Scenes from an Ed School

It’s 10:30 a.m. and time for social studies. “Good morning, class!” Angela Deuso, 22, beams from the front of the room. “Good morrrn-ing!” her pupils sing out together.

The students are surrounded by science projects, maps, and globes, but this is no elementary school. It’s a teacher-education course at Framingham State College. Deuso and a partner, Rebecca Eaton, are presenting their homework assignment–a practice lesson on New England geography intended for the third or fourth grade–and their classmates slip into the roles of 8- and 9-year-olds to help with the simulation.

Deuso reviews the names of the six New England states and then turns the lesson over to Eaton to explain the day’s activity. Eaton, 21, asks the students to work in small groups to create a map of one of the states. She wants them to identify mountains, lakes, rivers, major cities, and each state capital, based on a photocopied map she provides. Their materials? Large rounds of pita bread to be topped with peanut butter, jelly, and candy. “What a great idea!” several students say as Deuso and Eaton distribute supplies.

The class works for about 10 minutes–talking, laughing, and snacking–until asked to present their projects. The maps are not what you’d call precise, but each does approximate the assigned state: Vermont has mini-marshmallows for the Green Mountains, “gummy worms” for the Connecticut River, and a yellow M&M for the capital, Montpelier–all stuck to the pita with peanut butter. Massachusetts has chocolate chips for the Berkshires, grape jelly for the Connecticut River, and Starburst fruit chews for Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard . . . .

When the lesson is over, the class applauds. Deuso passes out purple smiley-face stickers to reward everyone’s creativity.

Is there hope for the next generation of teachers?

Innovative approach to teaching or ed school foolishness? I described the lesson to a couple of colleagues after sitting in on this elementary curriculum class last fall, and both started telling me their reactions before I even had a chance to ask what they thought. To one, it sounded like a great way to get young kids interested in geography–something that otherwise might put them to sleep. But the other was incensed. That’s what’s wrong with education today! he shouted, throwing his arms in the air. Why were they making maps out of junk food when they could have been memorizing all the state capitals?

There are few subjects more political these days than education–and few educational subjects more political than education schools, the standard training ground for the nation’s future teachers. Derided as programs for dimwits, ed schools have been blamed for everything from the decline in public school standards to the rise of anti-intellectualism in America. In Massachusetts, John Silber of Boston University ridiculed “mindless education courses” and “cockeyed theories” that shortchanged content for methodology long before he became chairman of the state Board of Education. But after almost 60 percent of teacher candidates flunked the state’s first certification exam last year, many of the state’s leading politicians started firing off their own anti-ed-school rhetoric.

The shocking scores–which prompted House Speaker Thomas Finneran to call the test-takers who failed “idiots”–ignited one of the biggest public education debates of the decade. State officials immediately started drafting plans to improve the quality of the state’s teaching corps by using scholarships, signing bonuses, and other incentives to attract better students to the field. And suddenly, five years into the state’s massive seven-year education reform plan, attention turned to raising standards at the ed schools themselves. Programs that can’t get 90 percent of their students to pass both parts of the teacher test (a communication and literacy skills test and a subject matter test) by 2001 may lose their authority to endorse candidates for certification and be shut down. Education officials have vowed to take a tough new look at the 60 undergraduate programs when they come up for Department of Education re-approval later this year. And it’s clear that some detractors will not be satisfied until ed schools are eliminated altogether.

Amid the scrutiny, however, surprisingly little has been said about what has been happening at the ed schools themselves. How are they responding to the pressures of the politicians, the public, and the press peering through their windows? Are they weeding out weak applicants? Are they demanding competency in basic skills? Are they focusing more on “the what” of teaching and less on “the how”?

I went back to school to find out. Throughout the fall, I visited classes where the field of teacher training began–the oldest public teacher-preparation program in the nation, Framingham State College. I found an institution in transition. There was an enormous amount of stress, anxiety, and–yes–effort to improve performance. But even in the face of unprecedented criticism and calls for reform, there was also a stubborn resolve among professors to continue teaching the state’s future teachers the way they think it should be done.

“We really do have a problem with the schools of education.
It is my opinion that they are the most serious obstacle to effective education reform in the nation.”
–Board of Education Chairman John Silber

Twenty miles west of Boston, a small green sign points the way to Framingham State College from the busy commercial strip Route 9. Halfway up the nearby campus hill, a tarnished plaque embedded in a stone wall notes the school’s place in history: “The first state normal school in America.” Horace Mann, the state’s first secretary of education, established the school in 1839 to train young women in the “norms” of instruction. It has since graduated thousands of teachers for Massachusetts and the nation. Its most famous alumna, Christa McAuliffe, who graduated in 1970, is pictured smiling in her NASA uniform on the college’s Web site.

