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Jul 21, 2006

Big ideas

I was taking my son Gleb to the airport on Wednesday, and he asked me how was my job and if I had any big ideas about it. My response was that the job is great, and yes, I do have some ideas. I was not sure whether they are big though. What I am quite sure about is that we need to streamline some of the procedures, and save/make some money for the School. Those two are actually closely related. We should probably consider expanding our off-campus offerings to both generate revenue for the School, and allow people to make some extra money, while offering quality programs. We need to try to get into some more grants. We also have to make sure we get accredited by the State and NCATE. Are these ideas big though?

Now, how do you come up with big ideas if what I inherited as a director are programs that are already very good, thoughtfully put together, and with some great track records? I have wonderful, talented faculty and competent staff. It clearly ain’t broken, so what am I going to fix? Management is really a form of service. My job is to make sure faculty have the means and right conditions to do their job well. It is in the classrooms and in the field where rubber meets the road, not in my office, or in my hard drive.

If one looks at education in general and teacher education in particular, one may notice quite a few significant improvements over the past 20 years or so. Those are mostly related to the wave of quality management techniques we have borrowed from the world of business. Various forms of accreditation, notably NCATE, fall under this broad category of systematic, incremental (and well, let’s admit it, tedious) improvements. This stuff is annoying but it works. No one came out of an NCATE review worse off than before. Yet it is essentially the same teacher education that was around long time ago. Just like modern car engines are vastly superior to those of the past, but they are still the same: burning gasoline mixed with air. What I would consider a big idea in education should be what a hydrogen engine is to the internal combustion one. In my opinion, we have not had such a big idea in education for about 100 years, since the advent of Progressivism. So, my answer to Gleb is that no, I don’t have any really big ideas. And maybe this is a good thing.

Yet we need to keep our eyes open, in case one of those appears. It’s about time, and we have many challenges that do not seem to go away. The tremendous rate of attrition among teachers is probably the central one. We keep training all these competent teachers, yet some 4 million Americans with teaching licenses do not teach. The root cause of the problem might be well beyond our reach, yet I cannot get rid of a feeling that something is missing in the very model of teacher education. Specifically, why the so-called hard-to-staff schools (mostly urban) present such a difficulty for young teachers? I mean, being a doctor or a firefighter, or a cop is also very stressful, but people do not quit in such large numbers. Perhaps one solution would be to concentrate on communication, acting skills, on the ability to relate to students? How about a boot camp for future teachers, something that would restructure their personality, their psyche, not just their knowledge and competencies?

Well, perhaps a number of small ideas are better than a search for a big one. But I still wonder…


  1. Anonymous8:55 AM

    Like those standing on the ocean shores after news came that the world is, in fact, round, we stand at the shores of the big news in education: teachers are not islands onto themselves, but partners in the complex process of educating our society's children.

    Big ideas can appear small like aspirin or penicillin, but their application shows their bigness. The small idea is preparing preservice teachers to expect and to construct partnerships as they work to teach and to learn how to teach better. I taught for fourteen years in the inner-city classroom. Easily I could have joined those who left. What keep me committed to my students and to my continued professional growth was a partnership with other teachers and with the University of Pennsylvania.

    Teachers as islands unto themselves used to be the "very model of education." But, teachers as partners with other teachers, community members, other professionals and universities needs to be the new model. For years UNC has not been in active, visible partnership with our community. I understand steps are being taken to correct this. I believe that it is vital to our health as a university, a viable institution of teacher preparation, an organization of service and the promoters of clearer understandings.

  2. Grace, let's talk about how we can help our fraduates to establish professional communities. That is a great idea, and I invite everyone to contribute.