Professing Education

 

No Intro Course Left Behind?

Joseph W. Newman

University of South Alabama


This essay was originally presented as an address to the Society of Professors of Education at its annual meeting with the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, April 16, 2004.

I appreciate this opportunity to speak with the members of the society. I want to begin by explaining the title of my remarks.

I am going to use the term "intro course" inclusively in this address to refer to courses that focus on teaching as an occupation within the larger social context of education. Intro courses require professors of education to move beyond their academic specializations and help prospective teachers look broadly at a variety of issues. Coming first (or at least early) in the teacher education program, such courses may be titled "Introduction to Education" or "Introduction to Teaching" or "Foundations of Education." Or they may not be. At my university, the intro course is called "Education in a Diverse Society," and it is a single course that covers ground we once covered in two courses. This compression of our work, a political reality in teacher education programs throughout the nation, is one of the things that prompted my choice of subjects for this address.

Intro courses are taught by people like us. We're professors whose specializations are philosophy of education, history of education, curriculum theory, and maybe even social studies education. We're professors who often find ourselves in small teacher education programs that require us to be generalists. We're the people most likely to join the Society of Professors of Education.

As for the "Left Behind" in the title, it is an obvious reference to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. That is the political context I am addressing, and it influences the work all of us do as professors of education. Consider how NCLB has affected you and your work. Allow me to borrow the question of a former president of the United States: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" Is your teacher education program better off? Is your part of the program better off? I think I know the answers. NCLB has created an unfavorable climate for teacher education generally, and people like us have been faring worse within teacher education programs.

The two aspects of NCLB that have affected us most directly are:

1) highly qualified teacher provisions that have caused teacher education programs to increase coursework in the arts and sciences and cut coursework in education, putting a squeeze on people like us and the courses we teach;

2) mandates for state standards, assessments, and accountability - the continuation and intensification of a trend that has been underway for a quarter century. Many, perhaps most, of our colleagues in teacher education doubt that people like us have a genuine contribution to make in preparing teachers to work under such mandates.

My career in teacher education began in 1977, and I have spent the entire time struggling with back to basics and testing, testing, testing. I must say it is getting old. NCLB is the latest but, unfortunately, the worst manifestation I've encountered—the most powerful and most dangerous version yet of a long-term trend.

The perspective I want to offer you in this address is based on 27 years of teaching the intro course at one institution. It is a perspective that informs the textbook I have written: America's Teachers: An Introduction to Education, which I am now revising for the fifth edition. Steady involvement with people like us since the mid-1970s has shaped my perspective. I have enjoyed being active in the American Educational Studies Association; the American Educational Research Association, particularly Division F, History and Historiography, and the Special Interest Group on Teachers' Work and Teachers' Unions; the History of Education Society; and several regional societies.

I have four points to make, four pieces of friendly, collegial advice. If people like us want to keep our jobs, our courses, and our contributions to teacher education from being left behind, I suggest we do several things:

1. Talk about children

2. Talk about teachers

3. Talk about the social context of education, especially politics and diversity

4. Talk about practice as well as theory.

I will discuss each point in turn.


1. Talk about children

People like us should not be reluctant to talk about children. In the fall of 2003 in Mexico City, I was honored to deliver a presidential address to the American Educational Studies Association titled "Would Marietta Johnson Join AESA? What a Pioneer Progressive Educator Might Think of Our Association." My basic argument was that Johnson, founder of the School of Organic Education in Fairhope, Alabama, and one of the preeminent child-centered educators of the early twentieth century, would find a great deal to admire in AESA. But she would have reservations, I feel sure, about the tendency of AESA members to talk around children rather than talk about them. Johnson died in 1938, but were she alive today, I believe she would want people like us to put children at the very center of our analyses. She would want us to start with children and work outward to the social and political context rather than the other way around.

Why do people like us avoid talking about children? My answer in Mexico City was complicated, but let me say here that it involves our rejection of child-centered studies as soft, affective, and socially unaware. Digging deeper, we may find that gender is also involved. More than we realize, professors like us have bought into the notion that talking about children is sweet and feminine while talking about social and political issues is tough and masculine. And in our academic work, we want to be tough and masculine.

I will relate some organizational history to explain. During the late 1920s and 1930s, Marietta Johnson and other female child-centered progressives lost control of the Progressive Education Association (PEA), which Johnson helped found in 1919, when males with a society-centered vision took over the organization. Had we lived in Johnson's era and pursued careers similar to those we have today, some of us would have been members of the PEA, and we would have witnessed the change. The men who rose to power in the association _ professors of education and school administrators _ brushed aside child-centered pedagogy because they considered it soft, permissive, and socially unaware.

