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Dec 14, 2007

Special Interest and Teacher Education

In the last few months, our College has been approached by several groups; among them the Teaching about the Holocaust group, teaching about American Constitution group, the teachers unions, and the alternative non-union teacher associations, the dyslexia advocacy group. Each wants us to do add their specific concern to our teacher education programs. Some are more effective than others, because they come with willingness to help, to contribute resources, and see how their specific agenda fits into our larger objectives. Others just come insisting we should change our curriculum to address their concern, just on the merits of that concern. All come in hope of getting their agendas extra-mileage, because of the scope of our reach. Indeed, we graduate, some 600 teachers a year, each of them will teach thousands of children over her or his life time. The potential reach is enormous, that's why they all come.

Here is an example of some of the most dangerous, although also well-intentional attempts to influence teacher education. On Wednesday, Harvey Rude, the Director of the School of Special Education, took me and two of his faculty along to a meeting with a State Representative, who is considering introducing a bill on dyslexia in the Colorado General Assembly. The representative is a former teacher and is sympathetic to concerns of dyslexic children, so he all but made a commitment to introduce a bill. The question is, of course, what kind of a bill, so he asked for our input, which is a very reasonable.

Yet the dynamics of such an initiative is very troubling. The special interest group is well organized and well connected. They have a very good cause to defend, and have aggregated a lot of expertise on the issue. The group feels, justifiably, that dyslexic children may be misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all, and neglected by the schools. The problem is, of course, that they see the world through the lens of this specific issue; everything else takes the back seat. So, they would like to see something like a special course in all teacher education curriculum, and if not that, a special procedure for reporting to the State how the information on dyslexia is a part of teacher education curriculum. In other words, they would like to see the State agencies such as the Colorado Department of Education to enforce a mandate from the state. The narrow focus and belief in unfunded state mandates are the two problems; the third one is the assumption that teacher education does not do its job, and our graduates are ignorant in dyslexia issues, and just about everything else.

Let's consider all three assumptions:

  1. "My issue is more important than your issue." It is very easy to believe, especially if you have a child of your own who suffers from a particular disability. The special interest groups by definition do not attempt to reconcile their interest with others. However, it is a deeply unethical assumption. What would you like us to remove from curriculum to make room for the dyslexia education? What about other disabilities? Other concerns about teacher training? Also notice that disability does not know class distinction, which is why these groups can recruit a lot of middle class, educated parents to argue for their cause. We never see Latino parents lobbies or poor parents or single moms lobby at our doorsteps, simply because they have little resources to organize. And their children deserve to have a teacher who can individualize instruction to meet their needs, and be sensitive to their specific issues. So, I argue, to be effective a special interest group must be not so special, and show empathy for other causes. They must form broader coalitions, and figure out broader solutions, and make an effort to be useful to people whose work they want to change.
  2. "Just tell them to do it." Many special interests groups just do not know how higher education and its teacher education branch work. They tend to assume that the State law can effectively change curriculum. In fact, new mandates without any funding attached to it wreck havoc on higher education, and do more damage than good to whatever just cause they are supposed to help. Part of it is that such states as Colorado keep their public colleges on a starvation diet. So faculty feel resentful, tired, and hate new demands. Second, state mandates can create a flurry of reporting activities, but rarely change what is going on in college classrooms. Short of monitoring every classroom, how do you ever know that what we report is actually happening? Third, university faculty's sense of self-esteem comes from being specialists in their fields. State mandates always ignore controversies in scholarship, and prescribe something at least part of faculty does not agree with. Dyslexia is a case of this. When I listen to the advocacy people, they seem to be hundred percent sure about what works and what does not. I come back to my colleagues who actually research the issue, and they are telling me, wait a minute, it is not really that clear, and we do not know much about dyslexia, or even how to define it. Telling a faculty that the State mandate must override his or her scholarly knowledge is most often counterproductive.
  3. "You suck, because there is a problem." The special interest groups rarely find out what we already do. Their logic is this: there are reports from schools that our issues is not addressed adequately, therefore teachers are not adequately prepared. For example, such and such percent of US population cannot say how the Constitution begins. Therefore, teachers are not prepared to teach it. Notice no one claims that because certain percent of cancer patients still dies, we have a disaster on our hands with medical training or medical research. People who care about cancer get together and find ways of raising money and helping raise awareness. People who care about K-12 schooling mostly get together to lobby state governments to pass laws. Lobbying is a lot cheaper than research. I would like to propose a law to cure cancer by the year 2010, and have all hospitals send the State government annual progress reports… The deep fallacy here is that everything is believed to be possible in education, while in medicine, there are limits to what can be done. In fact, all areas of human activity have intrinsic limits of what is possible. Back to dyslexia: it is possible, that after a careful study, one could find that within the limits of the possible we indeed do not do as much as other comparable institutions do in these areas. However, no one has done such a study to make such a claim. Instead, someone has spoken with this woman who is a UNC graduate, and she even did not know what dyslexia means. On the basis of such "evidence," the entire State of Colorado may introduce a new law.

