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Issue 2, Fall 2008

On Schools of Education, Theodore Sizer
Opening up to Math, Sarah Strong
In Over Our Heads, Stacey Lopaz
African Bushmeat Expedition, Jay Vavra
Learning as Production,
      Critique as Assessment
, Elisabeth Soep
Speeding Race Cars
      & Dying Embers
, Ashley Bull-Carrico
Messy Business: A Student's Perspective
      on Project-Based Learning
, Mollie Davis
The Great Lego Caper, Zoltan Sarda

1: Writing on the Walls
2: San Diego/Tijuana Crossed Gazes
3: Blogging is Writing
4: Public Service Advertising Campaign
5: Science Friction
6: I Am an Artist

HTH GSE » UnBoxed » Issue 2 » policy

Theodore Sizer, Founder and Chair Emeritus, Coalition of Essential Schools.

On Schools of Education

Reflecting on his years as an educational reformer, school leader and teacher educator, the author lays out several recommendations for nurturing Schools of Education. He also offers reflections and suggestions pertaining to the emergence of alternative, clinical forms of teacher education, urging academicians, philanthropists and policy makers to get on with the task of rethinking teacher and administrator preparation.

No enterprise in American universities has been subject to more ridicule than those undergraduate and graduate schools that serve to prepare teachers and administrators. Perhaps this is due to the fact that these faculties serve children and adolescents; those that work with these age groups are dismissed as persons who take the low, easy road in their work, “simple” work because of the youthfulness of their charges. Yet whatever the criticisms, valid or invalid, schools and departments of education basically deserve respect for the fact that they try to help people to do important—even vital—work.

I got into matters of the graduate study of education early, immediately after serving in the army and completing a year of teaching. After earning an M.A.T. at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I went into further study towards a Ph.D. in History and Education. As a married man with a growing tribe of children, I was also grateful for the work that Dean Francis Keppel and Associate Dean Judson Shaplin brought my way. After completing and publishing my dissertation, Secondary Schools at the Turn of the Century, I became head of the Master of Arts in Teaching Program, in those years jointly offered by the Faculties of Arts and of Education. When Keppel decided to leave for the post of Secretary of Education in the new Kennedy administration in Washington, Harvard’s President Nathan M. Pusey asked me to become Dean, an appointment that led one faculty member to try to organize a faculty group to protest my holding this new post at such a tender age. Fortunately a group of senior faculty backed my appointment, feeling, apparently, that I could bring a breath of fresh air into the awkward situation.

With Pusey’s sustained support, we were able to move ahead on several fronts, including moving the rich library archives to a new building for which the President helped me to raise the money, from a single donor, Monroe C. Gutman, a Harvard College alumnus. Properly this rich collection is now called the Gutman Library, arguably the deepest collection of primary and secondary sources available in this country. We gathered several respected scholars from a variety of fields and parts of the country to work with these resources and others on an expanded vision of what education was and could be. With help from the federal government,  we also extended H.G.S.E.’s work in cities, especially nearby Boston and Cambridge.

Early in the 1970s, upon Pusey’s retirement and the appointment of a President with a new set of priorities, I accepted the post of Headmaster of Phillips Academy in Andover, a powerful school, but a place in many ways out of date. I (and my wife, Nancy) worked there for nine happy, but exhausting years. (Teenagers are up and about at all hours of the day and night and disposed to test the limits of their Headmaster.) I taught a seminar for Seniors on “Growing Up in America” and learned much about what an intense, focused environment can do to help students raise both their effectiveness and their sights. 

After leaving Andover, I led a three-year effort to understand the challenges facing the nation in “A Study of High Schools,” three inter-related projects that resulted in three books. In 1984 I accepted the offer of a Professorship at Brown from the then-President, Howard Swearer. Howard wanted the university to soften, even blur, all its traditional edges, in our case Education, Political Science, and Urban Studies, no mean feat. Nancy took a full-time job as Chair and History teacher at the Wheeler School in Providence. We walked together to our two jobs each morning, a perfect way to start one’s professional day.

It is from the aspect of this personal history that I make the following recommendations:

Admirable Schools and Colleges of Education should be generators of ideas about the teaching and learning that is the function of  pre-college institutions. Education faculties should conduct research into school-relevant areas commonly neglected in most existing American colleges and universities. Scholars doing this work should be as mindful of the work that teachers and students actually need as they are of the integrity that will allow others to use their findings. University and college presidents must protect this research (assuming that it is done well), whatever its findings and whichever influential person deems them to be irrelevant or faulty. Journals and papers that provide a record of emerging work should be preserved in the stacks of university libraries.

