William Raspberry asks in an August 2000 editorial why more administrators of mediocre public schools aren’t learning from the practices of models and methodologies in their midst that are proving successful, particularly in very high “at-risk” environments. Good question. I wonder why best practices in reading instruction, in which I have been very active, are not more readily adopted by educators who are failing in their mission to teach children how to read. In my case, I’ve been heavily involved in attempting to convince several colleges of education of the clear superiority of Direct Instruction reading methods in high at-risk elementary school populations, where it is well demonstrated that even mediocre teachers can be successful with proper application of the process. The response has been frustrating at best, tragically slow at worst.
Colleges of education have been mired in the progressive education ideologies of John Dewey since the 1920’s. Some of these are fine for those children who come from an educationally and socially enriched family environment, but disastrous for the children who do not and for their teachers, many of whom are of marginal competence and need a more structured approach. In these environments, teachers must teach, not facilitate. Meanwhile, pedagogical change in teacher training remains on hold, while the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress report shows that two-thirds of the nation’s fourth graders lack proficiency in reading. And of all the factors contributing to these results, research shows that class size, ethnicity, location, and poverty levels all pale to triviality compared to teacher competence.
In all of the talk about accountability in education, I hear very little about holding our colleges of education accountable for these results. Contrast this with our top colleges of business, which are totally accountable to the employers (customers) who hire their product. The difference is incentives. In a monopoly industry in which a unionized workforce that controls entry and certification delivers the primary service, even well proven innovation doesn’t stand a chance.
This is why empowering parents with school choice and enlightened school administrators with alternative training and certification of teachers must externally drive education reform. The former is ultimately inevitable and the latter is a growing trend, as more schools grow weary of the often mediocre product of traditional teacher education.