For the Next Gen of Teacher Candidates, Content Should be King

With many public school systems now entering week 10 of their new coronavirus normal, as community school buildings remain shuttered and millions of students try to learn through digital platforms, talk of “the return” to the good ol’ days is growing louder and louder.

Sure, some continue to declare their success in mastering virtual education, but far more are trying to prepare for what traditional school will look like in a traditional environment for the 2020-21 school year. Images of students wearing facemasks and distancing contraptions have already started to fill social media, as educators come to grips with months of lost instruction due to Covid-19, a virtual learning environment offered largely to tread instructional water instead of teaching new content. In response, some are calling for summer school for all to avoid the expected slide from the current to the next school year while others suggest the need to repeat the current grade.

Last week, Chiefs for Change – a group of reform-minded public school superintendents and school administrators – offered a thoughtful report on what school leaders should consider as they look toward the return of a school-building-based instructional year this fall. In The Return: How Should School Leaders Prepare for Reentry and Beyond?, the Chiefs explore a number of important – and controversial – topics, ranging from abandoning the agrarian school calendar (one that currently gives educators and learners summers off) to more “intently focusing on the social and emotional wellbeing and skills of students.”

More interestingly, Chiefs for Change called for school systems across the country to adopt staffing models that focused on educators with deep subject matter and instructional expertise. Yes, this spring’s virtual schooling experiment has demonstrated that the pedagogy and classroom management skills largely taught in colleges of education across the nation do not necessarily translate to teachers successfully managing a virtual classroom on an online platform. For every media story one sees of an elementary school classroom taught via Zoom, with a shared screen that looks like the Brady Bunch on steroids, there are dozens of untold stories of online platforms being used simply as electronic bulletin boards, where teachers simply post assignments for students to collect and complete, providing a thumbs up when any effort is demonstrated by the learner to complete them.

In its recommendations, Chiefs for Change also pulls back a closely-held secret in teacher education. Many teachers are not expert in the content areas they teach. Those who teach U.S. history, for instance, often major in history education, not in American history. The same can be said about those who teach chemistry or biology, the majority of whom leave their teacher education programs with degrees in science education, not in the specific content area. One can even consider the typical elementary school educator, tasked with teaching reading and math and beginning science while equipped with a degree in elementary education that likely provided only some survey courses on a range of content areas, with an emphasis on needed physical classroom management skills.

For years now, reformers have preached about the need to dramatically transform pre-service teacher education. In the early days, the focus was on alternative certification programs and having teacher candidates avoid the “status quo” teachers colleges altogether. More recently, advocates have looked to alternative approaches to traditional teacher education models, with institutions like the Relay/Graduate School of Education becoming the aspirational model.

Decades of research into the most effective approaches to teacher education demonstrate the importance of both strong content knowledge and effective pedagogy. When groups like Chiefs for Change talk about content knowledge, they are essentially noting that novice teachers should be coming to the classroom with a broad and substantial liberal education, one that translates into strong content knowledge of classroom teachers, regardless of the academic subject they are licensed to teach.

A first glance, we may be looking for too much from undergraduate teacher education, expecting all aspiring educators to start as teachers of record with strong, research-based backgrounds in both the subject areas they teach and the most effective ways to teach and lead a classroom. Our new educational normal, though, has clearly demonstrated that the current emphasis on pedagogy and classroom management is woefully insufficient for the uncertain years ahead.

The coming generations of k-12 educators may be digital natives, but they are largely still being prepared in teachers colleges constructed for an analog world. Until their clinical experiences include virtual instruction, and until their preparation focuses on the importance of subject matter content and how to make it interesting, relevant, and understood by all in their classroom, our instructional struggles will continue.

We can do better. We should do better. Ed schools should be committed to preparing world-class educators. School districts should be focused on hiring teachers well prepared in both content and pedagogy, with the assessments to demonstrate their mastery of both. And we all should embrace efforts to ensure our kids’ teachers are truly the best in the world, with the preservice education, in-service supports, and high-quality instructional materials needed for learners to succeed today … and tomorrow.

