Professing Education

 

Some thoughts on Newman's Essay "No Intro
Course Left Behind"

Steve Grineski

Minnesota State University Moorhead

I would like to thank Joseph Newman for writing the essay "No intro course left behind?" that appeared in the June 2004 issue of Professing Education. In this essay, Dr. Newman provided four important suggestions (i.e., talk about children, talk about teachers, talk about the social context of education, especially politics and diversity, and talk about practice as well as theory) for how professors of Foundations of Education could conceptualize their courses. Newman begins his essay by stating that these course suggestions are framed, in part, by the current political context (e.g., government accountability mandates) that supports the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (i.e., NCLBA). He goes on to state that "NCLB is the latest but, unfortunately, the worst manifestation [of macro-level reform] I've encountered" (p.3). An example of this political context is seen in the recently published report by The Teaching Commission, titled "Teaching at Risk: A Call to Action" (Gerstner, 2004). This report's goal is to "raise student performance by transforming the way in which America's public school teachers are recruited and retained" (p. 5), which is part of the NCLBA's mandate that States develop plans requiring highly qualified teachers for every public school classroom by the year 2005. There are several recommendations (e.g., overhaul teacher education programs- See Au, 2004) in this report; however, the one generating the most concern involves making schools more like corporations by infusing competition through a policy that promotes a market-place ideology of production. Teachers who "measure up" to new accountability standards (i.e., produce), as determined by their students' acceptable performance on high stakes tests, would receive additional compensation or incentive pay.

This meso or state-level reform idea, known as the value-added approach, is already being used in Tennessee, tested in Louisiana, promoted in Minnesota and financially encouraged by the Bush administration as a means to improve K-12 test scores. Tennessee is using the value-added approach to satisfy the NCLBA's highly qualified teacher requirement. Louisiana's program is titled "Value-Added Teacher Preparation Program Assessment Model" (Louisiana Board of Regents, 2004). This model "will have the capacity to examine the growth of achievement of children and link growth in student learning to teacher education programs" (p. 1). This linking will then be used to assess program effectiveness in teacher education. As with the NCLBA, results would become a part of the public record, as teacher preparation programs would be publicly ranked on how well their graduates' K-12 students perform on high-stakes tests. In responding to the Teaching at Risk report, Minnesota's Governor Pawlenty, said, "The proposals will be the basis for possible changes in the way Minnesota teachers are trained, scrutinized and rewarded for years to come" ("Teacher Quality," 2004). President Bush, in his new educational plan, wants to provide a $500 million dollar incentive plan to States that reward its teachers for high pupil test scores ("President Bush," 2004).

Recommendations contained in this report are an example of simplistic and de-contextualized thinking. Like as with architects of the Nation at Risk and Goals 2000 reports and the NCLBA, the writers of this report think by mandating additional requirements and holding more individuals accountable the problems schools face will be solved _ of the 19 commissioners responsible for writing this report, eight are or were CEOs of major corporations and four were former governors of Southern States. This membership seems unlikely to understand the contextual complexities associated with K-12 school problems or develop the kinds of policies that would solve these problems. The NCLBA and the Teaching at Risk report are examples of how those least familiar with K-12 schools are proposing reform plans that have little relationship to the problems many teachers encounter (e.g., funding inequalities), nor to the problems many students and their families encounter (e.g., poverty) on a daily basis (Rothstein, 2004).

Those teaching Foundations of Education courses have a responsibility to help future teachers learn how to critically analyze the political context and policies emerging from this context that shapes and surrounds teaching practice. I would like to extend Newman's thinking about the four important elements he identified for Foundations of Education courses by providing curriculum examples from my Social Foundations of Education course that are intended to promote critical analysis of important ideas, events, and issues that affect K-12 schooling.


1. Talk about children

Newman's thoughts on talking about, not around, children are grounded in ideas from the progressive educator, Marietta Johnson. She believed that children should be at the very center of our thinking about teaching and learning. Once our work is focused on children, she advises, we should work outward to the political and social contexts that shape this work. Lastly, Newman encourages us to make authentic connections with children.

