MAXWELL:  The role of teachers // Q & A // Educating the educators

9/13/1998- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Many leading conservative politicians, commentators and book authors have launched a war against the nation’s colleges of education. In her 1991 book, Ed School Follies, for example, Rita Kramer paints colleges of education as liberal breeding grounds for failure.

Kramer and others argue that instead of teaching future teachers subject content, education schools are dispensing feel-good schemes and self-esteem gimmicks that do nothing to help America’s public school students learn. And the recent fiasco in Massachusetts, where 60 percent of prospective public schoolteachers flunked state certification exams, has added fuel to the growing criticism of colleges of education.

Few, if any, deans and professors in the nation’s education schools agree with the negative assessment of their mission and their work. Roderick J. McDavis, dean of the University of Florida’s College of Education, defends his college, arguing that many of its detractors, legitimately frustrated by the apparent poor performance of their public schools, have no real idea of what goes on inside a college of education. He would like to see the public, including politicians, educate themselves about schools of education.

McDavis is a native of Dayton, Ohio, and received a bachelor’s degree in social sciences in secondary education from Ohio University in 1970, a master’s degree in student personnel administration from the University of Dayton in 1971, and a doctorate in counseling education and higher education administration from the University of Toledo in 1974. He served as dean of the College of Education and professor of counselor education at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, from 1989 to 1994. Here are excerpts from an interview with Times columnist Bill Maxwell:

Q: Public education in general and colleges of education in particular are under fierce attack. Why?

A: Because I think people believe that somehow the product that we are producing is not of the quality that will help students increase their achievement levels. And, so as reform has occurred in public education, we’ve looked at the schools, the teachers, the standards, and now we’re looking at the quality of the product that’s being produced by colleges of education.

Q: Is it true that the curriculums of these colleges are essentially irrelevant to making good teachers? Are these colleges more concerned with teaching methods, pedagogy, than with the knowledge _ the mastery of subject matter _ that new teachers leave with?

A: There are three parts to producing a quality teacher in a teacher education program. At the base of it would be knowledge in the discipline, be it math, science, English. That’s at the core of the curriculum for either the elementary or the secondary teacher. Second would be the field experience _ the amount of time you get the student out in real-life school situations and have them working with young people and teachers. Third would be the pedagogy, or the methodology of how to teach the content. I think that the best teacher education program has a strong combination of all three.

Q: On a scale of 1 to 1O, where would you place UF in combining these three elements?

A: I’d put us at a 9. I say that because for 13 years, we have blended the above three areas in a unique way. We were one of the first colleges of education in the United States to move to a five-year teacher education program, which we call PROTEACH. During those five years, all of our secondary students major in the discipline. So, a future math teacher majors in math, an English teacher in English, a science teacher in science.

They take an education minor as undergraduates and then come to us for the fifth year, where there’s a mix of pedagogy and field experience. They also pick up some field experience with a little pedagogy in their baccalaureate programs. For our elementary teachers, we’ve included more math and science in their undergraduate program, which is our baccalaureate college program. But we also require these students stay for a fifth year so that they get more of the discipline, the pedagogy and the field experience.

Q: John Silber, chairman of the Massachusetts State Board of Education and chancellor of Boston University, said that colleges of education are part of the problem in the nation’s public schools. Is he right?

A: We disagree. I don’t disagree that there needs to be an examination of teacher education programs. I disagree with sweeping generalizations that indict all teacher education programs. You literally have to look at each college or university teacher education program much the way you would look at a business program, an engineering program, an architecture program.

Q: What do you say to the skeptical parent who wants to know whether or not you are producing a better teacher through PROTEACH?

A: We send out surveys after our people have been out in the field for a few years. The feedback we are receiving from school districts clearly indicates that our graduates are in demand. We are able to place every teacher who graduates from UF. Every single one of them has a job. I understand that the demand for teachers is great, but the demand for quality teachers is greater. That is not to say that we can’t improve, and we certainly want to. It is to say that we feel strongly that we’re producing a quality product and have initiated additional research to make that point.

Q: Your critics, especially conservative Republicans, argue that colleges of education are getting mediocre to poor students. Is this claim true?

A: No. We look at the high school GPA and SAT scores of our students. First of all, UF is getting a better quality student. As I talk to colleagues around the state, we’re finding that students coming into education have better high school grades, higher SAT scores, and I think we’re getting better students into education than we ever have. Deans at the other institutions around the state are reporting the same thing. They believe they’re getting a better quality student into their teacher education programs.