 

(This piece also appears on Medium.)

A Proposal for Heroes

Many of us are fond of throwing around the phrase, “those who cannot remember the past are destined to repeat it.” Dear ol’ Eduflack is fortunate enough to be the son of an historian, a presidential historian at that, meaning that from my earliest days, I was taught American history and its importance to both today and tomorrow.

I can vividly recall my father teaching my about presidential politics as we watched the results of the 1980 elections reported on television. I remember sitting in the back of the lecture hall as a middle schooler as he taught college students in New York City. I still smile when I think of dinner table conversations and debates regarding everything from what I was learning in school to what title my dad should put on his two-volume history of the U.S. presidency (Ferocious Engine of Democracy was the big winner).

Trained as a social scientist and historian, my father spent much of his professional career as a college president, leading three institutions of higher education (one private and two public). Dr. Michael P. Riccards then went on to serve as the public policy scholar in residence at the College Board for many years, only to “start” retirement by creating and leading a successful public policy institute headquartered in New Jersey.

Those who know Dr. (or President) Riccards would not be at all surprised that he has is now applying his lifetime of both scholarship and successful, results-based leadership to now help policymakers navigate our coronavirus world. He put pen to paper to create a “Proposal to Heroes,” designed to be a policy response to Covid-19 akin to the G.I. Bill and its initial response to World War II. The idea has already sparked a great deal of conversation, with Dr. Riccards working with several state governments to explore the feasibility of such an approach.

For the past decade, Eduflack has resisted having “guest posts” on these electronic pages. But today, I make an important exception. Today, I provide the context for the “Proposal to Heroes” offered by Dr. Michael P. Riccards.

 

In  1944 Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the Servicemen’s  Readjustment Act or the G. I. Bill. Originated by the American Legion, the act provided a series of benefits for returning veterans.  Only about 6% of the armed forces were to see combat, but all were eligible.  Among those who took advantage of the act was George H. W. Bush, Gerald Ford, Al Gore Jr., Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Judge John Paul Stevens, David Brinkley, John Chancellor, Clint  Eastwood, Paul Newman and coach Tom Landry.

After only Social Security, it remains one of the most popular  federal programs initiated by the government.  Benefits have been enlarged over the years.  They included at first low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans to start a business or farm, one year of unemployment compensation, and dedicated payments of tuition and living expenses to attend high school, college or vocational school.  Benefits were available for veterans who had served at least 90 days and were honorably discharged.

This proposal for heroes is meant to deal with heroic sacrifices made in the pandemic of 2020 and who served their nation in its time of peril.

WHO IS ELIGIBLE

Those who served during this period of national emergency certified by executive order, the governors or other government agencies.  This group includes medical responders, hospital workers including in tribal clinics, and related medical servers and custodians.  Also included will be those who were called essential workers and were so defined by the President’s executive orders, first line workers including police, firefighters, and clerical people.  Doctors, nurses, and medical providers may use these funds to help pay off educational debts. In the event of the death of a responder, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs shall create a schedule of transferable benefits.

WHY

It is obvious that these sacrifices were above and beyond the call of duty. When the pandemic subsides, these individuals should reap some benefits  that extraordinary expressions of valor warrants.  These provisions in the GI Bill had incredible unintended consequences: they created a new middle class which produced a wave of prosperity and general uplift of the population.  This new bill will create a new middle class, one that will focus on newer immigrant and first generation Americans who will be able to use especially their educational opportunity and financial security to buttress the very underpinnings of modern American democracy.  The questions of income inequality will be muted, and the entire nation will benefit from many more health care workers which may be needed as we continue to fight other pandemics.

ADMINISTRATION

Since these provisions are so similar to the GI Bills of Rights, they will be administrated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs by a special committee of six members, appointed by the President and each house of the U.S. Congress.

