Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Mr. David Steiner: Do constructivist/progressive education policies best serve our children?

Mr. Steiner resigned 3 weeks ago as NY School Commissioner along with Mrs. Cathie Black, the NYC School Chancellor. While Mr. Steiner's reasons for resigning, after only 2 years, are hotly debated in the education blogosphere, it is clear that he resented the education graduate schools' one-sidedness in favor of the constructivists/progressivists. Did that position presage his early exit?

Copied below is an article written by David M. Steiner in 2004, while at Boston University.

The New York Sun, May 27, 2004

David M. Steiner - Mr. Steiner is the chairman of the Department of Administration, Training, and Policy Studies at the School of Education, Boston University

Are you forever grateful to that teacher who stood out from the rest? Your gratitude is well founded: Research confirms what common sense tells us: that even a single talented teacher can make a profound difference.

Small classes, modern facilities, and equipment, and all the other things we look for in a school, have much less effect on student achievement than the quality of the teachers. Even poverty becomes less important when good teachers are placed in the classrooms of disadvantaged students.

What distinguishes a good teacher? Here, too, research confirms common sense. Teachers who are smart, highly literate, and know their subject well have the greatest effect on the achievement of their students.

Yet we all have known teachers who had all of these qualities, but were dull and uninspiring in the classroom. We know, too, that our public schools, especially those in the inner city, pose particular challenges to teachers.

Imagine yourself standing in front of a classroom: two-thirds of your students do not speak English as a first language; half come from homes with a single parent struggling to make ends meet; over the course of the year, there is a steady stream of students departing your class and joining it. You know your subject, but can you teach it?

This is where our nation's 1,400 schools of education enter the picture. Their role is to provide the link between knowing your subject and teaching it effectively. At the undergraduate and/or the graduate level, these schools offer a sequence of courses that has been approved by the state as the route to a teaching certificate. While there are other paths to teaching ("alternative certification"), the great majority of public school teachers are prepared for the classroom in a school or department of education.

What are students taught in these education programs? Surprisingly, almost nobody in the last 20 years has examined the coursework that education schools, as well as states, require as a preparation for teaching. Doing so is not easy: Some schools put their syllabi on the Web, some do not. Many have extremely complex programs - determining what students are required to take as part of their professional preparation often requires considerable detective work. Nevertheless, with the help of my research assistant, Susan Rozen, I decided to try.

We reviewed syllabi in 16 schools of education, 14 of which were ranked by U.S. News and World Report in the top 30 in the nation. We looked at the sequence of courses required in each school for the initial teaching license, only reporting the results when we were able to obtain the syllabi for all of these courses.

By analyzing the required readings, the assignments, and the instructors' stated intentions for their courses, we were able to offer a first portrait of what future teachers are studying in schools of education. Our work has been published in "A Qualified Teacher in Every Classroom?"(Harvard Education Press).

By noting what readings were commonly required and what were generally absent, and through an analysis of the requirements for the student-teaching experience, we raised questions about the rigor, the ideological balance, and the thoroughness of these programs.

A brief explanation: There is a deep division among those who engage in and write about teacher preparation. One school of thought, represented by such figures as Eric Donald Hirsch Jr. and Diane Ravitch, argues that teachers should focus on the basics.
Like piano teachers who stress the discipline of scales and finger technique before encouraging deeper interpretive performance of demanding music, Mr. Hirsch and Ms. Ravitch argue that the best education - especially for the least advantaged - requires direct teaching of the three R's and the other elements of cultural literacy (to borrow Mr. Hirsch's term).The attainment of such knowledge and skills should then be assessed through state tests.

By contrast, another school of thought stresses what is called "constructivism" and "progressivism." Broadly speaking, constructivism is the view (drawn from the work of John Dewey and Jean Piaget) that the teacher should not be a "sage on the stage" but a "guide on the side" encouraging children to discover and create according to their natural impulses. Progressivism is the idea that teachers should focus on the particular voices and experiences of repressed minorities, tailoring instruction accordingly.

In educational theory today, these two ideas are often fused into one view - constructivist-progressive - that is opposed to high-stakes testing and state-mandated, standardized school curricula.

Given the divide between "back to basics" and the "constructivist-progressive" models, one would expect education schools to expose students to both points of view. Our research (which covered 165 syllabi of required courses in the foundations of education, the teaching of reading, and teaching methodology) strongly suggested, however, that at many of our highest ranked schools of education, the constructivist-progressivist arguments are being taught to the almost complete exclusion of the other, direct instruction model.

We found that texts by Mr. Hirsch and Ms. Ravitch and other likeminded authors were required readings in only one or two compulsory courses in all of those we examined. Yet in the majority of programs that required any philosophy of education, education policy, or educational psychology, readings from John Dewey, Henry Giroux, or Howard Gardner were prominently featured.

We also found noted problems in the courses where students gain teaching experience. Only three out of 59 such courses we reviewed, in 11 different schools, used audio or video recordings of students' practice teaching. Moreover, schools of education generally use adjunct appointees, not regular faculty, to supervise and evaluate student-teachers.

Finally, we found very little evidence in any of the programs we reviewed that teachers were being prepared to teach in a high-stakes testing environment.

A first study is never definitive, and the very difficulty of getting the relevant data should provoke reasoned discussion about our research. Naively perhaps, we were not prepared for the outright denunciation of our work by education faculty. Some professors of education argued that course syllabi should not be taken seriously - to which our response is to wonder whether they say as much to their students when they hand out syllabi at the start of a semester. Others said our standards for reviewing required readings were personal and political. Our judgment that future teachers should be exposed to both sides of the major educational debate is, however, no more personal or political than the practice of restricting that exposure to only one viewpoint. Most strikingly, however, has been the reluctance - to date - of our critics to offer an affirmative defense of what they teach future teachers.

If the courses we analyzed are typical of those required at the great majority of schools of education, we confront a paradox. At the same time as states are putting in place high-stakes testing and accountability regimes for students and schools, they are authorizing teacher-preparation programs that teach distrust and even opposition to this same regime.

While it is an open question whether the preparation of teachers should be governed by prevailing national and state education policy, is it right that state mandated programs teach largely criticism of that policy? It is hard to see how such an incoherent approach best prepares teachers to help our children succeed in school.

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