This year, Framingham State has 614 students studying to become teachers out of a total student body of 4,390. The school started to admit men after it was forced to broaden its mission beyond teacher training in the 1960s, but most of the education students are women. The majority are undergraduates, though almost one-fourth already earned a bachelor’s degree and are back in school to get certified in teaching so they can switch careers. Many work part-time and some are raising families. With tuition and fees about $3,000 a year, several students told me they chose the college for one main reason: It’s cheap. Others noted the strong reputation of its education department.

Students from the college scored right at the state average on the first two administrations of the teacher test last year. Only 54.9 percent passed both parts. When I asked college President Raymond Kieft for his reaction to the results, he pointed out that his school outscored the seven other state colleges with teacher-training programs on the first round in April–and even beat a number of private schools. But he acknowledged he was disappointed. “I immediately knew we had to get to work,” he said. “It isn’t nearly good enough for us. And we’re going to do better.” Although Framingham State’s scores allowed the school to squeak by without being required to start an immediate external review like those that fell below the state average, Kieft said he intended to put the school through a thorough outside evaluation.

It might be the time of day–shortly after 8:30 a.m.–but most of the two dozen college students in Room 112B of May Hall appear positively uninspired; a few are almost asleep. They are gathered for “Education in American Society”–the first education course that every would-be teacher who passes through Framingham State College must take.

The professor, Robert Grant, is a mild-mannered veteran of the education department with a dry wit who taught high school social studies in New York in the 1950s and ’60s. Balding, with slicked-back hair, a mustache, and large glasses, he paces in front of the blackboard in brown polyester pants, plaid shirt, and camel-colored jacket and cuts a figure strikingly at odds with the jeans and T-shirts of the students before him. There’s a five-minute break halfway through the two-hour class and at least one young woman doesn’t come back.

Grant is lecturing on the trends in educational theory since the turn of the century, beginning with John Dewey and the Progressives, who revolutionized American schools by embracing the radical notion that “children should be allowed the freedom to grow” and learn on their own . . .

Trying to segue into Reconstructionism–the approach originating in the 1930s that schools should teach students to build a better world–Grant asks the class what was happening at that time in history. One student ventures, “The Depression.” But no one gets what Grant is looking for–“The world was perched on the edge of disaster,” about to become embroiled in war–until he leads them to the answer himself . . .

Then it’s on to the Essentialists, who in the 1950s said education had become “a wasteland” and called for a return to traditional ideas about the purpose of schooling. Essentialists don’t worry much about children’s psyches, Grant explains, instead focusing on intellectual knowledge and development. “You also know,” he adds in a brief editorial comment, “you cannot teach a child who is hungry; you cannot teach a child who is ill.” No one responds…

When it becomes clear that no one he calls on has done the assigned reading about Perennialism (“a rather dense article, I must confess”), Grant starts to show signs of irritation: “Black marks against your unsullied names in the book in my mind,” he scolds. “Really, don’t do that . . .”

With 20 minutes to go, he hits on the high points of the next half-century: In the 1960s, it was Existentialism, which led to a spate of alternative schools with no structure at all. And that prompted the “Back-to-Basics” movement of the 1970s, he says. But in 1983, a major national report criticized American education for a “level of mediocrity that’s appalling,” Grant explains. And since then, the U.S. has been trying to reorganize and improve public education.

“We as a people are not absolutely certain what we want from our education system,” Grant concludes, noting that the major educational movements have been recycled every few decades. “It’s a pendulum, swinging back and forth.”

But, he tells the students, it’s important to know that these changes in emphasis happen primarily on “the edges” of schools. “What actually happens in the classrooms tends to stay the same,” he says. “Teachers are conservative, teachers tend to change very slowly. Schools change very slowly while all this controversy rages.”

In Ed School Follies, one of the classic critiques of the education establishment, author Rita Kramer summarized a year-long tour of the nation’s teacher-training programs with this dismal autopsy: “Nowhere in America today is intellectual life deader than in our schools–unless it is in our schools of education.” Surely this is hyperbole of the highest order, I thought as I began my own tour of the education department at Framingham State. Kramer, who visited 15 schools across the country for her 1991 book, must have been searching out silliness and ignoring evidence of anything else. But after sitting in on more than a dozen education classes throughout the fall, I realized that buried under Kramer’s sweeping generalizations and standard conservative commentary, there is a kernel of truth: Teacher preparation is not at its core an intellectual pursuit. In fact, one could argue it is the very opposite. Learning how to be a teacher is fundamentally about learning how to convey ideas to children, after all. Common sense says it requires ratcheting your brain down several notches, to understand how children see the world, not raising it to the level of rigorous discourse most people expect from higher education. Of course, the material to be taught grows more demanding in the higher grades. But in general, this is not philosophy; it is not engineering. It is not supposed to be.

Teacher preparation is not at its core an intellectual pursuit.