INVESTMENTS

The Income Tax Code provides all sorts of investment benefits, recognizing that such allocations create economic and social opportunities.  Public policy studies, including done in the past by the Hall Institute, show that the GI Bill brought a 6-1 multiplier effect in the long run to the federal treasury,  it proves that the best investment in America is in Americans.

Without question, it is an intriguing idea offered through the lens of how the United States has responded to crises and to those who have unselfishly served their nation and their community. It is definitely worth a meaningful debate.

Engaging Twitter On American History

For the last two years, dear ol’ Eduflack has committed much of his professional life to improving the teaching and learning of American history. This started by leading a national research initiative that highlighted the dire need to boost American history knowledge in the United States.

We found that fewer than four in 10 Americans could pass a basic history quiz based on questions from the practice exams for the U.S. citizenship test. We followed it up with a 50-State survey using the same questions, resulting in only one state out of the 50 (plus DC) scoring higher than 50 percent.

Such surveys occur all the time. Working with ASPR, we were able to generate hundreds of news stories across the nation to spotlight the issue. For months and months, newspapers, opinion columnists, radio hosts, and the like have reported on these findings and the need to dramatically improve how we teach U.S. history.

We know, though, that social media is king. In addition to working with the mainstream media, we invested major effort into using Twitter to share this information with those who needed it most. Through a twitter push, nearly half a million Americans took the survey as an online quiz. And millions of voices on Twitter have kept the conversation going, ensuring that this important discussion was not a “one-day” story.

The reaction from media, social media, and the public at large is one of reasons Eduflack has decided to launch a major national initiative to provide interesting, relevant American history video content, lesson plans, and professional development to current classroom teachers. This new effort will officially begin this summer.

But I am incredibly humbled to receive the 2020 Social Media Award for having the most engaged Twitter followers compared to other public engagement campaigns.

Thanks to all who helped make this possible, including Adam Shapiro, Stacey Finkel, Dorie Nolt, and Frances Hannah. The award itself is nice, but more importantly, it signifies how important an issue improving American history education is and how we can use social media, including YouTube, to begin to tackle it.

When It Comes To History, Let’s Go To The Video Tape

Yes, we need to improve the teaching and learning of history. If we are sincere about it, we not only need to take new approaches, but we need to make sure those approaches -like video – align with student interests and preferences.

On the latest episode of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network, I explore exactly what that means and why it is so important. Give it a listen!

Transforming Teacher Education

“We can’t expect an English teacher to teach without access to literature. We can’t expect a music teacher to teach without employing actual music. We can’t expect a history teacher to teach without a working knowledge of the past. It’s common sense that we provide teachers with the knowledge and tools needed to effectively teach. That means more than just the necessary novel sets or science labs. It also includes a comprehensive preparation program that begins when they first set foot on a college campus and continues until they have become a teacher of record.”

From dear ol’ Eduflack’s latest over at the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper, where I write on the need to overhaul teacher education as we look at our post-coronavirus school needs

Appreciating Teachers, Including My Mom

Teacher Appreciation Week has a bit of a different meaning for many of us this year. The past two months have recast k-12 education in ways few of us have planned for. Amid all of the news stories of parents who have grown past frustrated with this new era of virtual education and tales of teacher “parades” and six-feet apart visits with students who need them the most, there are some important lessons many are learning about what goes into effective teaching and what skills and knowledge teachers today (and tomorrow) need to properly adapt to anything that might be thrown in their way.

In addition to the policy implications, Teacher Appreciation Week also provides the opportunity to reflect on those k-12 educators who have had the greatest impact on me as a both a learner and a contributing member of the great American citizenry. For me, I find it incredibly difficult to single out one teacher worthy of thanks.  I think of Mr. Wolf, my second grade teacher and the first “boy teacher” I had.  Or Mr. Ertmer, who taught me both economics and world history and also got me to DC for the first time through Close Up.  Or Ms. Walker (now Mrs. Sowers), my AP English teacher and student government advisor who let me question whether or not Shakespeare was really worth all the hype.