These Schools of Education should be interlocked with wings of the universities (as in my Harvard experience, Arts and Sciences, Government, Law, Business, Medicine,­ even Divinity) and permanently embedded there, ideally (but to date rarely) by means of focused, permanent endowments. This kind of “interlock” is difficult to maintain as when funds across a university get short, the teacher education function is usually one of the first programs to have its budgets cut; alumni from other areas usually are in positions of traditional power—partners in law firms, for example. A solid School of Education should have its own endowment, even in a public university.

Education schools should not be merely the way to raise money for the rest of a university. Nor should they be a launching pad for well-paid faculty consultancies, however helpful these consultancies may be to people in the field. They should not be merely the back rooms for organs of particular political, social, or religious fields. Faculty members must be protected from zealots, especially those with close ties to a university’s governors who wish to assert some sort of religious, political, or pedagogical point of view.

All this said, and sincerely so, there are emerging examples of new forms of preparing teachers and administrators, some wholly within schools, with wide, and special, public acceptance. These are places where the students “do what no one expected them to be able to do.”

More and more successful high schools, such as Boston Public Schools’ Fenway High School and Boston Arts Academy, are doing much of their teacher training within their own walls. College graduates teach most mornings and spend afternoons in a state-approved preparation program staffed largely by the schools’ veterans, sprinkled with the involvement of universities and retired scholars of education who give them a sense of where schools have come from, what that means, and where they might go. There is, of course, tension here between what “works” today and what might “work better” or even change the rules and shape of the traditional game.

Nancy and I are engaged with a wholly new effort at school-based teacher education, the New Teachers’ Collaborative. “Collaborating” schools agree to “overstaff” each year, at any one time allowing one or two inexpensive, new-to-teaching professionals to join their ranks but to be given enough time to visit classes and speak with others about their work. These candidate teachers join each school some days before traditional “opening-of-school” gatherings and make a fast start to their collective teacher education; Nancy and I take part in some of their bi-weekly seminars during the ensuing year as well as end-of-year “Exhibitions.”
During the academic year each of these “new” teachers has a mentor—a veteran educator who wants to take on this kind of work. (Not all teachers want this sort of responsibility, and no one is arbitrarily pushed into the role.) The teams in each school meet regularly to exchange experiences. The Director of the program superintends this process and provides many written and oral ways of investigating the different challenges of teaching. There are at most ten new teachers, so there is the expectation that each  new teacher’s progress will be closely watched and encouraged. A community is created that transcends any one school and which provides each “collaborating” newcomer a community of like-minded (and likely nervous) people. Conversations are open, with both failures and successes analyzed in a professional manner. Most of the new teachers are but a year or but a few years distant from their undergraduate colleges, but the group each year is leavened by some older folk who are shifting careers, say from Business to Education.

Graduate credit is not given, nor is there tuition for the new teachers to pay. The focus is on improvement of one’s work within the craft, with the expectation that graduate study in Education or other subjects awaits many of  them a few years hence. The Massachusetts State Department of Education has authorized the NTC program and in most years sends a team in to inspect each schools’ work.

Professional development of teachers is also changing, also moving away from a strict reliance on Schools of Education. There are examples of full-fledged, part-time, state approved programs that build on an individual school that is trying something new, often allied with one of the national school reform efforts, such as the Coalition of Essential Schools. Nancy and I are associated with one such effort at the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School based in Devens, Massachusetts. The school provides space for a Teacher Center that includes a library of relevant books and pamphlets and current publications and is the base for serious talk about the teachers’ craft. Teachers from a variety of schools— and even countries—visit Parker as individuals or in groups. Workshops are also offered, and long-term partnerships with local schools bring more depth than an occasional visit could. The Center has a swinging door, coffee pot and paper cups; from time to time teachers and others bring in brownies and other sugar-packed comestibles. There are sofas and comfortable chairs (most donated by school families that have decided to dispense with them; this is a low cost enterprise). The Center has its own board of advisors, which includes the Dean of the School of Education at Fitchburg State College.

Change is never easy in our field. The coming and going of school boards and superintendents can affect the work. “Founders” leave, and educators with new priorities take charge. A new leader may decide—or be told—to pull back from an experimental design or deprive teachers of  the  time or incentive for “teacher talk” of a professional sort. For our Teacher Center and other such collaborations, close work with schools waxes and wanes, as do most such enterprises. But even in such schools, teachers have learned new ways to engage their students and have gained experience as serious colleagues.

In sum, initiatives such as these are difficult to pull off—but shouldn’t be. The case for them is made fundamentally by the progress of the students. No school board can remain politically credible within its community if it shuts down or otherwise hassles obviously successful institutions.

The examples are piling up. The evidence is there. Schools of Education—at least the thoughtful ones—are rethinking their missions. It now is up to academic, philanthropic  and political leaders to take the next giant step. May they get on with it, as soon as possible.