The problem for ed schools is this makes them easy sport. Of all the Framingham State College classes I visited, only Prof. Grant’s introductory course, which requires students to read some history, philosophy, and current articles on education, seemed to resemble anything that could be considered intellectual. The other courses were pure methodology. And let’s face it: There’s something inherently amusing about adults making maps out of peanut butter and jelly even when the underlying issue–how do you teach a child about geography–is serious business. What riles education professors and their students more than anything is when outsiders assume that, because their field focuses on getting through to children, all it amounts to at the end of the day is mere child’s play.

I saw some impressive lessons at Framingham State. There were professors who seemed to inspire their students, and students who I am sure will make inspiring teachers. Some of what struck me was pretty conventional: the give-and-take of a good class discussion about how to make history relevant to 14-year-olds. Some of it was more inventive: a demonstration of hands-on activities that elementary school children can use to learn about natural selection.

Critics always zero in on the unconventional. The way they see it, the American education system fell apart with the arrival of John Dewey, who introduced alternatives to the traditional teaching techniques of lecture, drill, and memorization. But the fact remains, as Prof. Grant pointed out, that our ideas about schooling are in flux. At the heart of the debate is a simple question without an easy answer: How do children learn best?

Walking into Professor Diane Lowe’s classroom in the basement of Dwight Hall is a bit like stepping back into the third grade. The day’s Agenda is posted in neat black letters by the windows. The bulletin board is decorated with construction-paper pumpkins and the words “The More You Read The More You Grow.” A “Word Wall” of new vocabulary is filling up space near the door. And children’s books are all around.

Lowe teaches “The Child and Literacy,” an introduction to elementary school curriculum in reading and writing. It’s the first methods course for Framingham State students who want to be elementary school teachers and Lowe runs her classroom just like she wants the college students to run their own elementary school classrooms someday: They start each class with a “Read Aloud” or a “Poetry Share.” They fill out “learning logs” and lists entitled “Things I Know.” And when she wants to get their attention, she claps her hands together in a special rhythm–two slow and three fast–until they respond in kind.

Lowe, who has taught elementary literacy at Framingham State for 26 years, wears her hair short, her skirts long, and has a reputation for being demanding. She is hyper-organized–and she expects her students to be the same. Her course outline tells students everything from where to place their name on homework assignments (“top right-hand corner . . . but not in the border”) to how to create a home study area (“Include a desk, a good light, a bookshelf, a dictionary, a thesaurus, a multitude of paper, and various writing tools. Personalize it in a way that makes your work space inviting.”).

“I have to help them make the transition from carefree college student to someone who’s responsible for every detail of their professional life,” she explains one day after class. “It’s a tremendous responsibility. It’s really more than anyone would understand unless they’re here watching us go through the day.”

One afternoon, Lowe reviews the six stages of “The Writing Process” that she says is gaining favor in classrooms from kindergarten through the 12th grade. She emphasizes how important it is to teach elementary school children to follow the steps–Prewrite, Draft, Conference, Revise, Edit, Publish–so they eventually become automatic.

When she gets to the drafting phase, Lowe knows she’s onto a controversial–and she says often misunderstood–subject. So she tries to be crystal clear as she explains that it’s perfectly acceptable for children to use “invented” or “approximate” spelling as they compose their ideas on paper. “You don’t want to say spelling doesn’t count – it does count. It always counts,” Lowe says. “But you do want to say, ‘Put down your best guess and come back to it in the editing phase.'”

Unless you give children that flexibility, she explains, they will use only the simple words they know how to spell, too worried about “getting it right” to experiment and expand their vocabulary.

By the final phase of the writing process, however, all of the words should be spelled correctly, Lowe tells the class. That’s particularly important when students are sharing their work with an outside audience, she adds, referring to the time Board of Education Chairman John Silber ridiculed errors made by Plymouth elementary school students who wrote him letters.

“The buck stops with us,” Lowe says. “If we want the public to support us, then we have to make sure it’s correct. You’re setting yourself up to be shot at by everyone from John Silber all the way down the line when you publish something without that.”

For as long as people have been saying, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” education students have been dismissed as underachievers. And while that may be an unfair generalization, a number of recent studies have documented that “the best and the brightest,” in fact, do choose other fields. Students enrolled in teacher-preparation programs have been found to have lower grades and SAT scores, and to require more remedial coursework, than other college students nationwide.

When I asked the faculty at Framingham State what they thought of the quality of their education students, the most common descriptions I heard were “average” and “above average.” Bob Grant, who teaches history as well as education courses, put it this way: “Our best students are as good as you’ll find anywhere–at Berkeley, at Harvard, at Yale,” he said. “The difference is the range. We have a much, much greater range than at any of the elite colleges.”

As for their performance on the SATs, the figures say that Framingham State students are “average” or below. The average SAT score in Massachusetts (and in the nation) is 1016 on a 1600-point scale, according to the Board of Higher Education. This year’s Framingham State freshmen intending to study elementary education posted an average score of 1003 on the SATs, according to Dean of Admissions Phil Dooher. The freshman class average was 1020. While a 10 to 20 point difference on the SAT is not generally considered significant, the figures were more discouraging for freshmen who plan to study early childhood education. Their average SAT score was 947.