The major catalyst in the change was George Counts' famous 1932 address to the PEA, "Dare Progressive Education Be Progressive?" Mincing no words as he described the crisis of capitalism and the widening gap between rich and poor, Counts wondered how much longer progressives could continue to emphasize personal freedom, individual expression, and creative activity. "Progressive Education cannot place its trust in a child-centered school," he concluded. Counts challenged educators to "face squarely every social issue [and] come to grips with life and all its stark reality" (p. 259). This call to arms, which hit Counts' audience like a "bombshell," hastened the transformation of the PEA into a more society-centered association.

Today, using the interpretive lens of gender analysis, we can see within the takeover of the PEA a masculine rejection of a feminine pedagogy. Johnson and other child-centered women practitioners, rather than professors, found themselves marginalized within their own organization as well as the larger progressive education movement. They were dismissed _ quite unfairly, in most cases _ as frivolous playschoolers with no social vision.

Counts, a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, helped develop the first courses and the first graduate program in the social foundations of education. The new academic field, which took shape during the changing of the guard in the PEA, was characterized from the start by tough talk on the social cutting edge. People like us modeled this hard, masculine approach while we were in graduate school. What the field of social foundations lacked, and what we learned to regard as unimportant, was a connection to actual experience with children, the stock and trade of the PEA prior to its transformation.

Having spent time reflecting on how this academic heritage has influenced my own teaching and research, I am convinced people like us should start talking about children again. We should treat them not as abstractions, not as creatures some of us remember working with years ago, but as the people at the very center of our concern.

I was not sure how this message would go over with AESA members. After my address, several people assured me I had made them think, for the first time in years, about what they have to say about children in their teacher education classes. "You know, Joe, I'll have to admit I don't talk about them very often," one of my closest friends in the history of education confided. "I guess I'm too busy talking about Horace Mann, or John Dewey, or Lawrence Cremin to say much about children."


2. Talk about teachers

Most people like us have even less to say about teachers than we do about students. Over the course of my career as a teacher educator, I have probably overcorrected in this area by centering much of my research on teachers. I could well heed Johnson's advice and move children closer to the center of my work, especially in the intro course.

My point here, though, is that the intro course should help prospective teachers think critically about the occupation they are preparing to enter, about such things as their motives for teaching, teacher salaries, trends in teacher education, teacher organizations, and school law as it applies to teachers. After all these years of teaching the intro course, I am still looking for better ways to help prospective teachers stand in the shoes of currently employed teachers and appreciate their views on occupational issues - for instance, why veteran teachers rationalize their low salaries by saying they are still dedicated to children and they never expected to get rich anyway.

By the same token, people like us should not be so reluctant to help teachers understand the nuts-and-bolts of the occupation: job markets, salary schedules, union contracts, evaluation procedures. Although such things can seem mundane at first glance, my experience has been that it is not hard to get teachers interested in how the pieces of the puzzle fit together _ why salary schedules are set up as they are, for instance, or why politicians take such a keen interest in keeping the job market open and flowing. We should not view these issues as beneath our scholarly dignity. In the intro course, we can turn these matters into issues for critical analysis within the social context of education. Which leads into my next point.


3. Talk about the social context of education, especially politics and diversity

NCLB requires that student test scores be disaggregated by race/ethnicity, social class, exceptionality, and other cultural factors. What a golden opportunity for people like us to join a conversation about diversity, a conversation situated in a highly charged political context. Within teacher education, we are the ones who have been talking for years about politics and cultural factors. We are the ones who have taken those factors into consideration when our colleagues did not want to. And yet now, within some teacher education programs, people like us are being pushed aside because we are viewed as irrelevant _ people with nothing much of importance to say.

In some respects, we are facing the same old problems we have faced for years. Our political criticism often comes across as negative and carping. Our analysis of diversity comes across as excessively academic, carefully distanced from the students that teachers face every day in their classrooms.

Let me state clearly that we should not apologize for our political critique. NCLB is a dangerous political ploy, one that threatens to undermine public education. We cannot sugar-coat that point. Most of our colleagues in teacher education and most teachers, I am convinced, stand with us on this issue, although they may not appreciate our sometimes shrill tone. In this 2004 election year, we can be encouraged that governors and legislators in states as different as Utah and Massachusetts are beginning to see through the ploy. The bipartisan support that led to the passage of NCLB is beginning to crumble. We can wish the growing opposition to NCLB were based less on the hardships of unfunded mandates, which seems to be John Kerry's main complaint, and more on the real harm that standards, testing, and accountability are doing in the classroom. But the opposition is growing nonetheless, and that is good news.

In the meantime, teachers are being forced to fall into line with NCLB, and they are looking for guidance on how to deal with diversity. What are we doing to help them?

If you listen to teachers, the answer is clear _not much. During Fall Semester 2003, I worked with one of the best graduate students I have ever taught, an intermediate school principal who seemed very receptive to what I was trying to do in my advanced graduate seminar in educational foundations. Without ever directly critiquing my academic approach to diversity issues, which is similar to what I do in my intro course, Lee Mansell told me in her research project titled "Overcoming Poverty to Promote Learning" (2003) what she would have preferred.