I don’t think that it’s necessarily the student that we’re getting. I do believe that we have some work to do to improve the teacher education curriculum on a statewide basis. I think we constantly have to review and upgrade and stay on the cutting edge. We are about to start a new program in the fall of 1999 called the Unified Elementary Teacher Education Program.

What we’ve done is taken our special education program and our elementary teacher education program and combined them into one, so that when you come into this college and you want to major in elementary education, you will, by virtue of that declaration, also be picking up a lot in special education. We did that because when we met with principals and superintendents a couple of years ago around the state and asked them how can we produce a better teacher, they told us two things:

One, you need to help your graduates communicate more effectively with parents and significant others who come into the school.

And, two, because of all of the federal laws about inclusion and mainstreaming, you’ve got to put a teacher in the classroom who can work with a broad and diverse range of students. Today’s teacher faces not only learning disabilities and handicapping situations, but also the whole English as a second language issue, the ethnic/racial issue and the exceptional student education issue. All of these problems are pressing on teachers today in the classroom.

That’s a challenge. You can put a very bright person in the classroom, but if you don’t prepare him effectively, he’s not going to be a very good teacher.

Q: How would your colleagues at, say, Harvard, Stanford, Michigan and Boston University rank UF’s College of Education?

A: They would probably say that we place more emphasis on teacher education than they do, that we focus a little bit more on producing teachers. Those institutions you named, by and large, do not produce many teachers. Harvard and Stanford basically don’t produce teachers. They produce Ph.D.s. Michigan produces a small number of teachers. They would probably say that we could probably do a better job with our graduates in research, but that’s okay because we’re beginning to place much more emphasis on our graduate programs and research. But we believe that colleges of education at major universities must not abandon the preparation of teachers. UF must be a role model for other colleges of education around the state and around the nation to help improve the quality of teachers. Colleges of education need to stress more than graduate education and research.

Q: Where does the impression come from that colleges of education waste students’ time?

A: I have a hard time believing that people who have actually taken courses in the colleges of education end up making those kinds of blanket statements. I believe it comes from the frustration people feel about why our children are not learning more in schools. They immediately say that it’s because of those education courses, that the schools need to only hire people who have a strong background in math, English, science, social sciences and forget about all those education courses. But you can’t teach a discipline by just knowing everything about that subject. You have to know how to teach the subject, and that’s where the colleges of education come in to improve the quality of teaching.

Q: What do you think of GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush’s recent proposal to administer a standardized test to each grade every year?

A: I think the proposal is worth more conversation. I’m not sure that it would be the total answer to increasing the quality of our schools, but I do believe that it’s a proposal worthy of more conversation. I think that what we need to have in Florida is a conversation that involves the entire state.

More often than not, when these proposals are made, they aren’t made in consultation with the people who work in the schools nor with people who prepare the professionals or who work in the schools. It doesn’t mean that it’s a bad idea, but it does mean that it would probably be a better idea if it were made after consultation with people who are in this business. One would not talk about how to build better highways without talking to engineers. Unfortunately, many people are making proposals about education who have not spent a sufficient amount of time either in schools or with people who work with schools.

Q: As the dean of Florida’s flagship college of education, what do you think of Bush’s support of vouchers and charter schools?

A: Right now, I’m in favor of charter schools. I think they provide us with examples and models of best practices in that they free the professionals in the schools from the policies, rules, regulations that inhibit change. I think they create opportunity to develop model curriculums that develop model structures and ways of organizing the learning environment.

But I am concerned about vouchers. I understand the arguments for and against. My big concern is that there are only a certain amount of funds available for public education. If we extend those funds to the private sector, then we have diluted the amount of funds that are going to be available to make the changes to improve public education.

Q: What main strategies would you implement that would immediately improve public education in Florida?

A: On the top of the list would be parent involvement. I think if you could find a way to get parents totally involved in schools again, we would see a huge difference in discipline and school safety. There would be more students doing homework and more interest in giving suggestions to the school in terms of what needs to happen to make it better.

Second, I would get a lot more businesses involved in the schools. I think what the Florida Chamber of Commerce is doing through WorldClass Academy is an excellent model on how to improve schools. If you can get the business sector involved in helping to improve our schools, you bring to the mix the community leadership that can make things happen. If, for example, the school needs additional resources, these are the people who can help bring that to the school.