Dooher said the college does not put much stock in SAT scores, however. The test, which measures verbal and math skills, is a “very weak” predictor of undergraduate performance, he said. Instead the admissions office prefers to look at high school grade point averages in a specified grouping of at least 16 college-prep courses. And on this measure, Framingham State education students outperformed their peers in other departments, albeit only slightly. This year’s freshman class average was 2.81 on a 4.0 scale, while elementary education majors had a 2.93 and early childhood majors had a 2.83. Are these differences significant? For each group, the average grade falls between a B and a B-.

The grade gap remains about the same as students progress through the college, figures show. The grade point average for all Framingham State undergraduates this fall was 2.69, while education students–early childhood, elementary, and secondary–were doing a little better, with a 2.82.

“I do not want to get involved in a six-month intellectual debate over ‘defining the problem’ or preparing ‘a thoughtful, deliberate process of establishing a dialogue pointing toward a solution,’ or discussing . . . whether ‘education school graduates are poorly prepared because their mothers didn’t love them or they weren’t chosen to be a cheerleader in junior high school.’ ”
–Board of Higher Education Chairman James Carlin

Joseph Caruso, the education department chairman, sounded a bit exasperated the first time I asked for his views of the state plan to improve teacher preparation. Since arriving at Framingham State a decade ago, he explained, he already has gone through two previous waves of teacher-education reform. “I mention that because the new recommendations are intended to fix teacher preparation, and I feel there was an attempt to fix us that came earlier,” he said.

The first came in the late 1980s following a blistering report that called the state’s ed schools “substandard”–filled with too few qualified students and faculty who are no longer “intellectually alive.” The Joint Task Force on Teacher Preparation (made up of Board of Education and Board of Higher Education representatives) that was formed in its wake called for an end to undergraduate education majors and for all future teachers to have a degree in the liberal arts or sciences. Teacher-training programs across the state drastically reduced their education course offerings to make way for the requirements of another major.

What was left, Caruso said, was the bare-bones minimum. “Our program is very basic,” he said. “We don’t feel we have any frills.” Among the courses the college eliminated by the time the new rules went into effect in 1994 were physical education and children’s literature for future elementary teachers, and music and movement, child psychology, and advanced child psychology for early childhood teachers.

The second wave came a few years ago, when state officials determined that too many future elementary and early childhood teachers were choosing psychology as their liberal arts major, Caruso said. As a result, colleges were asked to offer new “interdisciplinary” majors, combining study in several fields, to help provide a broader base of knowledge likely to be more useful in the classroom. As of this fall, 226 of Framingham State’s 397 eligible students were pursuing an interdisciplinary degree, ranging from science and mathematics to the creative arts.

“We’ve been undergoing a lot of change over the past 10 years,” Caruso said. “We haven’t stopped changing, that’s safe to say.”

It is interesting to note that what prompted this latest round of soul-searching–the new teacher certification test–actually was required before the reform movement of the late 1980s, but never materialized. The test resurfaced as part of the 1993 Education Reform Act, but was overshadowed by the law’s main measures–pumping an extra $5.6 billion into the schools over seven years, standardizing curriculum, and requiring high school students to pass a test to graduate. It was not until late 1996, with John Silber at the helm, that the Board of Education finally decided to make the test for incoming teachers a reality.

Faculty at Framingham State told me they had been discussing ways to improve the teacher-training program long before the test results came out last summer. But some key ideas, such as raising admissions standards and weeding out students without basic literacy skills, remained just that–talk–until the state demanded action. Now the college’s education department has recommended a full slate of changes likely to go into effect next fall. Chief among them is raising the required grade point average for entry into the program from the equivalent of a C+ to about a B-. The department also plans to meet the state’s new recommendation to have students demonstrate proficiency in reading and writing before entering teacher preparation and to have them prove sufficient knowledge of their discipline before student teaching.

“We have to do a better job of screening students and saying to some much earlier on in the teacher-preparation program that this probably isn’t the field for you,” said Kieft, the college president. “We do that now, but we obviously haven’t done it with the kind of precision and specificity we need to.”

“It’s time for us to confront the harsh reality . . . The (certification test) results point out that exaggerated claims of institutional quality are merely
the result of unscrutinized self-boasting. External validation is what counts, not internal public relations.”

–Chancellor of Higher Education Stanley Z. Koplik

The teacher certification test looms over this campus. Usually referred to as The Test, or The Teacher Test, it comes up wherever and whenever education students gather. In anxious questions in class. In angry comments in the cafeteria. In sarcastic asides in the dorms. And on bulletin boards with reminders about upcoming practice sessions.

