Cracks in the Ivory Tower? The Views of Education Professors Circa 2010

(This blog entry, which first appeared in the Education Gadfly, was co-authored by Mike Petrilli and Janie Scull.)

Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College is a publishing phenomenon. Since its release earlier this year, it has hovered within or near the top 100 books on What Lemov is selling—forty-nine nitty-gritty tips and practical tools culled from observing uber-effective teachers—is clearly in high demand. But why is it in such short supply?

Because a majority of America’s education school professors—the instructors responsible for preparing the lion’s share of our nation’s teachers—remain committed to romantic/progressivist ideals and shrug off the mission of transmitting Lemov-style tips and tools to aspiring teachers.

That’s one take-away from Fordham’s newest report, Cracks in the Ivory Tower? The Views of Education Professors Circa 2010. The study, authored by veteran analysts Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett, surveyed over 700 education professors across the land to determine how they view their own roles and what they think of myriad K-12 policy developments that have taken place over the last decade. It uncovers some troubling trends among the professoriate. For example:

  • Only 24 percent believe it “absolutely essential” to produce “teachers who understand how to work with the state’s standards, tests and accountability systems”;
  • Just 37 percent say it is “absolutely essential” to focus on developing “teachers who maintain discipline and order in the classroom”; and
  • Fewer than two in five find it “absolutely essential” to “create teachers who are trained to address the challenges of high-needs students in urban districts.”

To be fair, many professors think these things are important—just not that important. What’s more important to them is forming “change agents”—new teachers who push back against school practices and resist modern reforms, reforms that have little to do with the romantic view of schooling that so many of Dewey’s descendents so ardently espouse. The professors see themselves as philosophers and evangelists, not as master craftsmen sharing tradecraft with apprentices and journeymen.

This is nothing new. Stanford University’s David Labaree, a respected historian of education, explains that, as far back as the early twentieth century, school reformers were pushing for efficiency and utility, while education professors wanted schools to help individual children blossom and develop a lifelong love of learning. Eventually the professors lost that argument and the K-12 system embraced the efficiency movement. But this outcome cast education professors as little more than vocational instructors, preparing their charges to enter a uniform teaching force and school system—one that had limited patience for the professors’ idealistic educational values.

And they didn’t much like it. As Labaree writes, theirs was now “a job, to be sure, but not much of a mission.” So the professors clung to the “individual child” ideology, no matter what the system was calling for, and no matter what children—and classroom instructors—actually needed to succeed. By assigning a higher purpose to their work—instilling in new teachers the estimable belief that every child’s path is unique—they sought to legitimize their own profession in the eyes of the public and, of course, themselves.

In 2010, the United States has grown only more practical and demanding when it comes to K-12 education. Today we find little margin for error—and less space for romanticism. That’s why real-world insights and practical tips such as Lemov’s are in such demand. That’s why “alternate routes” into classrooms are gaining popularity (despite a recent courtroom set-back. That’s also why criticism is mounting of traditional education schools and teacher-preparation programs. Americans now demand that new teachers hit the ground running—and continue running, dodging all obstacles in their path, so as to boost student achievement and help schools realize their learning objectives.

Most education professors simply aren’t there yet. But to be fair, this survey also brought modest good news—more than we found in a similar survey thirteen years ago. Today, we find a sizable minority of professors that is both critical of standard ed-school practice and also accepting of their role in preparing teachers for the real world of today’s schools. We also find “adjunct” faculty members (vs. the full-time tenured kind) to be more concerned about lesson planning and classroom management. Minority professors tend to be more focused on the challenges of high-needs students. And those with recent classroom experience of their own are more attuned to weeding out unqualified teaching candidates than those who have been out of school classrooms for twenty-plus years.

The professors are also unexpectedly reform-minded on a few issues. They favor tougher policies for awarding tenure to teachers, financial incentives for those who work in tough neighborhoods, a core curriculum that teaches the classics—even Teach For America. Most also assert that their institutions should be held accountable for the quality of the teachers they graduate and that teachers should be made to pass tests demonstrating proficiency in key subjects before they are hired. The study even identifies a faculty segment—labeled “Reformers”—that is strongly dissatisfied with the status quo and agitating for change across the board.

But there’s no widespread reform zeal, either. The ed-school professoriate is divided in its support of value-added measures to evaluate teacher effectiveness, for instance, and barely one-third want to see financial incentives for extraordinarily effective teachers.

Still and all, these campuses contain some potential allies for reformers—anti-pie-in-the-sky individuals in touch with what our next generation of teachers will need to succeed. In other words, there are cracks in the Ivory Tower—cracks that, with a little outside encouragement, might be widened.

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