The major activity in my class that focuses on "talk about children" and makes authentic connections with children is a community-based service learning project partnership with the local alternative school (ALC). During the semester, my students are paired with students enrolled at the ALC and participate in a variety of community-based social recreation activities. For example, small group problem solving activities at the campus field house, making craft projects with residents from a community senior center, mini-putt golfing at a local hotel, and building and flying small model airplanes. In addition, my students tutor each week in an ALC classroom. A major goal associated with these activities is for my students to learn about individuals whose life stories are most likely different from their own and interact with individuals who, for whatever reason, have not been successful in typical school settings. I also want my students to realize that individuals who may be different from them still share things in common. For example, having an adult in their life that cares about them.

Another goal is for my students to acknowledge their own privileges and prejudices and then to realize how these concepts affect teaching and learning (Morris, 2004). Also, students are invited to think about how their privileges and prejudices may have been supported by specific policy decisions (e.g., school funding formulas). Writing in reference to a small group marble maze activity, a student revealed these thoughts, " I was excited to have accomplished something with a group of students (ALC) that I really in all honesty thought had no drive, desire or insight into this activity. This activity will affect me forever in the way that I view students. In my teaching, I will not stop an individual from bringing their voice, ideas or views to the table. Instead, I will look at all thoughts as useful tools to accomplish the goal." This student not only learned from this experience, but feels this experience will better inform her teaching in the future. In trying to capitalize on this kind of learning, students are required to read Julie Landsman's, A white teacher talks about race and are encouraged to read Herbert Kohl's, I won't learn from you and other thoughts on creative maladjustments and Gary Howard's, We can't teach what we don't know: White teachers, multiracial schools. Students are regularly asked to make connections between these kinds of readings and their experiences at the ALC. This type of reflective thinking will hopefully lead to teachers whose instructional decision making is informed, compassionate and centered on students and their lives.

Another course goal that focuses on "talking about children" understands how risk factors and protective factors shape and surround a young people's lives and ultimately influences their schooling experiences.

Risk factors are those attributes (e.g., poverty) that make positive decision making difficult, negatively affect development, and interfere with motivation to learn; while protective factors are those attributes (e.g., caring relationship with an adult) that youth need to grow into healthy adults and provide some resilience to the affects of risk factors. Using the Rolling Stone magazine essay, "The crime and punishment of a 13 year old killer," students learn about a teenager, Nathaniel, whose life was filled with too many risk factors and too few protective factors. Near the end of Nathaniel's story, we learn that he fatally shot his favorite teacher, was found guilty of this murder, and is now serving a long jail term. One interpretation of this story is that the context of Nathaniel's life led him to this horrific event. In order for my students to more fully understand Nathaniel's story, small groups of students create tableaus and perform them for their classmates. A tableau is an intentional arranging of a small group of students in fixed poses that results in a living scene or human snapshot. Through the tableaus, students demonstrate what they learned about Nathaniel, his risk and protective factors as well as the effects these factors had on his development, his motivation to learn, and his decision-making. The following are evaluative comments made by four students following their participation in the tableau lessons:


"This helped me to actually view the factors and to see how they really affected Nathaniel."


"I realized some factors from other groups that I never though of before. I liked doing it because we had to be creative and put ourselves in Nathaniel's position."


"It makes learning more interesting and easier to understand and it showed the big picture."


"It helped me learn about Nathaniel, better than just reading about it."

Using a study of risk and protective factors certainly focuses the Foundations of Education course on children and the lives they lead. This study also provides an opportunity to examine policy decisions (e.g., funding cuts for after school programs) that affect many children. Having personal contact with students enrolled at an ALC provides important and authentic connections for teacher education students that hopefully better prepares them for teaching in classrooms that are richly diverse. Following the tableau performances, students reflect on their learning by completing a word journal (Angelo & Cross, 1993). Students identify a word or short phrase that best reflects their learning. They then write a paragraph explaining why they selected the word or phrase they did.


2. Talk about teachers

I believe, as Newman does, that Foundations of Education courses can help pre-service teachers think critically about and better understand the demands of day-to-day classroom teaching. Some issues related to these demands include the relationship between professional organizations and school governance, responding to increased governmental pressures, the impact school law has on teaching and learning, curriculum, and teacher rights.