I’m also a firm believer that parents are our first teacher, and they are often our most important.  So in honor of National Teacher Appreciation Day, I need to recognize Mrs. Riccards, my mother and a damned good high school English teacher in her own right.  I was never privileged to have my mom as a teacher (that would have been too grand a punishment for such a terrific woman).  But to this day, both in my personal and my professional lives, I reflect on the lessons she taught me and her experiences in the classroom.

My mother joined the teaching profession as a mid-career.  When my youngest sister hit school age, my mom went back to school to get her teaching certificate.  She student taught at an Indian school in New Mexico. She went on to teach 10thgrade English at urban, rural, and suburban schools in New Mexico, West Virginia, Massachusetts, and Washington, DC. My mother taught in traditional public schools, charter schools, and independent schools.

She walked the picket lines in West Virginia for two weeks, striking with every NEA teacher across the state for better pay and working conditions (they succeeded).  She was a tough teacher, always pushing her students and demanding hard work.  While many would try, no one could get her to compromise her standards, not even for star athletes, relentless parents, or administrators who didn’t want the hassle.  As a result, her students learned and achieved.  She probably had the greatest impact on all of the “basic” students she taught over the years, kids that many people had given up on, but she wouldn’t.  She pushed them, and they responded.  They learned the five-paragraph essay.  They learned American literature.  And they learned responsibility and to set high expectations for themselves.

And me?  My mom was the first to point out I have a tendency to write in the passive voice.  At an early age, she made clear she and my father would never pay for grades.  “You don’t earn them for me, they are for you,” she would say.  She has always been proud of me, encouraging and pushing me.  But she is also quick to tell me when I am being too hard on teachers, when my expectations of school improvement are out of line, or when my position didn’t align with what a classroom teacher experiences.

So in honor of National Teacher Appreciation Week (and this weekend’s Mother’s Day), I offer a big thank you to a truly terrific teacher, Mrs. Riccards (or Ma, or Grandma at this point).  Know you are both loved and appreciated by generations of students who are better off for having crossed your path (no matter how tough you may have been in that classroom).

As I reflect on those teachers, including my parents, that have had the most lasting of impacts on me, I can now see some key attributes that made them enormously successful as educators. They all received rigorous, comprehensive educations that provided them with a broad higher education experience that prepared them for any challenge in the classroom. They all believed in a collaborative approach, working closely with families, with community leaders, and even with higher education to strengthen and improve the teaching and learning process. And they were all firm believes in “lifelong learning,” recognizing that their pursuit of both content knowledge and pedagogy did not end once they earned their masters degrees in achieved tenure. They all knew one learns across a lifetime, not for a finite period, and they passed that lesson on to all those learners they encountered.

Decades of research have shown that the single-most important factor in school success is an effective teacher. One of the reasons I do what I now do – focusing on how to improve educator preparation to ensure more effective teachers and more engaged learners – is because I had some of those effective teachers, those best in the world teachers. They made a real difference for me, and I believe that ever learner – regardless of race, family income, or zip code – should have similarly life-changing teachers in their lives.

Those life-changing educators are the ones that every parent overseeing virtual home school today is trying to challenge. And they are teachers we should remember each and every day.

(This post also appeared on Medium.)

 

Evaluating Teachers? During Lockdown?

With most schools closed for coronavirus, so many of us are longing for a return to normal. While none of us know what the post-covid new normal may be, we expect it will include many of our tried-and-true activities and behaviors.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that some school districts are still looking at how to conduct traditional teacher evaluations, even when there is nothing traditional about school today. No, we shouldn’t be surprised, but we should be appalled.

Over on the BAM! Radio Network, we discuss what a bad idea teacher evaluations a la lockdown are, and how we really need to direct our attentions elsewhere. Give it a listen!