Education leaders don't have all the answers, apparently
Here’s what happened when I asked the governor of Maryland today whether he would want one of his children to be in a classroom with a teacher who had five weeks of training, as the Teach for America program gives before sending young people into America’s toughest schools:
Gov. Martin O'Malley didn’t directly answer the question.
This occurred when the newly reelected governor visited Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring along with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel.
The powerful trio met with an ESOL science class and a journalism class -- as part of the NEA’s American Education Week -- to encourage young people to consider teaching as a profession. Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jerry Weast was watching from the side, as were other education officials from Maryland.
The students watched a short video (which mentioned Teach for America) created by the Education Department about the importance of increasing the number of minority teachers, and then Duncan, O’Malley and Van Roekel each took turns complimenting each other while speaking about their priorities and the importance of public education and teaching.
If you didn’t know that the NEA president and the education secretary take radically different views on many aspects of education reform, you wouldn’t have been able to tell from listening to them. When Van Roekel said, “Teachers used to be revered, they’ve been beaten down a little bit,” he did not even hint that many of the 3.2 million members of his organization believe that Duncan’s policies have contributed to what they believe is an assault on their profession through policies that, for example, support linking standardized test scores to teacher evaluation and pay, and that hold teachers responsible for a student’s achievement without factoring in other influences on a child.
A number of students (kids in grades 10 to 12) in the journalism class asked some great questions: One was about improving standardized tests; another was whether an emphasis on competition and standardized testing was the best message to send to young people.
The first student question in that class came from Ruth Aitken, who asked, “How will Teach for America reform our education system?”
Smart question. Supporters of Teach for America sometimes portray it as the savior of public education, attracting the smartest college graduates into the program, which gives them five weeks of training and then places them in urban schools -- to teach kids who really need the best-trained, most inspirational teachers -- with a commitment that they will stay for two years. The dropout rate is even higher than the high dropout rate for all teachers, which is 50 percent within five years.
Teach for America’s Web site states that the program is “a critical source of well-trained teachers who are helping break the cycle of educational inequity.”
Education historian Diane Ravitch recently noted in a speech that the claim is bogus, addressing Teach for America officials:
“But I would urge you please, stop claiming that TFA will close the achievement gap. That may be a nice slogan but nobody can teach for two or three years and close the achievement gap. Closing the achievement gap requires a lot more than really smart and dedicated young people with five weeks of training and a lot of enthusiasm. It requires highly skilled career professionals with deep experience who are willing to stick to the profession. ... You send out a false message that your corps of young people is all that it takes, and that’s not true.
So Aitken’s question deserved an answer. But she didn’t really get one.
Duncan fielded the question. He said he “is a fan of Teach for America” and then talked about the importance of having different ways to bring new teachers into the classroom. “TFA is a piece of the answer,” he said.
Van Roekel, in response to a question, said he believes it is vital to “understand and know” that teaching “is a profession,” just like law and medicine. It takes more than just knowing some subject matter, and it takes real training, he said.
Duncan agreed that teaching should be seen as more of a profession, but didn’t explain how that squares with his support for Teach for America and other programs that provide minimal training to people who want to be teachers.
I wanted to ask him about that, but he left before O'Malley and Van Roekel because of a tight schedule.
So I asked O’Malley, and as part of my question, I asked whether he would want a child of his to be in a class with a teacher who was trained for five weeks.
First he questioned “the supposition” of my question, though I’m not sure what he meant. Maybe he doesn’t know the level of training that Teach for America teachers are given before they go into the classroom.
Then he said Maryland has “had some success” in attracting Teach for America teachers and that some had been successful in raising test scores in some schools. Standardized test scores again? He is measuring their success based on standardized test scores, which we know can be manipulated by test prep?
O’Malley is seen as a friend of public education by many people in that world. He received the 2010 America’s Greatest Education Governor Award from the NEA, the country’s largest teachers union.
I don’t know O’Malley, but he is obviously a very smart, thoughtful man, who, I think, knows that some of the reform being pushed by the Obama administration is suspect.
I think a lot of public officials in government and in the world of education know it. I wish more would publicly admit it.
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| November 18, 2010; 1:37 PM ET
Categories: Education Secretary Duncan, Teachers | Tags: arne duncan, dropout rates, education secretary arne duncan, education secretary duncan, gov. martin o'malley, gov. o'malley, jerry weast, martin o'malley, mcpa, montgomery blair high school, montgomery county public schools, national education association, nea, standardized tests, teach for america, teachers, teaching profession
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