What Candidates Should be Saying about Education
Tonight marks the unofficial end of primary season as Hillary Clinton reaches the threshold of delegates needed to claim the title of "presumptive nominee." I wanted to mark the occasion by publishing this piece by my friend and colleague David Sherrin (whose work you may have seen before on this blog as well as on bookshelves. His books on role playing and mock trials are wonderful resources for anyone who wants to bring the humanities to life). He calls on our candidates to mark this day as well by moving past political posturing towards real solutions: better training, mentorship, and improved working conditions. What do you think our candidates and leaders should be saying about education? - JRTM
In their debates and in their online platforms, our presidential candidates have said little of substance about strengthening K-12 public education. Each has taken, of course, a pro-forma stance on the most controversial issue of the day, the Common Core Standards, as well as on the related debate over high-stakes testing. Bernie Sanders, certainly, has made the topics of free public higher education and unnecessary student debt welcome additions to political discourse. However, when it comes to really improving the teaching and learning in K-12 classrooms across the country, all of the candidates have shied away from any bold policy statements.
It is time for a candidate to recognize that the most important factors in improving educational outcomes are to strengthen teaching and to improve the conditions in which learning takes place. Working toward the latter goal means returning to an era when we talked about smaller class sizes, improved access to materials and technology, as well as the creation or renovation of school buildings that provide safe, clean, and nurturing environments.
To strengthen teaching practice itself is a complicated matter, but candidates should propose that we take the important step of providing student-teachers and novice teachers with more time in their schedule to observe, meet with, and receive feedback from mentors who are master teachers. The current system of training is a hodge-podge of benevolence and expediency in which administrators chuck new teachers into the classroom with little real preparation or support. Instead, presidential candidates should insist on more meaningful exhanges between novice and master teachers, which would mean better outcomes for all.
Most teachers enter the profession through education programs in which professors provide a theoretical framework during evening classes while, in the daytime, the trainees observe and teach alongside mentor teachers. This practical apprenticeship seeks to guide them through the multi-faceted everyday practice of education. Host teachers like myself (I partner with Columbia University's Teachers College) take on this task for a variety of reasons: we like to teach others, to help society, and to feel a sense of altruism.
My student-teachers have consistently remarked that this practical mentorship has led to exceptional growth in their practice but that they know, from their peers, that the experience is uneven. Why? Since even the wealthiest universities offer no payment or stipend to their host teachers for this considerable extra work, the programs must take whomever they can get to do the training. Thus, there is no oversight. Teachers have no incentive other than goodwill to take on this key role, especially since they know it limits their time and possibilities to support their schools in other ways.
Expert teachers have few means to advance or achieve prestige in our profession other than to leave the classroom for administration. We need candidates to pledge to keep the best educators in the classroom and to support our student-teachers by strengthening the current system and insisting that only the most skilled educators take on the role of mentors. To do this, we must ensure that universities (perhaps in partnership with school boards) select host teachers through a rigorous application process, provide them with a title worthy of the role, and compensate them justly for the extra work.
A candidate ought to push for this strategy in conjunction with one that takes a similar approach to support novice teachers in their first few years of work. For the most part, school boards and administrators dump inexperienced teachers into the hardest situations with little to no support. There might be lip service to mentorship but if we lack funding to provide the mentor and mentee with time to observe each other and to meet in order to plan and reflect, then such partnerships are sadly ineffective.
In rare cases, we've tried to cultivate real mentorship and it has worked. New York City began a strangely unnoticed Master Teacher program in 2014. The impressive application process involved an in-person interview where candidates needed to demonstrate crucial skills and attitudes in mentorship. As part of the first cohort of 40 or so Master Teachers, I had the opportunity, through extra time in my schedule, to mentor about seven new teachers, by observing and meeting with them each week, and to lead regular professional development sessions that I catered to the needs of our faculty.
Unfortunately, although I was able to help teachers achieve considerable growth in only one year, the NYC Department of Education cut the funding line to schools like mine and, consequently, this crucial role vanished from our support system. It is essential that we have candidates, and political leaders, who will forego vague claims about ensuring we meet the needs of 21st century education and instead put forth a policy proposal to require and financially support Master Teacher programs across the country while also ensuring funding for the best mentors to train student-teachers.
It is time for new ideas from our candidates and we must start with a sincere commitment to teacher training. In my dream, we even find ways to have some of our strongest public school educators teaching graduate courses on methodology, curriculum planning, and classroom management while receiving adequate compensation to do so. Now is the moment to put those teacher leaders working every day in our schools, the ones who are consistently refining and improving their own practice, in charge of the training of our next generation of teachers. We need serious candidates and politicians to get us there.
Photo by Taken https://pixabay.com/en/white-house-washington-dc-politics-451544/#
Author Bio: David Sherrin is a teacher at Harvest Collegiate, a public high school in New York City. He is the author of The Classes They Remember: Using Role-Plays to Bring Social Studies and English to Life and was named a New York City Master Teacher for 2014-2015.