This year we have changed our expectations of students and parents from poverty and are rethinking our teaching methods. This change resulted from the study and implementation of the work done by Ruby Payne, former teacher, principal, consultant, and administrator.

In August 2002 a faculty member found an article by Payne which she shared with the faculty. We were searching for a way to help our at-risk students learn to read. The advice in the article could be applied to our situation. We recognized the students in the article as those who were struggling in school. For the first time, we understood what generational poverty meant to students and the implications for educators. . . . In January 2003 the whole faculty attended a workshop where [we] discussed Payne's findings and the implications for working with students living in poverty. In February 2003, the Title I teacher and I attended Ruby Payne's two-day seminar based on her book A Framework for Understanding Poverty. After the seminar, we purchased every work written by Payne and/or her associates. In the following months, the faculty read, discussed, and decided to adopt Payne's methods for working with students from generational poverty. (p. 7)

Reading these words stopped me short. How many people like us have had such a direct effect on teaching and learning?

Ruby Payne's work is attracting a great deal of attention in public school districts because it seems credible to teachers. It speaks to them directly even if it does not offer the cookbook approach to teaching that some of them want. Payne has become a well-paid consultant, flying around the country, conducting seminars, and probably making a good bit of money. My local school district, the Mobile County, Alabama, Public Schools, is buying her program. As I investigated Payne's approach, which she presents in A Framework for Understanding Poverty (2003) and other books, I discovered it is based in part on work most of us are familiar with: the research of Lee Shulman and James Comer, the writing of Jonathan Kozol and Oscar Lewis.

But as my outstanding graduate student, the principal, finally told me, Ruby Payne's work comes across to teachers as more practical than ours does. We have heard that critique for years, I realize, but I still want to make it my fourth point in this address.


4. Talk about practice as well as theory

During graduate school and into my early career as a foundations professor, I learned I was responsible for theory while methods professors were responsible for practice. In fact, I developed a disdain for the practical side of teacher education, taking occasional potshots at the record keeping, lesson-plan making, noun drilling, and other skills that lie in the methods domain.

No wonder Ruby Payne seems more credible to teachers than I do. When I look at what she says about language and dialect, for instance, I am particularly intrigued because I began my career as a high school English teacher. As a social foundations professor, I still talk about language and dialect, but I have learned to distance myself from the classroom because that is what people like us do. In Payne's book A Framework for Understanding Poverty (2003), by contrast, she concludes the chapter titled "The Role of Language and Story" with the question "What does this information mean in the school or work setting?" Then she answers by applying what she has explained in detail in the chapter.

Formal register needs to be taught directly.

Casual register needs to be recognized as the primary discourse for many students.

Discourse patterns need to be taught directly.

Both [formal and casual] story structures need to be used as a part of classroom instruction.

Discipline that occurs when a student uses the inappropriate register should be a time for instruction in the appropriate register.

Students need to be told how much the formal register affects their ability to get a well-paying job. (p. 50)


In my own defense, I can say I cover most of those things in class as well as in my intro textbook _ but not so directly. In some cases I just imply them, telling myself that my students can make the connections to practice for themselves. For 27 years, I have been stopping just short of Payne's approach. But I have finally realized that to teachers and prospective teachers, the distance seems much greater.

Although I could say more, I have probably said enough, and I want to invite others to join the discussion. I have tried to put a new spin on four issues people like us have faced throughout our careers. I am convinced, as I near the end of mine, that the intro course which seems to have evolved during this address into a metaphor for all that we do _ could well be left behind. But I have suggested four things we can do to keep up, move ahead, and in doing so make even more valuable contributions to teaching and learning.


References

Counts, George S. "Dare Progressive Education Be Progressive?" Progressive Education 9 (April 1932): 257-278.
Mansell, Lee. "Overcoming Poverty to Promote Learning." Unpublished seminar paper, University of South Alabama, Fall 2003.
Newman, Joseph W. America's Teachers: An Introduction to Education, 4th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2002).
Newman, Joseph W. "Would Marietta Johnson Join AESA? What a Pioneer Progressive Educator Might Think of Our Association." Educational Studies 36 (forthcoming February 2005).
Payne, Ruby K. A Framework for Understanding Poverty, 3rd rev. ed. Highlands, TX: aha! Process, 2003.


Joseph W. Newman is professor and chair of Educational Leadership and Foundations at the University of South Alabama. Dr. Newman began his educational career as a high school English teacher. As he notes in this address to SPE, he has been an active member of the History of Education Society, the American Educational Research Association, and the American Educational Studies Association, which he served as president in 2003. Dr. Newman's scholarly work has appeared in such journals as the History of Education Quarterly, Educational Studies, Educational Foundations, and Phi Delta Kappan. Years of teaching the intro course led him to write the textbook America's Teachers: An Introduction to Education, now being revised for the fifth edition, which in turn led to his invitation to speak to SPE.