“It’s very stressful” to be an education student now, said Allison Biron, a 20-year-old who has wanted to be an elementary school teacher since she was in kindergarten. “I’m very scared about what the future holds. When I entered the college, they weren’t talking about this at all. Now every day that’s all you hear . . . from the students, from the professors, from the media. Every time you turn around, on the news, there’s something . . . .You’re worried about whether you’re going to make it through your four years of college fine and then take this test and fail. What happens then? You’ll have this degree and won’t be able to use it at all.”

Biron and her classmates have reason to worry, since barely more than half of the Framingham State students who took the test in April and July passed both sections. While the college’s scores were far from the state’s worst, they were hardly stellar. Broken down by category, 68.7 passed the communication and literacy skills test, while slightly more, 73.8 percent, passed the test of knowledge of their discipline–well below the 90 percent levels the state soon will require. In October, there were fewer test-takers from Framingham, but their results were even lower.

Faculty are taking seriously their responsibility to help students prepare for the eight-hour exam, but seem equally agitated about its existence. Bob Grant tells the students in his intro class that the last teacher test had a question, “What is a preposition?” then says, “I’m much more interested in whether you know how to use a preposition than how to define it.” Diane Lowe does practice dictations in her elementary literacy course, and says, “That’s education reform, folks. That’s what your taxes are supposed to be paying for.”

It was impossible to have a conversation about the test without students and professors citing what they consider its inherent limitations. All questioned the fairness of the test, which they said was sprung on students without adequate warning and still had not been “normed and validated” after three administrations. (The state Department of Education and the testing company, National Evaluation Systems, Inc. of Amherst, stand by the test.) “I think it’s still a fair issue to raise, even though teacher educators sound like crybabies when they do,” chairman Caruso said. “Yes, it’s true some students could not write a paragraph, and something has to be done about it. That’s absolutely true. On the other hand, we have to make sure the test is a good test if we’re going to be making public policy based on test results.”

But while everyone said they support the idea of a competency test for new teachers, most in the next breath questioned whether any written test can be a fair judge of who should be allowed to teach. Why doesn’t the state watch what they do in the classroom? many asked. Several students told me that they learned in their Framingham State coursework that the only thing a standardized test measures is one’s test-taking ability, not one’s knowledge.

Between classes one day, Marci McKeown and Alison Farrand sit down in the “curriculum library”–a densely packed room in the main library with shelves and shelves of textbooks, children’s books, videotapes, teacher manuals, and other materials–to work on their next practice lesson. Farrand, 26, powers up her laptop computer–the college is providing them to a group of students as an experiment–and excitedly explains their plan to teach the concept of timelines using the example of how societal changes affect changes in fashion.

When the discussion turns to The Test, McKeown, 22, reveals that she got an 800 on her SATs and that the prospect of the eight-hour certification exam frightens her. “I definitely feel like I’m going to have to study and study and prepare and prepare,” she says. “Knowing how I am taking large exams, that’s what scares me. It really scares me. Because I am one to do well when I go over something, then I take a test; I go over something, then I take a test. [Otherwise] it doesn’t stick. So I think I can go into this exam and just be, like, I just learned that a year ago and I have no clue. No clue.”

At this point, Farrand chimes in with a hypothetical: “And here’s a question,” she says, sipping from an “energy smoothie” can. “Would you stand up in front of a classroom having just gone over something a year ago and try to teach it?” When McKeown shakes her head, Farrand says, “Of course not.”

“I would study it, and then do it; study it and then do it,” McKeown adds.

“I feel this department at this college has prepared me wonderfully to be a teacher that can inspire, educate and shape young lives,” Farrand continues, pausing to choose her words carefully. “Do I feel they have adequately prepared me to pass the test?” she adds with a smirk. “We’ll see. They’re not necessarily the same thing.”

Students and professors complained vehemently about the tenor of the talk about teachers in the wake of the test results. Diane Lowe, the elementary literacy professor, summed up the feelings of many: “I really think we should be assessing our teachers and teachers should be held accountable . . . because we want the very best. But there must be a better way of doing this than what has boiled down to teacher-bashing and has really lowered the morale of not only the teachers taking the test but the veteran teachers out in the schools,” she said. “If we want to get the best and the brightest, I’m sure the best and the brightest are asking themselves why would I want to put myself through that.”

The irony is that the test appears to be working at Framingham State. Professors have been putting extra emphasis on the basics, especially the importance of good writing, and students have been more serious about their studies–even if they are loathe to admit it.

The test is “holding students more accountable,” said Ellen Koretz, who teaches special education instruction. More students are taking their academic course requirements seriously, as knowledge they will need in the classroom, she said, not just as courses to get done so they can go on to teaching courses.

