04/12/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Education Reform Debate Needs Bigger Battlefield

President Obama wants to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Law to give schools greater incentives to booster their students' achievement. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has charged that many university-based teacher preparation programs are not equipping teachers for the 21st century classroom.

Few will dispute that more education reforms are needed. But many of the prescriptions may not be up to the task of dramatically improving student achievement because they are rooted in a reform paradigm that has failed to produce this desired result.

In an essay titled "The End of the Education Debate," Chester Finn Jr. argues that the long-reigning paradigm, with its defining ideas of standards, testing and (school) choice, has run its course. What's needed now, he says, is a more fundamental rethinking of how schools are governed and financed if we are to move student achievement scores off the flat line and into an upward direction. In other words, we need to change the context in which reforms are implemented.

Duncan's prescriptions to upgrade "mediocre" teacher education programs rely heavily on more training in classroom management and better use of student achievement data to identify which programs work and which don't. But this approach would only scratch the surface of what it takes to ensure that teachers are ready for the classroom.

For example, it is critical that a future teacher's field experiences in local schools be as varied as possible and integrated into the entire preparation program. In this way, novice teachers can observe and analyze how veteran teachers in a wide range of settings manage their classrooms. Guided practice, teaching in diverse classroom settings, makes it easier for beginning teachers to manage a roomful of students alone.

As beneficial as this kind of training is, it is still not broad enough. Rather than aim to merely "manage" or control their classrooms, teachers must also be able to identify and utilize ways of "engaging" their students in the learning experience. Managing suggests fitting every student into a predetermined role when the goal should be positive learning environments for all students.

The use of student test data is, of course, a favorite tool in evaluating the effectiveness of reforms. Extending it to assess teacher preparation programs by way of individual teacher evaluations, as Duncan urges, is well within the mainstream of reformist thinking. But it is imperative that teachers know how to understand and effectively utilize test data - not only to gauge their own progress but also that of their students.

More than statistical data should be used to arrive at a sound assessment. Anecdotal evidence and project assessment can be sources of meaningful information on how to improve classroom practices. Schools of education should teach future teachers how to use these multiple measures in their assessments.

In addition, teachers' approach to science and math instruction must shift. Leading schools of education are preparing teachers to teach these subjects by using science and math to explain and solve everyday problems for kids.

These are just some of the many ingredients that go into high-quality teacher preparation. Still, even the most dramatic programmatic changes in teacher preparation will fail to produce the achievement results we seek if we do not reexamine our most fundamental approaches to education and the structures within which educators teach.

In his article, Finn contends that the infrastructure of the primary and secondary education system is the chief impediment to continued progress. He asks: Are local school boards the best structure for governance? Is the system too reliant on property taxes? Are teacher-pay structures outmoded? Should we continue to defer to the states in setting standards or is a national model better suited to boost student performance?

These are the questions educational policy leaders need to be tackling. As long as they remain unaddressed and it's business as usual, we will be merely tweaking an education system that may have reached its capacity to reform itself. In his call for deploying more testing to identify effective teacher prep programs, Duncan is still fighting the last reform battle when we need a larger battlefield.

Schools of education need to graduate better-prepared and higher-quality teachers to meet the demands of our future education marketplace. Some institutions are already making significant progress toward this end. But the effects of reforms on student performance will be limited until we radically rethink the context in which they are implemented.

Karen Symms Gallagher is the Emery Stoops and Joyce King Stoops Dean of the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education.