Who's To Blame, asks Ed School prof

In a short essay called Scapegoating Schools of Education, Penn State professor Tim Slekar poses this:

1. When did George Washington cross the Delaware?

2. Why did George Washington cross the Delaware?

Can you guess which of these questions my teacher education students know the answer to? Come on and try it. Give up? Most of them don't know the answer to either of these questions.

Why, you might ask, and how is this possible? I used to ask these questions (actually I banged my head against a wall most of the time) but I stopped a long time ago (banging my head). I now spend precious time in my social studies methods course (how to teach social studies to children) teaching future teachers the answer to these and many more questions dealing with the discipline of history.

And it's not just the discipline of history -- civics, world history, economics, sociology, etc. Future teachers come to my methods course social scientifically illiterate.

So when they leave my social studies methods class and Arthur Levine blames me and other teacher educators for failing to prepare future teachers I wish he would do a little more research. How can I possibly help my future teachers understand and perform the pedagogical complexities needed to teach the social sciences powerfully when they come to me so unprepared?

My reactions:

1. Sympathy for Professor Slekar.

When we first started MATCH, our 9th grade math teachers faced the same issue. "How am I supposed to teach algebra when the newly arrived frosh haven't mastered fractions and decimals, and some can't even multiply or divide?"

As a whole school, you can do something about that issue. Ann created assessments, we got tutors to backfill this, Charlie got parent buy-in for high-dosage weekend tutoring, etc.

But as an individual teacher, who probably can't change the whole institution, your charge -- to teach Z which presupposes kids know X, which they don't -- is very frustrating.

What I think education reformers don't realize is sometimes the sheer implausibility of the goal, from the point of view of a good teacher in a traditional high-poverty school where the teachers and leaders simply don't row in the same direction, is soul-crushing.

I was emailing earlier this morning with a friend who teaches at Large District School down the street. He is supposed to teach a course called Algebra 2 to a group of kids who arrive each year having failed Algebra 1.

2. What might help? Slekar writes:

In other words, future teachers come to me from other courses (not taught in schools of education) lacking any real knowledge. Maybe more disturbing is that my future teachers come to me with at least a B average (most with a 3.5 and above) in their content courses.

I wonder if the following change is possible. What if Penn State Altoona's Ed School would give a basic history entrance exam to teacher prep students? College students couldn't take the teaching courses until they passed the content courses. Period. No exceptions.

Short-term, one would expect some freaking out. Perhaps healthy freaking out. The college students would be mad. The professors of their "content" courses in the arts and sciences -- the ones that Seklar describes as doling out 3.5 GPAs to kids who know very little -- would feel pressure. Presumably they'd raise the bar.

That's happened in Massachusetts in the last couple years. The concern: many elementary school teachers didn't know basic math.

So the state changed the licensing exam so future teachers needed to pass a stand-alone math section. At first, everyone went nuts, since 75% failed in 2009, the first year of the new requirement. But since then most Ed Schools have responded, I believe, in some form by teaching more basic math.

3. Wrong Villain?

Professor Slekar points to Arthur Levine's critique of Ed Schools. But Levine hasn't ignored the fact that some future teachers don't know the "basics" of their subject. He just argues that the way to deal with this is tougher admission standards by the Ed School, so that more academically strong high school grads choose teaching. It's the leading recommendation in his report.

Still, Seklar makes an interesting point. Many Ed School critics have argued that it's the "regular arts and sciences" departments that can be trusted to have high academic standards and future teachers should take more classes there; it's the Ed Schools, say the critics, which give out the easy A's. While a study has confirmed this generally, Seklar points out that, at least at some colleges like Penn State Altoona, this a shaky assumption.