Tag Archives: Teacher education

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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Finally, Someone Who Agrees! Susan Engel on Teacher Education in NY Times


AB35108A while back, while I was contemplating life across a lake in the Maine woods, I penned a screed lamenting the lack of respect teachers get in America.  I pointed out that part of the problem is that teacher education in this country is of a generally poor quality.  It sucks, plain and simple.

Two people have since piped up on the issue.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed this very issue a few weeks back with remarks made at (surprise, surprise) Teachers College at Columbia.  Furthermore, Susan Engel, Director of the Teaching program at Williams College, recently wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times that builds on Secretary Duncan’s remarks towards an action plan for the system.

Engel writes about how teacher education has little respect, because of its lack of selectivity and rigor.  Thus, according to Engel, “…the strongest students are often in colleges that have no interest in education, while the most inspiring professors aren’t working with students who want to teach. This means that comparatively weaker students in less intellectually rigorous programs are the ones preparing to become teachers.”

Her plan involves a number of points, namely to increase student selectivity while making programs tuition free.  This prevents the “diploma mill” mentality of so many university administrators when looking at education. 

Furthermore, teachers would be trained in subject areas and in a clinical mentoring model similar to medical school.  The best way to learn how to teach is to do it–I know, and it’s quite a learning experience.  Engel also stresses the need for intense mentoring, monitoring and feedback on practices.  This is a quantum leap from the squishy “reflection papers” that often read like D papers at a Comparative Lit class at Vasser. 

Teachers and administrators, take a hard look at what Engel is proposing.  It is probably difficult, if not impossible, to implement such a program wholesale.  Yet Engel’s argument is definitely a step in the right direction.


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A Master’s Degree Can’t be This Easy! A Proposal to Improve Teacher Prestige

577736727_0ca0e96070Maybe I was the exception, but the easiest time I had at school was the two years when I earned my Masters Degree.

Coming out of an elite northeastern college, I had expected graduate education to be of the “Beautiful Mind” type: overcompetitive scientist/historian/scholar types with stuffy professors that smoke pot and screw their teaching assistants–oh, wait, that was college.  Well, grad school school was supposed to be more of the same: rigorous academic research, meticulous papers, brutal feedback, tweed jackets.

“Rigorous” would not describe my teaching degree program.  Papers that would have gotten belly laughs at the Georgetown sociology department were getting plaudits and “A’s.”  I coasted through many of the classes without reading any of the books.  By the last semester, I hadn’t bought a single book.  Classroom discussion descended into bitching sessions about students, administrators, parents–definitely important, but not entirely suitable for a graduate classroom.

This wouldn’t be much of a problem twenty years ago.  Yet today, with the insistence of higher teacher standards, accountability, and especially the inevitable demise of summer vacation, education has to take a hard look in the mirror.  We need to get our own house in order so that we can demand the concessions we deserve, such as commensurate pay and benefits.

I know I won’t make friends with this column, but it is necessary for the future of our profession.  Teaching, for all its rewards, has a severe image problem.  Teachers get into the profession because it is “easy.”  They only work 10 months a year.  If they were smarter, they’d make more money in a “real” job.  In short, teaching has very little respect in America.

Much, though not all, of the blame has to do with one aspect of this profession.  Getting an education degree is entirely too easy.

Historically, teacher education has gotten the shaft because of its evolution as a “woman’s” job.  Unlike other professions such as the law or medicine, teaching has not had a long history of focused professionalization.  The first teaching schools were called “normal schools” meant to teach women (and some men) the ins and outs of education and working with children.  As they developed into the first education schools, these institutions still carried the “stigma” associated with a female-oriented profession.  Thus their lack of resources, funding and respect.

This still exists today, and it revolves around two key issues.  The first is ease of entry: aside from a handful of select programs, such as Teachers’ College (TC) at Columbia University, education programs are not known to be particularly selective, at least from an academic standpoint.  This is why many people who have not found much success in other areas come to education.  If education is filled with the leftovers of economic progress, it is no wonder teachers lack respect in the wider community.

Once a person is in a graduate program, though, the experiences vary in terms of rigor, focus and utility.  Many of the older, more established programs such as TC have coupled the classical methods of theory and analysis with workshops of curriculum development and classroom management.  The vast majority of programs, however, are moving toward the workshop model.  This gives needed help to the rookie teacher, but it can’t be described as academically rigorous.

In fact, if there was a word that described education programs, it would be “tedious.” There is a lot of work, but none of it is truly of the hard-nosed, rigorous research that would merit an academic journal.  Take my final project, for example–a hodgepodge of papers, lesson plans, and “reflections” meant to show my “growth” as an educator.  This task of accumulation and cataloging was a pain in my ass, but not intellectually stimulating.  In fact, it was more of an exercise in bullshit, as many of my colleagues never even did their lesson plans, having students write out “work” hastily to show “evidence” of classroom instruction.

In any other setting, such work would merit expulsion.  That’s the problem.  If teachers want to argue for a pay on par with our academic credentials, then we should have academic credentials worth fighting for.  Our profession has more graduate degrees than almost any other, people like Harry Wong like to crow.  Yet degrees work on supply and demand as well; if everyone can get one, it isn’t worth anything.

Doctors, lawyers, even MBAs get more because society values their work more.  Its harder to enter these professional schools, and the work is often more rigorous.  Teachers work much harder, in many cases.  Yet they will never get the respect of these other professions if training is so easy to obtain and complete.  It isn’t fair, but it’s the truth.

One might argue that this will lead to severe teacher shortages.  This may be true, but ask yourself this: do you want to risk a classroom of children with someone who is underqualified and undereducated?  Believe me, if education programs become more rigorous and selective nationwide, all teachers will benefit.  Salaries will soar.  Opportunities will abound.  Our profession will enjoy a respect it has never had before.

All comments and critiques are welcome.


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