Citizens for Effective Schools

Education's Urgent Mission: Strategic Training for Teachers

by Gary M. Ratner
Detroit Free Press
June 7, 2002

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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 proficiency.

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" in math.

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 prospective teachers.

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 day-to-day.

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 John Porter.

© 2008 Citizens for Effective Schools