at NYU and Teachers College at Columbia University are generally highly sought after, even at a time when teaching jobs are scarce. Does this mean that they are highly effective when they enter schools? In many cases they are not but this is not because they lack the intellect or dedication. Rather, it is largely because they are frequently assigned to work in the most dysfunctional schools and expected to teach the most disadvantaged students. This is precisely what many schools and districts do to new teachers. The unfairness of this common practice is something that should be addressed by Secretary Duncan.

Certainly, there are important issues that schools of education and school districts must address if we are to increase the likelihood that new teachers will be effective. Here are a few suggestions for Secretary Duncan: Why not provide financial incentives for Schools of Education to establish lab schools in high need areas so that new and experienced teachers can receive training in best practices in educational settings that approximate conditions in the schools where they will actually work? Why not offer debt relief to math and science majors who pursue teaching careers on the condition that they stay in the profession for more than five years (unlike Teach for America fellows who typically remain no more than 2-3 years)? Why not cajole our leading universities to do more than leave it to their schools of education to address the needs of public schools by providing incentives to scholars from the arts, humanities, and sciences to work with teachers to develop innovative curricula? Why not provide incentives like work-study to enlist undergraduates to work in high need schools as tutors and mentors?

In my opinion the Secretary would be more likely to move the nation’s education agenda forward if he did less scolding and more encouraging. As the occupant of the most visible bully pulpit it might help if he offered and solicited suggestions on ways to invigorate our nations schools, not with more testing, but with creative approaches to instruction that foster critical thinking, problem solving and creativity among students.

Eight years of No Child Left Behind has left us with dropout rates of 50% and higher in many of our nation’s major cities. We need less finger pointing and rehashing of the policies of the past. Secretary Duncan and the US Department of Education should provide us with new ways of addressing the failings of our nation’s schools and new approaches to tap into the creative talent of the nation.

Pedro Noguera is a professor of sociology in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Development and the author of the recent book The Trouble With Black Boys: Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education.

Published in In Motion Magazine December 9, 2009.

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