Julia Scandrett, an assistant professor of English who also teaches high school methods, said she has noticed a big difference in student attitudes this year. In the past, some would resist being accurate about grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other writing essentials, for example, but now are making a concerted effort to be correct, she said. “It’s made our lives easier as teachers,” Scandrett said. “We all get frustrated with students who don’t understand the necessity of doing well, who don’t seem to understand they have to work hard. And this . . . takes some of the burden off us, frankly. Because it’s not just quirky old Dr. Scandrett saying you have to do this.”

Tina DeMarco, 22, who is studying to be an elementary school teacher, is one student who, reluctantly, said the presence of the test is making her work a lot harder, especially on writing–something she has always struggled with. “I definitely feel that the test–it’s not a motivator, but it makes you conscious of what you’re doing and it makes you put that extra effort in where you wouldn’t in the past,” she said. When I told her it sounds like the test is, in fact, serving as a form of motivation, she replied: “It is, but I don’t want to say it because I’m also angry with the test itself. How can something that I’m so angry about be such a good motivator? But it does–in some weird, twisted way, it does. It makes you aware that people are looking at you and that you do need to be professional, you do.”

Some students said the test is making them re-evaluate all their skills. “One of the things that’s happening as a result of this teachers test is we’re looking at ourselves as educators and asking how can we make ourselves better?” said Stephen Zaorski, 31, who wants to teach high school history. “We’re looking at ourselves and saying we don’t know everything, we don’t even know half of what we should know.”

“I can tell you who won’t be a great teacher – the idiots who took that test and flunked so miserably.
It’s an indictment of Massachusetts and an indictment of this nation.”
–House Speaker Thomas Finneran

What makes a good teacher? What should the state’s future teachers know? The answers depend on whom you ask. A recent national survey found that education professors hold views on these questions that are “fundamentally at odds” with the public’s. Only one in five of the education professors in the 1997 survey by the nonprofit group Public Agenda, said it was “absolutely essential” for teachers to stress correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Just over half said it was that important to train teachers who are “deeply knowledgeable” about the subjects they will be teaching.

As for the education faculty at Framingham State, they said it’s imperative for students to be literate and knowledgeable in their disciplines. But they said there is much more to being a good teacher. While they stress the importance of a solid content base, and some review key concepts in class, they said it is unfair to blame education departments when students aren’t well-versed in their field. It is up to the history department to teach history, the science departments to teach science, and so on.

Sheila Rogers, a visiting instructor from Boston College who taught elementary school for more than 20 years, said teachers need a great deal of creativity, plus organizational skills, and a genuine interest in children–in addition to subject knowledge and communication skills–to get through to young learners. “I find it hard to put it on a scale of the most important,” she said. “It’s an amalgam of a whole packet of skills people need to have.”

Ellen Koretz, the special education instructor, put it this way: “You have to be a juggler,” so you can plan lessons to meet the different needs and learning styles of 25 or more students, while maintaining order, evaluating their abilities, and taking care of all the other myriad details of the school day. “Education programs teach you how to put all those competencies together,” Koretz said.

And on top of everything else, several professors said, effective teachers must constantly “reflect” on their performance and try new strategies to solve problems in the classroom. The bottom line, they said, is that simply being smart is not enough.

A dozen English majors are seated around a long seminar table talking about poetry–specifically, how to teach it to teenagers. Their usually vocal professor, Julia Scandrett, sits at the head of the table but holds back. She wants them to think this through on their own.

But when the class starts debating the pros and cons of assigning high school students to write their own sonnets, Scandrett suddenly jumps in. “Be careful about just sending your students off to blindly write more difficult [poetic] forms,” she warns. “These are high school students . . . It could turn them off . . . Yeah, if you’ve got an AP/honors class, sure . . . but it’s not a good way to introduce [most] students to a poetry unit. Give them a popular song and ask them to write lyrics or something like that. But for heaven’s sakes, don’t start with a sonnet!”

After class, a young woman with blonde curly hair and round glasses lingers to ask Scandrett how she can improve her grade. She has a B in the course, and she really wants to bring it up. Scandrett is unapologetic–she has addressed this before. “You have to start thinking like a teacher; you’re still thinking like a student!” she admonishes. “A very bright student, but a student.”

“It’s far harder for the brighter students. They think they’re not using all they know.”

When the woman walks out, Scandrett explains that the student is likely to graduate magna, or even summa, cum laude from the college, but she hasn’t yet figured out how to teach what she knows to others. She hasn’t made the all-important transition “to the other side of the desk,” to put it in ed professor lingo.

“It’s far harder for the brighter ones,” Scandrett says. “They think they’re not using” all they know.

Teacher-education classes at Framingham State are filled with all the latest buzzwords of the field. Cooperative learning. Authentic assessment. Portfolios. Manipulatives. Reflections. While some of these ideas are recycled from the past, a lot of what is being taught in ed schools today is new, based on research from the last 10 to 20 years. Some of the practices send conservative critics into fits. Framingham State faculty know new methods can be controversial, but feel deeply that they are right to innovate. Joseph Caruso, the education department chairman, said there is a good reason: “The methodology is far stronger than it used to be 30 years ago. We know a lot more about language and literature development and how children learn,” and therefore, how teachers should teach.

