Laws & Guidance HIGHER EDUCATION
Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965
Dr. Douglas Sears Dean, School of Education Boston University
Archived Information



Douglas Sears
Teacher Quality and Accountability


In his 2002 report on teacher quality Secretary Paige makes the case for ensuring that America's public school teachers are deeply knowledgeable about subject matter, and for removing or lowering existing barriers to the profession such as needlessly cumbersome certification regimes or teacher preparation programs that stress pedagogical preparation at the expense of content knowledge.

Secretary Paige's analysis is one to which I resonate. Through a series of career accidents I have migrated in the last decade from the demand to the supply side of teacher preparation.

In 1995 I was drafted to serve as the superintendent of schools in Chelsea, Massachusetts, then the poorest city in Massachusetts, where Boston University had been asked (in 1989) to manage the public schools-as it still does. My preparation for this work consisted of a Ph.D. in political science, two overseas assignments as a United States foreign service officer, and seven years on the staff of the president of Boston University, where I had lent a rookie hand as a member of the Boston University team that oversaw our work in Chelsea. I was the first person to be granted alternative superintendent's certification under the new regulations that derived from the Massachusetts education reform of 1993. I now serve as Dean of Boston University's School of Education. My credentials remain the same but my experience now includes five hard years in urban education, where teacher recruiting and retention was obviously and necessarily a top priority for me.

Since my work in urban education has significantly changed my hairline, I am often reminded of the Sy Sperling advertising line for his Hair Club for Men. "I'm not just the president, I'm also a client . . . ." For me it has become the obverse. I've been the client, now I am responsible for the product.

At the Boston University School of Education we are explicit in saying that in teacher preparation mastery of content holds primacy over method. And we argue that method is necessarily bound to content. We share the Secretary's well-founded conviction that the improvement of public schooling depends on the preparation of teachers who have strong verbal ability and sound knowledge of content.

When I was superintendent of schools in Chelsea I had a standing order from the president of Boston University at the time (Jon Westling) to personally interview teachers we proposed to hire. I honored the order, not quite knowing why. But the experience proved instructive and useful-although it was obviously time-consuming. It was distressing to see-in the written materials candidates would present-and to hear, the solecisms, malaproprisms, and misspellings that were ubiquitous. Teacher candidates too often spoke in jargon and cliches that bespoke not only weakness in verbal ability but lack of intellectual depth. It seemed as though the industry responsible for preparing those who would, in turn, teach our offspring to read and write, hadn't bothered to check whether its graduates could write and speak well. (It would be distressing if many of the graduates of Juilliard, Eastman, Berklee, Oberlin, and other conservatories went to their first post-graduate auditions in a state of tone deafness.)

The frequently evident tone deafness of teacher candidates from the education schools which were, of necessity and by law, the predominant suppliers reinforced in me what has proved to be-if not a prejudice-a misunderstanding. I joined the superintendent's club deeply skeptical about the teaching of method and washed in the blood of the "how hard can it be?" view of public school teaching. All that was needed was to knock down the barriers and hire the best and brightest-those young people with liberal arts degrees in serious academic disciplines and an evident command of language as measured in a high GRE score or confirmed on a transcript. (It was a surprise to me that building principals rarely checked a prospective teacher's transcript.)

The churning tides of education reform in Massachusetts (which can do to a hairline what tides do to shorelines) washed onto my beach an opportunity to test my convictions. In February of 1999 the Legislature created an alternative track designed to draw into teaching exceptionally able teacher candidates who did not have the conventional preparation. It was called the Massachusetts Signing Bonus Program. The Commonwealth would pay $20,000-over five years-to unconventional candidates selected for the program. Before taking a position in a district the winners went through a kind of summer boot camp that include a brief pseudo-practicum and some other "how-to" preparation.

At the time the so-called "bonus baby" program was announced, I was coping with enrollment growth and was creating (from scratch) a new 5th/6th grade middle school. The prospect of recruiting from a newly created pool of well-educated and eager teacher candidates was more than attractive-it was seductive. We needed teachers and the Commonwealth was eager to place the signing bonus recipients.

Since I interviewed all of those we hired, I can recall how stimulating it was to meet young (and not-so-young) people who arrived in my office fluent in several languages or offering unusual and exotic life experience, not to mention the degree in chemistry or math from M.I.T. The bonus babies were, variously, highly literate or musical or artistic or well-traveled and (I hoped) enriched and strengthened by hard experience in, for example, the Peace Corps. These candidates were so much fun to meet and interview, I suspect I would hire them all over again.

