Photo: Graur Codrin (click photo to link)

Monday, September 27, 2010

Waiting for Superman in Michigan

I know that NBC's hype of the release of "Waiting for Superman" has stirred up feelings in a large number of dissatisfied "customers" of the "education market". Since I don't believe that public schooling should be market-driven, but rather serves a common democratic good of preparing an informed citizenry, I felt the need to address some of the complaints and claims that I saw today in the SpecialEdLawMichigan listserv. These revolved around teacher preparation, teacher qualifications, and teacher quality. Notice that "teacher" loomed largest in the finger-pointing. The most publicly visible, teachers take an awful lot of unearned abuse. So here's what I posted in response to the comments, mostly about process, but a little about systems.

I served as co-chair of the Professional Standards Commission for
Teachers until I began my doctoral studies in special education. This
was nearly ten years ago, and we recommended the addition of the
"Seventh Standard" for technology. At that time, there were teachers
who still did not use computers for record-keeping, for integration of
technology into instruction, or, most importantly, to create access to
the general curriculum. As one of the members of the ad hoc team
looking at the standard, and as a special educator and parent of a child
with learning disabilities, I advised the team to be sure to include
universal design, and assistive technology as part of this standard.

Because I served on this commission, I learned a few things that I can
bring to bear on this conversation.

First, elementary teachers come out of their initial preparation with
one or two education classes in almost any content area within their
programs. This means that they have had minimal exposure to the
pedagogical (teaching skills) aspects of language arts, social studies,
science and math. So, this needs to be factored into the equation when
one considers where to focus one's energy on improving the education
system. There is only so much time that colleges can expect students to
remain dependent on loans, financial aid, and their parents.

Second, some programs have one or two courses in meeting the needs of
diverse learners, including students with special educational needs.
Others, including MSU, have integrated special education content into
every education course taught in the elementary teacher education
program. I was one of many doctoral students working with faculty at
MSU in the teacher education program over a five year period to analyze
the goals of each course and to identify the best researched practices
in special education to help instructors integrate special education
concerns into their courses. Susan Peters, Ph.D. led this initiative. We
also identified teaching resources (videos, speakers, web content) to
support their instruction. Instructors in elementary education come from
a broad range of backgrounds, and so the deliberate infusion of special
educational content is one of the ways to improve the general level of
knowledge for both faculty and students in the program. It probably
doesn't go the full distance toward "fixing the system" but it is a
promising start, since it attaches knowledge about special education to
the context in which education students will apply it.

Third, when new teachers enter the classroom, they have two years of
general college coursework (a major and a minor), and about two years of
a mixture of education coursework and additional general courses. They
also have varying amounts of experience with teaching in a classroom.
Some programs embed classroom experiences throughout their education
courses, others offer the minimum required classroom contact for student
teaching. That's what you get in a new teacher. (See my comment about
remaining dependent, above).

Fourth, teachers are trained in 4 to 5 years, and shell out tuition for
that period of time, just like many starting college-educated
professionals. Many are in debt, because they are unable to work while
they are student teaching. We also require them to continue their
learning throughout their teaching years in order to maintain their
credentials. One of the least-supported areas of learning for most
teachers is the professional development offered by their school
districts. Funding is low, and priorities may reflect the need to
bolster test scores, rather than more elusive things such as the success
of all students upon completion of their schooling. Districts are faced
with the dilemma of providing qualified substitutes so that teachers can
attend professional conferences, and in-house professional development
can range in relevance and quality from trivial to vital, depending on
the leadership (principals and central office administrators) within the
district. Many districts use data to enhance the academic skills of
their teachers but offer very little to enhance their pedagogical skills
(how to teach diverse children, e.g.)

My point is: if you are dissatisfied with the skill sets that teachers
bring to bear for children with special educational needs, make sure
that you support efforts to improve their opportunities for learning.
Within every academic workshop offered by a district, there needs to be
some support for how teachers can differentiate for diverse learners,
what the district can offer in universally designed curriculum
materials, and how to support access to the curriculum through IEP
development. This responsibility cannot fall entirely on the shoulders
of teachers.

Oh, and as a side note, I was an AP student in high school, a National
Merit Letter recipient, graduating with high distinction from UM, and
qualified as one of the first National Board Certified Teachers in the
country, certifying as an Early Adolescent Generalist while teaching in
a special education resource room, because there wasn't a certificate
for teachers in special education. Smart and talented people do go
into teaching and it is our job, I believe, to encourage them to enter
the profession, to support their continued growth and service to the
profession, and compensate them appropriately for their work.

Kathleen Kosobud, M.A., N.B.C.T., A.B.D. (all but dissertation)