The day I visited Professor Claire Graham’s math curriculum class, the students were stretching red, green, blue, and orange rubber bands called “geobands” around the pegs of blue plastic boards called “geoboards” to make various geometric shapes. Graham was demonstrating different ways to find the area of the shapes, such as looking for the easily measurable ones–squares and right-angle triangles–inside the more complex ones. “Don’t you wish you were taught this way?” she asked the class at one point. “I do.” Graham told me later that she used these kinds of “manipulatives”–the name for hands-on materials–when she was teaching math to schoolchildren in the 1960s, but their use has been spreading rapidly since the early 1990s. “Using manipulatives is a way of life in our classroom,” she said, adding that they are not the toys many people believe them to be. The idea is that children “can actually see and feel and be engaged in developing an understanding of the concept,” she said. “When you just use formulas, it has no meaning. When you forget it, you’re lost . . . .We are trying to show you shouldn’t learn math as isolated facts.”

Some professors came across as more doctrinaire than others. In Bob Grant’s high school methods class, he one day described all the different teaching strategies he had been presenting as “quivers in your bow.” When he discussed the pros and cons of “cooperative learning,” a technique developed in the last 10 years to get children of different abilities to work together and play off each other’s strengths, he said, “There’s no absolute right or wrong . . . . Our role as instructors is not to tell you to do this or do this. You have to make the decision.” But he added this warning: “You can’t use all of the same things over and over again. You’ve got to vary it.” While some people outside the profession think straight lecturing is the only “real” way to teach, he said, “You can’t just tell kids and expect them to learn.”

Framingham faculty said they try to “model” the latest teaching techniques in their college classrooms to show students in a concrete way how they would work in their own classrooms. That is why there are few exams in the education department. One of the hottest trends is the push toward “alternative” or “authentic” assessments and away from “paper-and-pencil” tests, especially of the true-false, multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank variety. Instead professors require students to keep “portfolios,” professional scrapbooks of sorts with samples of their work and self-evaluations that show their progress through a course. The philosophy is that you can do a more accurate job assessing someone’s abilities if you look at the whole student, not just the facts he or she can regurgitate for a test.

While ed school critics want to drastically reduce the amount of methodology teachers-in-training are exposed to, I found little support for that view at Framingham State. Asked whether anything is missing from their coursework, most of the students I interviewed said they could use more methodology, not less. This was especially true of the future high school teachers, who take only one semester of methods before student teaching. And almost all the students said they could benefit from more instruction on how to adapt lessons for children with special needs.

A few students did complain that some of their coursework seemed silly or a waste of time, such as learning how to use PowerPoint software to do a slide presentation when they could just as easily write information on the board. But most said that even the lessons that seem ludicrous at first, such as being reminded to always project your voice or never lose your cool while teaching, end up proving of crucial importance when you’re standing in front of a classroom of 25 rowdy kids.

“I think the handwriting is on the wall. Those people need to consider another career.”
–Interim Education Commissioner David Driscoll

Not everyone is cut out to be a teacher. That’s a reality that every education professor understands. Some students don’t have the literacy skills, some don’t have the content knowledge, some don’t have the ability to control a classroom, some don’t have the wherewithal to put it all together and reach different kinds of children. But rather than trust the state to make this decision through a certification test, most education faculty members at Framingham State said they prefer their own weeding-out process. Several told me they were “counseling out” one or more students last semester, a number that is fairly typical. The question they ask themselves is: “Would I want my own children to have this person for a teacher?”

“If they don’t have it, we counsel them out,” said Diane Lowe, the elementary literacy professor, who supervises student teachers. “When that happens, we certainly can’t let them go forward.” Mentioning a particular student teacher who failed last semester, Lowe explained, “She didn’t have the literacy skills, she didn’t have the teaching competencies, she wasn’t able to apply the strategies to control the children, she didn’t have a good handle on elementary curriculum.”

“It’s really very painful,” said Ellen Koretz, the special education instructor, who is also a student-teacher supervisor. “But our feeling is that they reflect the college . . . and you don’t want them in the classroom if they don’t have the skills to be a teacher. All of us feel very strongly about that.”

“We probably handle that much more critically on a one-on-one basis than any test would ever do,” Lowe added. “And she left feeling good about her dicision, feeling that teaching was not for her. And that’s something a test would not do…When you take a test and get a failure back, where’s the student’s voice in that?”

“Those are shocking results of people who have failed (the teacher certification test). It’s amazing some of these people got a college degree.”
–Gov. Paul Cellucci

Several professors said they resent people who don’t know much about the subject of education trying to tell them what to do. In Bob Grant’s May Hall office filled with books and piled with papers, there is a “Bald is Beautiful” button and a navy blue mug with this new twist on an old jibe: “Those who can, do. Those who can do more, teach.”