In order to better prepare my students for the involvement of the judiciary in their teaching lives, small groups of students analyze Supreme Court cases that influenced public policy and school practice, and then perform mini-plays to demonstrate understanding of these important issues. A sampling of cases and legal issues that affect teachers lives in schools include:

1. Brown v. Board of Education (1954) _ separate facilities are not equal facilities

2. Pickering v. Board of Education Township High School (1967) _ teacher dismissal for criticizing school officials

3. Sheehan v. St. Peter's Catholic School (1971) _ teacher liability

4. San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriquez (1973) _ school funding

5. Palmer v. Board of Education (1979) _ teacher dismissal for religious reasons

6. Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) _ government funded vouchers

The choosing of appropriate pedagogy is critical when trying to assist teacher education students to better understand the challenges and demands of being the "teacher." Mini-plays provide such a pedagogy; a problem-based approach that is socially constructed and provides a means to present a variety of perspectives and ideologies. Learning about perspectives and ideologies is central to successfully navigating the teaching life. Because we want learning to positively impact our students, teaching needs to be active, meaningful, and authentic. Moreover, we know that when pedagogy is holistic (i.e., having a blend of intellectual, social, and emotional aspects), learning is richer, deeper and valued more by students. Again, use of mini-plays achieves these aims. When a faculty observer was asked to evaluate student learning through this pedagogy, she reported:

Teacher candidates who see school law as a topic remote from their own experience and not directly applicable to their preparation for teaching careers discovered, because of this teaching strategy, that the topic does have meaning for them. Using drama to communicate the content of the cases allows for the communication of historical context as well as knowledge of school law.

I find myself agreeing with Newman, as I, like he, continue to search for better ways to "…help prospective teachers stand in the shoes of currently employed teachers and appreciate their views on occupational issues" (p. 4, 5). As a result, my students have interviewed retired teachers about the purposes of school, questioned teachers about what they need to know when it comes to K-12 students and their families being involved with chemicals, and listened to teacher stories about life in schools. Maybe until we go back to the days of campus laboratory schools, we will continue to struggle in creating appropriate learning experiences in this area.


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

Newman believes that Foundations of Education courses are the place in the teacher education curriculum "… for people like us to join a conversation about diversity, a conversation situated in a highly controversial political context." (p. 5). The challenge is to create meaningful and authentic opportunities for our students so they can become engaged in this context.

An example of how I engage students in this context is through the study of power and control issues in K-12 schools. Specifically, I want my students to understand various political perspectives and resulting policy decisions regarding these issues. This study provides opportunities to analyze the changing governmental landscape at both state and federal levels regarding policies (e.g., government mandated accountability plans) that move more power and control to these entities, while minimizing influence of local school boards. School choice voucher plans and schools for profit are two models that are popular with some policy makers and most free market thinkers. Teacher education students need to realize that these ideas, if widely implemented, will likely have a profound affect on the viability of public schools. Charter schools are yet another means of exerting power and control of public schooling. In order to gain a more complete understanding of these ideas and issues, students read from a broad range of political perspectives, from conservative to progressive. For example, two conservative websites used are the heritage.org, and hoover.org., while two progressive websites used are fairtest.org and inequality.org.

This information is applied through a survey assignment. Students create survey questions to assess respondents' attitudes about control and power in K-12 schooling. Examples of survey items include:

Do you believe that government mandated high stakes testing influences teachers to teach to the test, therefore abandoning the idea of a well-rounded education?


Do you think that parents should be able to use public school money (vouchers) to pay for private school tuition?


Rate in order from highest (1) to lowest (3) who should have the most control over public education _ the local school board, state government or federal government.


Surveys are administered to a variety of individuals: male and female non-Education and Education majors, parents with children attending public schools, parents with children attending private schools, parents without children, and males and females over the age of 60. Students prepare a one-page visual display of the findings and a three to four page paper analyzing two findings relating to their thinking about being a public school teacher. Students share their findings and analyses with peers and then a class discussion is held to promote further reflection about this topic.