The third strategy would be to increase the quality of the personnel, from the classroom teacher all the way through to the superintendent. I think we need to get the best folks involved in our K-12 educational system.

I also would deal with the facilities. We’ve got some schools in our districts that are falling apart. The building you’re in on a daily basis has much to do with whether or not it’s a good learning environment or whether it’s just a facility to warehouse kids.

Q: What can be done to attract a better caliber of student to teaching _ if, indeed, a better caliber is needed?

A: From the standpoint of recruitment, we need to increase salaries. That’s number one. Today, when high school and middle school students look at careers, whether it’s right or wrong, they look at how much money they can expect to earn. I think that’s especially true with men. Young men tend not to look at education as a career path because they don’t feel they’ll be able to earn enough money to take care of a family. So, I think we’ve got to find a way to increase beginning salaries for teachers and long-term salaries _ career salaries _ if you will.

Secondly, I think we’ve got to start saying more positive things about education. You’ve got to give a young person a reason to want to go into education. If all you read and see about schools is negative, it’s a turn-off. The perception these days is that our best and brightest do not go into teaching.

The third element is that, within communities, we need to do more to honor teachers in a way that brings respect back to the profession. Teachers used to be highly respected. The level of respect has dropped off. People don’t tend to go into a profession perceived to be disrespected.

Q: The bottom line: What’s wrong with our public schools?

A: I don’t know that I would start with what’s wrong. I think we’re living in a time when much more is expected of high school graduates, and I think we’re slowly moving from the industrial age of the product of education to the technological age. We’ve got to produce the product the workplace is asking for. That means that we’ve got to continue to transform the curriculum and transform the way we prepare teachers. We’ve got to continue to set the bar as high as we can. I have absolutely no problem with raising standards. So, what I see is that we’ve not given ourselves enough time to really transform that place called school.

At the same time, we’ve got to recognize that our society has changed significantly. Kids are bringing the kinds of pressures to our schools that weren’t there before. A lot of people say, kids are kids. That’s not true. Kids today are different from the kids that were in school 20 or 30 years ago, when kids didn’t bring guns to school.

Today, kids bring guns to school. Twenty to 30 years ago, we didn’t have crack babies attending our schools. We’re getting a different population in our schools now. The challenge is great. In the past, we had segregated schools _ either all white or all black. Today’s ethnic diversity presents a greater challenge for the teacher, the counselor and the principal.

I don’t know that there’s anything wrong with our schools. I think that all of us _ from educators to politicians to business people to parents _ are trying to come up with solutions. That’s healthy. I think the conversation around education will drive us to create better schools. If we stop talking about it, if we stop trying, that’s when we’ve got a problem.

We must stop the finger-pointing, the blaming. If we put aside our personal agendas, we’ll get some real good answers and some real good solutions. But if we just sit around the table and say it’s the unions’ fault, it’s the politicians’ fault, it’s the educators’ fault, if we keep playing this blame game, we aren’t going to get anywhere.

Q: Given budget-cutting, downsizing and everything else in terms of accountability, what’s the future of UF’s college of education? Are wary eyes looking at you?

A: Yes, there are, and I think the future of this college is bright for two reasons: One, I think we will never abandon our fundamental mission of preparing exemplary teachers. I think we’re going to do that well into the 21st century and be a role model for Florida and the nation. Secondly, we’re going to increase our effort to improve our graduate program and our research program, too. And to the extent that we will be preparing future professors, researchers, future leaders in public education, we’re well-positioned to take on more of a national leadership role in education because we’ve got one part of the equation well established _ teacher education.

Now we’re going to turn our attention to increasing our graduate education and our research productivity, which will lift us to the level of some of the top universities around the nation. Already, we’re ranked 36th among colleges of education around the nation. There’s obviously room for us to improve on that ranking, and we’re going to work hard to do that.

Q: How can you get more African-Americans involved in teaching?

A: We’ve got to go back to the basics and pose basic questions to black students and their parents: If you don’t accept the responsibility, who will? If you want your children to have the opportunity to have minority teachers, and if you don’t come into the profession, who’s going to be there to teach your kids? That’s what I talk to black kids and their parents about all the time. And it works for some.