Education's Urgent Mission: Strategic Training for Teachers
by Gary M. Ratner
Detroit Free Press
June 7, 2002
When the U.S. military's mission radically shifted from combating
massed, visible armies to fighting small groups of dispersed, often
hidden, warriors, it did not simply pressure its personnel to work
harder at the old tank-infantry strategy. It fundamentally changed
its strategy to spotters and precision bombing.
Now, public education confronts a comparably huge mission change:
Train and enable teachers nationwide to effectively teach students
a rigorous curriculum.
For ages, public schools were expected to provide an academically
rigorous curriculum only to the minority of students destined for
college - the "academic" track. Most students, instead,
were given less difficult general or vocational curricula, often
taught by teachers with much less academic subject matter knowledge
and skill. For 75 years, public schools have had, in effect, a two-tier
staffing and learning structure.
Today, President George W. Bush is backing the new public education
mission to raise all students to academic competence with the "No
Child Left Behind Act of 2001." The chasm, however, is immense.
About 70 percent of the 47 million public school students are below
proficiency (grade level) in reading, and 75 percent are below grade
level in math, according to a National Assessment of Educational
Progress sample. Among the approximately 8 million black and 7 million
Hispanic students, about 90 percent lack proficiency in reading
and math. About 8 million poor students (50 percent) lack even basic
skills at their respective grade levels.
The states' decade old accountability movement, in addition to
Bush's new effort, conceive the fundamental obstacle to widespread
proficiency as insufficient pressure on teachers and students. That
movement pressures students to learn a narrow curriculum (and test-taking
techniques) to "pass" new state tests, usually far below
Furthermore, the National Commission on Teaching and America's
Future found that "most schools and teachers cannot produce
the kind of learning demanded by the new reforms - not because they
do not want to, but because they do not know how, and the systems
in which they work do not support them in doing so." The biggest
obstacle to the president's goal is that most teachers have not
historically been expected to, and cannot now, effectively teach
a challenging, academic curriculum at their grade level.
Accountability has failed. The percentage of proficient public
students nationwide - though increased modestly over the last decade
- remains extremely low, from 16 percent to 25 percent in math and
from 29 percent to 39 percent in reading. Even Texas, accountability's
flagship, increased proficiency only 5 percent in reading from 1992
to 1998, with 70 percent of Texas' public school students still
below "proficient." While math proficiency increased by
12 percent at grade 4 and by 6 percent at grade 8 from 1992-2000,
about 75 percent of Texas public students are still not "proficient"
What is needed is a fundamental change in national education strategy
to match the new education mission. Specifically, most of our existing
teachers need intensive training in subject matter knowledge, individualized
mentoring in teaching skills and preparation time with colleagues.
Traditional professional development workshops, unrelated to immediately
improving classroom teaching, should be abolished, except for teachers
who have proven their skills to be effective.
Tens of thousands of school administrators must be trained how
to lead their teachers, parents, and communities to vastly raise
their expectations and student learning. Teachers and administrators
unable or unwilling, after training, to perform effectively must
be replaced with competent personnel.
Education colleges must supplant their widespread 10- to 12-week
student teaching with a minimum 30-week, academically integrated
clinical experience, so all teachers can teach competently upon
graduation. Financial and mentoring incentives must be given, especially
in poor urban/rural areas, to recruit only academically competent
Only the federal government has the legal and financial capability
to institute these systemic changes nationwide. Enabling all public
school teachers and administrators to be well-trained and competent
should become the principal federal role in schooling. States and
localities would continue to make policy on curriculum content,
discipline, facilities and similar matters and administer the schools
The president's State of the Union address perceptively stated
that the nation must upgrade our teacher colleges and teacher training
and launch a major recruiting drive with a goal of a quality teacher
in every classroom.
Now, Bush needs to move beyond rhetoric to action by publicly advocating
these systemic changes and leading Congress to enact them. As with
the Afghan War, the new education mission requires a new strategy
precisely attacking the real obstacles.
Gary M. Ratner, executive director of Maryland-based Citizens
for Effective Schools Inc., a nonprofit advocacy group for education
reform, has worked on public school issues with a number of Michigan
educators, including former Detroit and Michigan school superintendent