An important goal linked to the social context of education and that is directly related to politics and diversity is analyzing equal educational opportunity. The activity used to accomplish this goal is a class debate. The issue debated is _ "The role of schools in providing equal opportunity." Students are divided into groups of four, with two students arguing the YES position: Schools can and do play a positive and important role in providing equal opportunity, and two students arguing the NO position: Equal opportunity depends on a variety of circumstances beyond the influence schools can exert. Students are required to use issues like social class, poverty, privilege and oppression, race and racism, sexism, equal opportunity or lack thereof, school funding formulas, and legal issues and cases to support their perspectives and counter-argue opposing perspectives. Following the debates, each foursome discusses what they learned about equal educational opportunity and develops questions they would ask a state or federal level policy maker.


4. Talk about practice as well as theory.

If teacher education is to have a positive and lasting affect on its students, Foundations of Education professors must provide lessons that are rich in context, authentic in nature, and make direct connections to practice or "life in the classroom." How many times have teacher education students sat in college classrooms and listened passively to lectures about John Dewey and active learning, Roger Johnson and David Johnson's ideas about the academic as well as social benefits of cooperative learning, Ruby Payne's framework for teaching students living in generational poverty, Mara Sapon-Shevin's philosophical underpinnings supporting inclusive educational practices or Beverly Tatum's thoughts about racial identity and racial interactions? Many of these ideas challenge how students have been socialized to think about the purposes of school, relationship between school and society, policy making, race and racism, and best instructional practices. Given this challenge, many students may not critically question their existing beliefs unless provided with engaging learning opportunities. For deep and rich learning to take place we simply cannot have students' complete textbook readings and then cover this material in the classroom. We must develop learning that is as authentic as possible, socially constructed, and meaningful. One solution might be for important learning to emerge from real classrooms, schools, and communities. This learning could then be analyzed using engaging readings, personal experiences and theoretical constructs.

I am attempting this kind of curriculum work through the community-based service-learning project with students enrolled in the ALC. For example, while my students participate in this project, they read Erin Gruwell's The freedom writers diary: How a teacher and 150 teens used writing to change themselves and the world around them and then relate their experiences and this reading to constructs like the value expectancy theory.

The Foundations of Education course is the place in the teacher education curriculum where students can develop understanding for the day-to-day challenges associated with classroom teaching and begin to analyze the impact of policy decisions on this teaching. The NCLBA (and its many spin-offs _ Teaching at Risk report) is an example of a policy decision that has far reaching and long lasting affects on teaching practices. It is our responsibility to provide curriculum and instruction that makes authentic connections with K-12 students and teachers, that is situated in social and political contexts and grounded in what we know about theory-driven best practice.


References

Angelo, T & Cross, P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. (2nd ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Au, W. (2004). The NCLB Zone: Where "highly qualified" can mean low quality teaching. Rethinking Schools, 19(1), 11-13.
Gerstner, L. (2004). Teaching at risk: A call to action. New York: The CUNY Graduate School.
Goodell, J. (2000, August 26). The crime and punishment of a thirteen-year old killer. Rolling Stone.
Gruwell, E. (2001). The freedom writers diary: How a teacher and 150 teens used writing to change themsleves and the world around them. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
Howard, G. (1999). We can't teach what we don't know: White teachers, multiracial schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Kohl, H. (1994). I won't learn from you and other thoughts on creative maladjustment. New York, NY: The New Press.
Landsman, J. (2001). A white teacher talks about race. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press.
Louisiana Board of Regents (2004). Value-added teacher preparation program assessment model. Retrieved October 1, 2004, from http://asa.regents.state.la.us/TE/value_added_model
Minnesota to tackle teacher quality. (2004, October 14). The Fargo Forum, A9.
Morris, R. (2004). Cultural diversity and Brown v. Board of Education after 50 years. Professing Education, 3(1), 8-14.
Newman, J. (2004). No intro course left behind. Professing Education, 3(1), 2-7.
Rothstein, R. (2004). A wide lens on the black-white achievement gap. Kappan, 86(2), 105-110.
U.S. Department of Education. (2004). President Bush announces new education proposals. The Achiever, 3(14). Jessup, MD 20794-1398.