Professors resent people who don’t know much about education telling them what to do.

I asked him whether he trusts state officials to do the right thing in judging future teachers. “Of course not,” he said. Grant said there’s an inherent problem when we put people without specialties in charge of decisions that require specialized knowledge. Other professors agreed: Everyone seems to think that because they went to school they know how to teach and how to evaluate teaching.

“Because most people go through school themselves, everyone thinks therefore they can speak intelligently about what makes for good education,” said Sheila Rogers, the visiting professor who taught elementary curriculum. “But that same theory doesn’t apply to the fact that we’ve all been to doctors, we’ve all driven over bridges. That doesn’t mean we can tell what makes an excellent doctor or an excellent engineer. For some reason, education has been put under a microscope . . . . Everyone becomes a self-proclaimed expert . . . . No one puts any stock into the fact that people who have made their careers in education have something to say about it.”

The videotape comes to an end and Amy Hackett gives the third-graders inside Room 7 of the Warren School in Ashland a few seconds to get back to their seats–quietly.

“Three . . . two . . . one . . . All right, let’s see if we can have eyes and ears up here? . . . Excellent. Nice job . . .” says Hackett, 22, who has been student teaching in Ms. Coyne’s class since September.

Today her faculty supervisor is sitting in the back of the room scribbling notes, so Hackett hopes this lesson on the Arctic and Antarctic turns out better than the last time she was observed. It was clear then she hadn’t prepared enough.

She starts by asking the kids to name some of the polar animals they saw on the video and leads them into a class discussion about the frozen tundra . . . Penguins . . . Huskies . . . Polar bears . . . Seals . . . She talks about blubber and fur and how the animals stay warm despite the frigid weather . . . She explains the meaning of “prey” and “predator” and tells who eats what . . .

Few of the students sit still. They’re hanging over their desks, squirming on their chairs, one boy keeps standing up, a couple with colds get up to get tissues. Hackett sometimes has to say someone’s name to make them wait their turn or stop talking to a friend. But they do seem to be paying attention. She asks a lot of questions, and each time she poses another, a flurry of hands shoot up in the air. They usually have the right answer. And they ask questions, too.

Her face starts to flush as she walks back and forth in front of the chalkboard in chocolate-brown pants and an oversized charcoal sweater, waving her arms around for emphasis.

“Now we need to talk a little bit about man and how they survived in these harsh temperatures. Now eventually the Eskimos did decide to move to the land . . . Kyle . . . and they adapted to this land, and the way they adapted was by watching the . . .” her voice trails off to let the students respond.

“Animals,” several students says.

“Animals,” she repeats, nodding her head. “Now did you see the man when he dug the hole in the ice and he was fishing? Who did he learn that from? Melanie?”

“The polar bear,” she says.

“He learned from the polar bear. He learned by watching the polar bear that if you dig a hole and you sit there and wait, a seal will pop up his head and they can catch him. Now why do you think they would want to catch a seal? I have some clues right here,” she says, holding up some sealskins.

“To make things from their skin. They hunted lots of animals, and they took their fur that kept the animals so warm and they decided to put ’em onto clothes for themselves. They would dry them out, and this is how they learned how to survive. Do you think they were walking around the tundra with their T-shirts and shorts on and their flip flops?”

“NO!” shouts one, clearly amused. “Yeah,” says another. “Cool!” says another. “They’d freeze to death!” still another.

“What were they wearing? They were wearing thick fur coats, fur jackets…fur gloves and boots…” she says, showing a pair of fur boots around the room.

After half an hour of this fast-paced back-and-forth, Hackett gives the assignment — writing a story about a trip to the Arctic, using what they’ve learned about the plants, animals, and Eskimos. She gives them a list of questions as a jumping-off point. “Now you don’t have to rephrase, you don’t have to have perfect punctuation and capitalization, … write as much as you can think of…just list words and phrases. Just do the best you can; write everything that pops into your head. Kind of like when we brainstormed…”

“Do I have any questions? Is anyone confused?” she asks. “Does anyone think they might not know anything about the Antarctic or the Arctic?…The more you have written down the easier it will be to write your story…All right now you should be working quietly… on your own. If you have a question, raise your hand and I’ll be right over…”

Finally, it’s time for lunch. The kids line up and walk down the hall. Suddenly for the first time in more than an hour — silence.

Meet the Author
Hackett sighs and smiles. She knows it went well, and her supervisor, Ellen Koretz, agrees it was a big improvement because she learned the content. “Lots of positive energy there, Amy. You had those kids totally engrossed.”

Later, Hackett tells how good she feels about the day and dreams about what it will be like when she is teaching full time. “I can’t wait until the day I have my own class…” she says. “I just can’t wait…I definitely feel ready.”