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Marching to the New Drummer

One in a series of occasional articles on the people affected by the No Child Left Behind law.


Mary Lou Miller and Monica Macander, studying at Towson University to be teachers, drove to Ocean City in October for a seminar on the new education law and learned, to their surprise, that the federal government will bus their future students to other public schools if they don't teach them enough.

The federal support for parents who transfer their children out of failing schools is a basic part of the No Child Left Behind law, but like everyone else, students in U.S. education schools and their instructors are just becoming familiar with the changes.

As a consequence, teacher education across the country is adjusting slowly, even as leaders in the field warn that foot-dragging will bring catastrophe.

No Child Left Behind is just one year old, but it sets targets as distant as 2014. David G. Imig, president and chief executive of the Washington-based American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, issued a report in fall saying that prospective teachers such as Miller and Macander -- and the education schools that train them -- may eventually find the new law to be the educational equivalent of a Force 5 hurricane.

"If fully enacted, these policy proposals would redirect existing federal support for teacher education to alternative or nontraditional providers, including local school districts, and seriously impair the capacity of education schools to prepare and support sufficient numbers of high-quality beginning teachers," Imig said.

The Bush administration has pledged to spend $2.85 billion in coming years on alternatives to traditional education schools. So those education schools that do not become more effective and more flexible, Imig said, "will go the way of the dinosaurs."

At Towson University, on a hilly campus north of Baltimore, more than 1,000 students, both full- and part-time, are preparing for the new world of teaching. Neither they nor their instructors seem to know how this will affect them. "We are at the very beginning of the change cycle," said Roxana DellaVecchia, assistant dean in the College of Education at Towson. "I feel like everyone is scrambling."

Towson has made some progress, DellaVecchia said, in an area that many education schools are focusing on: training educators to interpret the new generation of required state tests. Towson has introduced courses in data-based decision making, for example. "Teachers and principals are going to have to know how to use the data collected by the state," DellaVecchia said.

Peabody College, Vanderbilt University's education school, has made sure that its new Principals Leadership Academy of Nashville "includes much more emphasis on testing and assessment, accountability, and having the principals use actual state data in their learning experiences," said its dean, Camilla Benbow.

Education schools such as Towson also are strengthening programs encouraged by No Child Left Behind to help people switch into teaching careers and to give current teachers the training they need to handle the demands of the federal law.

Jack Maynard, dean of the School of Education at Indiana State University, said the deans of all Indiana state teaching programs are working together to "create alternative routes to place more qualified teachers in the classroom." In the District, Trinity College has begun an intensive course in classroom technology for public school teachers and principals.

Jeffrey Gorrell, dean of the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University, said his staff has reached out to Northern Virginia school districts that need help in training teachers, especially in the fields of reading instruction, special education and classroom management.

The problem is that the Bush administration wants education schools to not only add new courses, but also throw out some old ones, particularly instruction on teaching methodology that some federal experts think is better learned on the job with a mentor close by.

Most education schools are resisting such cuts. "This is always a sensitive issue, because faculty members often feel that they own their courses," DellaVecchia said. "If you drop their course, it raises questions about their reason for being there."

When several leaders of the Renaissance Group, a consortium of state education schools based in Emporia, Kan., were asked during a conference call last week if any of them had dropped courses because of No Child Left Behind, no one spoke up. The college presidents and deans said that they were changing and deepening courses but that they did not agree with U.S. Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige's view that some methodology courses were a waste of time.

"Every one of our courses is examined very carefully to make sure they are doing what they say they are doing," said Patricia P. Cormier, president of Longwood University in Farmville, Va., and chairman of the Renaissance Group.

Many education school deans say they are focusing on improving the teaching of reading, as demanded by the framers of No Child Left Behind. But they have not yet embraced the Bush administration's policy of promoting just a few phonics-rich reading programs that its experts say are based on the best research.

Miller, 23, who is pursuing her graduate studies at Towson after getting a bachelor's degree at the State University of New York College at Geneseo, said she recently wrote a report about one phonics-rich program, Open Court. But no one told her that she had to adopt it, she said.

When she asked two experienced teachers about the program, "one of them really liked it, and one of them didn't."

Education school leaders say they are unlikely to march in step with all of the new federal law's provisions until the state governments that fund education schools -- and the school districts that hire their graduates -- tell them they must. "It is the state department of education which has to make pretty major changes, rather than the individual institutions," said Tes Mehring, dean of the Teachers College at Emporia State University in Kansas.

A few states have strongly promoted No Child Left Behind despite the doubts raised by their education school faculties. A spokeswoman for the University of Central Florida said that her state, whose education department is firmly in the Bush camp, has its major universities pursuing a program that fits the No Child Left Behind model of "scientifically based data collection" and strong emphasis on phonics.

But most education school leaders say they are not certain how much their methods will change, given that their instructors are not especially eager to embrace a new federal testing program as a measure of students' work.

"I think we are a divided faculty in that respect," said Towson's DellaVecchia. "The nature of university professors is to be a little rebellious."

— Jay Mathews
Teaching Schools Forced to Rethink Approach
Washington Post
Jan. 14, 2002


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