We Need to Make Eye Contact

06/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Change is not automatically good. When the weather changes from sunny to rainy we don't usually celebrate. Reform suggests improvement. But people do not always agree what will make things better. Change for the sake of change certainly does not mean reform. Neither does change that makes things worse.

This week the New York State Regents, the governing body that makes educational decisions in the state, unanimously enacted changes in teacher certification. I wish I could say these changes are reforms, there certainly is a need for reform. However, my feeling is that the changes are foolish, at best window dressing, but potentially destructive.

The Regents decided to allow, as a pilot program, Teach for America and the New York City Teaching Fellows to grant masters degrees in education, circumventing university-based teacher education programs. Their justification was that the universities are too focused on abstract notions such as the role of schools in a democracy and concerns that they perpetuate social inequality. The change is designed to enhance the state's application for federal Race to the Top money.

According to the New York State Learning Standards, teachers are supposed to encourage their students to utilize higher order thinking on all grade-levels. But apparently, the Regents consider teachers themselves too stupid to think very hard.

Commissioner of the New York State Department of Education David Steiner wants practical instruction for teachers such as telling them to make eye contact with students, that they should call on a student by name, and to wait for fuller answers when they ask questions. I have nothing against this advice, but is Steiner really prepared to give a masters degree to someone based on these three things? Are you awarded a masters degree for making eye contact? That certainly will bring New York schools into the 21st century.

But shouldn't teachers also know something about their subject and how to teach it to students on different academic and grade levels? Perhaps teachers should also something about planning lessons and units, how schools are organized, debates in education, adolescent behavior, how child learn, how to promote reading, and ways to reach students with special needs.

If Steiner were not State Education Commissioner his recommendation would be dismissed as a joke. That he is State Education Commissioner is very scary. That the Obama-Duncan and Bloomberg-Klein edu-deform regimes are promoting these changes as significant reforms is outright frightening.

At this point I need to confess. I work at a School of Education. But I was also an actual inner-city high school teacher for fourteen years before I became a teacher educator, which is probably 14 years more experience than anyone in an educational leadership position in New York City, New York State, or the Obama administration.

I also have another confession to make. I am not a big fan of many teacher education programs. Not because they teach theory, but because they don't effectively connect theory to practice; which of course is the hardest thing to do in any field of study. Too often schools of education put the cart before the horse, discussing underlying explanations before teacher education students have an idea of how classrooms can be organized, how and why students respond to different educational approaches, and what is important to know and why.

Big ideas and the small-scale practices need to be integrated so that teachers can become thinkers themselves, curriculum creators, concerned counselors, and school leaders, rather than just people who follow scripts and hand out punishments and rewards. That type of training takes time and hard work and it merits a master's degree. In the real world, it takes about three to five years of practice with a lot of support to become an effective teacher. But Teach for America and the NYC Teaching Fellows have such high turnover rates that virtually everyone quits before they learn what they are supposed to do.

The Regents plan, the Bloomberg-Klein deforms, and the federal Race to the Bottom grants are all really about de-professionalizing teaching in inner-city schools so they can hire low paid temporary workers with little training who will follow scripts and be too afraid to question what is going on. If these were real reforms we would see teachers being hired this way in elite schools and suburban communities, but those parents would never stand for it.

The city, state, and federal governments are promoting these deform plans because they do not want to address, probably have no idea how to address, the real problems confronting education in the United States. They also want to distract public attention from their gross mismanagement of the economy. It is easier to blame teachers and teacher education programs than it is to promote genuine reform.

Declining revenues are forcing states and localities to drastically cut school budgets. California plans to lay-off 22,000 teachers, Illinois 17,000. New York City has warned that 15,000 teachers might be let go. Meanwhile families are in distress because official national unemployment remains about ten percent, with pockets of unemployment in some communities well over twenty percent. Is this the time to propagate new paths to teacher certification? Are there going to be that many new jobs?

The technocrats, both Democrats and Republicans, who govern the United States think they can solve major social problems with minor adjustments and a few twists of the dial because they are so smart. These guys have become so blinded by their arrogance that they have grown stupid.

My five-year old grandchild asked me not to use that word because it is banned as mean in their kindergarten classroom. Some of my colleagues and former students who are now teachers have also asked me why I get so sarcastic in some of my posts. I guess I am feeling despairing and a little desperate about what is happening in our schools and country. I hope with my sarcasm I can make "eye contact" with the arrogant and take them down a peg. Jon Stewart of the Daily Show has become my hero. We need more people to shout out, "the emperor has no clothes."