But . . . the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say, was sobering. Looking back, it is clear I got drunk on my own conviction that all we needed was really bright, well-educated teachers. The short version of the rest of the story, brevity will deny subtlety, is that the bonus babies who survived began after a year or two to show promise of greatness. But far too many had that "deer in the headlights" look by mid-October, and far too many didn't survive. It is one of my great regrets that in my own enthusiasm for the project I helped lure some idealistic, enthusiastic young people into something for which they were not prepared and caused them an early, wounding career experience. Verbal ability and content knowledge-not to mention enthusiasm-were not enough.

Method matters. It should be axiomatic that teachers-including elementary and pre-K teachers-must have extensive knowledge of the subjects they will teach and a refined command of language. Would-be teachers also need to know how to convert the knowledge they would convey into the bits and pieces of lessons or a coherent curriculum. They need to know how to know whether their students know. (I think this is called assessment.) They need to know how to motivate and inspire. They need to know how to establish and maintain order. (There seems to be an unfortunate, inverse relationship between a new teacher's level of idealism and the capacity to establish order early in the school year.)

The great challenge for all of us in the field is to mate method to content. The mixed results of a number of the alternative approaches to teacher preparation have elicited a certain quiet "I told you so" smugness from some in the teacher education/education school establishment. But the "I told you so" reaction is misplaced. The imperative to try alternative approaches to teacher preparation and licensure is rooted in the realities of supply and demand and, more importantly, in the failure of the education establishment to prepare teachers who are deeply knowledgeable and whose methods are directly tied to the material they have demonstrably mastered.

If I could have read one book before being thrown in at the deep end of the education pool it would have been E.D. Hirsch, Jr.'s The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them, which appeared in 1996-a year after I started in the Chelsea schools. Although Hirsch describes his book as polemical, his is a mild polemicism. And, for me, very much to the point. Hirsch describes eloquently the "thought-world" I wandered into, where process-intensive pedagogy-essentially divorced from content-is predominant. This pedagogy-or these pedagogies-are deeply embedded in regulations, foundation grant requirements, and the minds of several generations of principals, curriculum directors, and superintendents. These ideas are tied-in my view-to broader intellectual trends than those that prevail within education schools.

In The Schools We Need Hirsch argues that the shortcomings of American schools-and the preparation of teachers-are rooted in bad ideas. In short form (and these are my characterizations) these include the endemic rejection of accumulated knowledge, the disparagement of practice-written off as "drill and kill", the adoration of process, and a general contempt for the necessary means of conveying and preserving consistency of meaning in language. These ideas pervade colleges and universities as well as the immediate public school realm. We shouldn't be too hopeful about the capacities of a higher education community that has given us, among other things, deconstruction and critical legal studies, to provide a supply of genuinely well-educated candidates. The traditional liberal arts curriculum has evolved, in many places, into a collection of myopic sub-specializations. And-too often-programs in traditional liberal arts disciplines have been captured for advocacy. With or without schools of education, it would be hard to find a good supply of liberally educated would-be teachers with a shared command of what might be called a body of core knowledge in the traditional academic disciplines, as well a sound understanding of how to convert that knowledge into something as necessarily concrete as a lesson plan.

It may yet fall to the education schools-which (at least in Massachusetts) provide a path to licensure to ensure that would-be teachers have mastered a body of core knowledge and the specific teaching methods that attach to specific subjects. The professional schools, if they are approved for licensure, hold a specific public trust and are more readily held accountable. I think that the impetus to hold higher education-along with school systems-broadly accountable is entirely understandable given our recent history. But I fear the real need is for an intellectual sea change.

When I was a superintendent, I encountered-almost daily-reform initiatives of one kind or another. They came in on various channels and wavelengths-from the foundations, the advocacy groups, the government, the media. The vocabulary used to describe these "initiatives" was always one of innovation or newness. Yet, consistently, the reform prescription (and this is something Hirsch has written about) was to do still more of what wasn't working.

I developed a set of basic rules of thumb for judging any proposal set before me. These are:

1. If there's no work in it, it won't work.

Neither students nor teachers are knowledgeable unless they accumulate knowledge. It's a tautology, but a useful one.

2. Don't forget about human nature.

If you need to make a decision about whether a program is going to work, bet on original sin, not perfectibility.

3. Trust but verify.

George Shultz's arms control dictum is a great rule of thumb for educators. Standardized tests may not be-or perhaps should not be-the measure of all things. The introduction of the so-called MCAS in Massachusetts was rocky. But concrete, comparable measures provide, at a minimum, the early warnings.

As federal regulators and policy-makers seek to ensure that no child is left behind, these battlefield rules of thumb may, I hope, be of some use.

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Last Modified: 02/05/2009