Teaching Reform Follow-Up: Mr. D Speaks to Susan Engel

The Neighborhood would like to welcome Dr. Susan Engel to our site.  Dr. Engel is a senior lecturer in psychology and the director of the teaching program at Williams College.

Yesterday’s post on Engel’s op-ed in the New York Times really got our gears going.  Thus, we had the opportunity to ask Dr. Engel some more questions about teacher education and its reform in our country.

Mr. D: Dr. Engel, you’ve written about the shortcomings of education programs in this country.  Which do you see as the greater problem, the weaker students that have entered education programs, or the programs themselves?

Dr. Engel: The two are fairly inseparable. If programs were livelier, more intellectually rich, and involved the most interesting faculty they would attract great students. A graduate program should be an intellectual community, where the quality of the students and faculty influence one another.

Mr. D: Are there any programs/departments/schools of education in this country that you see currently as exemplars, or at the very least moving in the direction you are suggesting?

Dr. Engel: Absolutely. Bank Street in NYC is a wonderful program. However, it doesn’t have the resources to support talented students who need financial help. Some colleges are getting involved- though some, like Williams, only offer an undergraduate focus on teaching. But to become a great teacher you need a good four year undergraduate experience and then graduate training- just like doctors. We need to re-invent the graduate component of the process- so that it is rigorous, lively, and includes interesting people at all levels.

Mr. D: Many departments have developed strong relationships with school districts in their immediate areas.   New York City’s Department of Education’s connections with area schools like Teachers College is an example.  Do these kinds of relationships help or hinder the quality of an education program?

Dr. Engel: IT is essential for graduate programs to have partnerships with local schools.  But it’s important for those partnerships to be real- college faculty doing research with classroom teachers, classroom teachers getting new ideas about their practice from faculty and graduate students. It’s also important that graduate students don’t only learn the practices required by state mandates- especially when those practices aren’t very good. Young teachers need to learn what’s best, not simply what already exists.

Mr. D: Aside from teachers, school administrators must also undergo education programs for degrees in administration and school leadership.  Many administrators bemoan a lack of preparedness from this process.  Do you see a similar pattern in these programs as you do in teaching programs?

Dr. Engel: Yes, we need to rethink the way educational leaders learn their craft. Dennis Littky has wonderful ideas about this. Learning to expedite papers may be useful, but it’s not what turns someone into the kind of leader who will encourage great teaching, turn a school into a true community, or come up with new solutions.

Mr. D: If Secretary Duncan were to spearhead a national effort to improve teacher programs, he would enter into areas long dominated by university systems that operate relatively independently.  Many colleges would be hard pressed to give up the revenue from their “diploma mills.”  As an administrator, what obstacles would universities need to overcome in order to implement the necessary reforms in teacher education?

Dr. Engel: Well, the trouble is, often existing programs already function as the poor cousins to the more intellectually exciting parts of the university. I’m not sure they can change enough to change their relationship to the rest of the university. One of the biggest problems right now is that the faculty who teach teachers are so disconnected from the faculty who teach the subject matter future teachers are going to teach. In addition, it might be difficult for the faculty in these existing  programs to change the way they function enough to make a big difference. On the other hand, some of these faculty members might thrive with a new set of goals and a new way of structuring things.

If I were Bill Gates I would give less money to specific schools, and use that money to endow brand new graduate programs in teaching- ones that attracted the most interesting faculty and students, to do things in a whole new way.

Mr. D: I’d like to express my sincere thanks to Dr. Engel for further enlightening us on a topic that is on the minds of everyone in the education community.  Education is a multifaceted process, and one large part of it is quality teaching.  Please let us know here at the Neighborhood if you have any questions or comments about this topic.  Thank you.

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