This is not about us protecting our turf, but rather about the unhealthy blend of special interests activism, popular conceptions about education, and reckless law-making.

If you're not too tired yet, here is the entire letter I have written to the State Representative after our visit:

Dear Representative Merrifield:

Thanks for inviting us to yesterday's meeting on dyslexia, and for allowing us to provide further input. Here is my five cents.

  1. The Performance-Based Standards for Colorado Teachers already include Standard Six: "Knowledge of Individualization of Instruction: The teacher is responsive to the needs and experiences children bring to the classroom, including those based on culture, community, ethnicity, economics, linguistics, and innate learning abilities. The teacher is knowledgeable about learning exceptionalities and conditions that affect the rate and extent of student learning, and is able to adapt instruction for all learners." Our Teacher Education programs are authorized by CDE on these standards, and it would be very difficult to show actual evidence that these regulations are not enforced. Of course, you can suggest that this specific standard receives more attention or that CDE introduces the Dyslexia Directorate to make a whole new set of standards out of this already quite specific standards. As I mentioned at the meeting, there is a fundamental problem with this sort of regulatory enthusiasm. Among other things, multiple sets of standards present an oxymoron: a standard only makes sense when there is only one. We already have four sets to comply with; three of them overlap greatly (The Licensure standards, the PBSCT, and the Reading Directorate).
  2. I believe The Colorado Educator Induction Statute (see how CDE is applying it at can be amended to include more incentives for partnership for collaborative efforts between higher education institutions and school districts in induction programs; and also include partnerships with non-profit entities such as IDA who have collected a wealth of expertise. Such partnerships were encouraged by the Statute, I believe in 1994, but as far as I know, none established with UNC. Perhaps the Statute can be amended to give more teeth to requiring meaningful induction programs. Teacher Education research has plenty of evidence that good beginning teacher training is more effective than piling up a lot of stuff in pre-service programs.
  3. I also suggest that Colorado experiments with state-NGO partnership models. Frankly, the State has no funds and limited expertise in such highly specialized areas as dyslexia or other learning disabilities. However IDA and its peer organization do have significant expertise and some resources. So, why not use them not only for legislative activism, but also as a resource to promote their causes with State's help? For example, CDE can serve as a clearing house for resources to be used in higher education instruction; to have a list of guest-speakers, of adjunct instructors with specific expertise, etc. In my experience, relatively little money used as mini-grants can generate a lot of interest among university faculty. It can be a mixture of the NGO's money and State matching funds. NGO's such as IDA can help review applications and evaluate the results of such mini-grants. University faculty's buy-in is incomparably higher if they are enticed rather than forced to comply.

You also invited us to comment on the Colorado Reading Directorate.

  1. The core problem as I see it is that CDE is trying to regulate the input rather than the outcome. CDE and CDHE should be mandated to stop wasting public money and use national accreditation to the extent allowed by Colorado statutes. For example, 39 states have adopted or adapted the NCATE unit standards as their own and apply them to all institutions for purposes of state approval. The national accreditation agencies simply have more resources and have better accreditation systems, which are increasingly performance-based. CHEA is another example.
  2. The legislature should regulate the regulators. Can we put limits on how much reporting and what kind of reporting a State agency can demand? Can the regulators be held accountable for following the best practices of regulation? Does anyone actually check their review process for integrity? Can someone ask them to prove that their specific way of authorization actually does ensure quality of programs? You guys pass a statute, which then is converted into rules and regulations document that may or may not have anything in common with the intent of the law. For example CRD, in my view, clearly exceeds the authority granted to CDE by the State law. The line between regulating and prescribing which textbooks to use in which course has been crossed; with absolutely no reason to believe it will do any good to anyone.

Anyway, thanks for listening. If you want an angrier version of the regulations argument, feel free to read

1 comment:

  1. There are many great points made in this commentary. The key question is "What is a special interest?" Is Black History a special interest or an interest of a generally important societal nature?" Is training teachers in leadership a special interest, or a reflection of a special interest. Surely not. There is no money to be made by any one group, nor does any one group benefit if we decide that our teachers should be trained in leadership development, because leadership could be viewed as a core competency for teachers. Leadership as a core competency for PreK-12 teachers was identified in a 1956 article in the journal Educational Leadership with the title, Teaching is Leadership. We know of no group that has taken the opposite point of view that teaching is not leadership.

    So, progress is change, by definition. How do you think the IBM selectric typewriter repairman views computers? Probably, not very favorably.

    We think that lobbying the teacher training corps and institutions to consider adding items to the training and certification curriculum is not a bad thing. In every job we discover new ways to improve, daily, monthly, yearly and often during a decade.

    Most importantly, the "market" should be allowed to function. If students seeking teacher certification believe that a short course in leadership development would be beneficial, they should be allowed to take the course and get credit. This is exactly what has happened in the legal profession where continuing legal education credits are now offered for leadership, but they were not just a few years back.

    This is a useful dialogue about how to help teachers become better teachers, throughout their career and at its inception.

    Herb Rubenstein