On Common Ground: Number 9, Fall 2001


Does America Know How to Teach?

By Rod Paige

Does America know how to teach? Examine the educational institutions in any major city in America and you will make a startling discovery: world-class colleges and universities sharing neighborhoods with many of our most dangerous and under-performing public schools. A visitor who saw both circumstances might have trouble answering the question.

This arrangement is not just a surprise — it also presents a great opportunity for both sides. A university is a concentration of human capital-knowledge, skills, and goodwill — that can have exponential benefits if shared with the schoolhouse down the street. Bringing its massive human and research resources to bear on the problems of a school does not dilute the quality of the university, but it could tremendously help the children in the school — and the neighborhood. In an era when almost a third o f college freshmen arrive on campus needing remedial courses, helping elementary and secondary schools will help colleges as well. I learned this lesson vividly in Houston, where I was dean of the college of education at Texas Southern University. At one point, my program produced a quarter of the new teachers in the Houston Independent School District.

I never thought I would follow my graduates to HISD, but with little notice I found myself a superintendent managing the teachers I had trained. I learned a great deal about teaching from the district job — including much that I wish I had known when I was still training teachers. It was both moving and edifying to see the theories we had taught at TSU play out in practice. As I learned, it is important for whole universities, not just schools of education, to build bridges with the schools in their ne ighborhoods. The new research generated or reviewed by universities can be very useful to the teachers, who in turn produce the next generation of college freshmen.

Colleges and universities can share a host of assets with local schools. One of the critical challenges that schools face is the knowledge of their teachers about the latest findings in science, social sciences, and technology. Yet every university has both undergraduate and graduate students as well as professors who can share their knowledge with our current teachers. In fact, the undergraduates and graduate students can often create greater rapport with middle and high school students than teachers be-cause of the closeness of ages and cultures. Bringing current science and its applications into the laboratories of our schools will motivate more young people to pursue careers in those areas.

To broaden content knowledge for teachers in all subject areas, local universities can offer seminars for teachers to help teachers develop the depth and breadth of their knowledge in those subjects they currently teach. Creating real communities of sc holarship across the K-16 continuum can not only improve the quality of teaching in our K-12 institutions, but it can also motivate teachers to remain in the teaching profession. Often it is the isolation of public school classrooms that drives good peopl e out of the field. Universities also can help improve teacher quality by encouraging majors in content areas to consider either certification or alternative certification programs. Colleges of education can share the results of their research with district planners, and als o deploy their research facilities to help schools evaluate teaching methods. They can help teachers develop curricula, offer schools access to their facilities, and help mismanaged schools improve their management.

I recommend many of these projects from personal experience. While I was superintendent, the district worked on two curriculum projects with the advice and assistance of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Our first project, called “Common Ground,” brought English teachers together with professors to read and analyze the classics paired with works by more recent writers. The teachers then repeated the analysis with their high school students. Our other program, the Houston Teachers Institute, is clo sely modeled after the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute itself. There the teachers participate in seminars on topics they have requested, which are led by outstanding professors from the University of Houston. The teachers received stipends for creating curriculum units of their teaching on the seminar topics. Both of these experiences have been intellectually stimulating for the teachers and their students.

As we developed new programs for the district, we also reached out to professors from across the country and commissioned papers to review the innovations put in place and measure the new programs’ success. At a seminar last October the researchers gat hered to present their papers to the district and the community. The dialogue with researchers and the scholars who reacted to their papers gave the community an excellent perspective on what had been accomplished, but, also, an opportunity to consider ne xt steps and possible extensions of the programs in place. Any community could take this idea and engage its local universities and other universities across the country in a similar program review.

While teachers in every subject can benefit from a partnership with higher education, the two areas of greatest need are math and science. Therefore, I would like to urge universities to take this challenge as a priority for their work with local schoo ls. Our students lag behind the international average in these important subjects, and their teachers often are not well qualified to teach in these fields. President Bush recognizes the value of partnerships in these areas, which need better research on how children learn, more qualified teachers, and mid-career refreshers for teachers who were fully qualified when they began. Colleges and universities can help schools by training math and science teachers and by helping those teachers stay up to date in teaching methods and developments in their fields.

While teachers in every subject can benefit from a partnership with higher education, the two areas of greatest need are math and science. Therefore, I would like to urge universities to take this challenge as a priority for their work with local schoo ls. Our students lag behind the international average in these important subjects, and their teachers often are not well qualified to teach in these fields. President Bush recognizes the value of partnerships in these areas, which need better research on how children learn, more qualified teachers, and mid-career refreshers for teachers who were fully qualified when they began. Colleges and universities can help schools by training math and science teachers and by helping those teachers stay up to date in teaching methods and developments in their fields.

I applaud the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute for supplying models for what universities should do. Its projects are not just inspiring, they are creating an environment in which partnerships will be the norm, not the exception. Every great universit y should be linked to its surrounding schools by a thriving and many-tiered partnership. Observers should not ask why a few universities have partnerships, but why the rest do not.

As surely as tests follow homework, Washington and state capitals will always work to reform education. But the work we do is far less important than the real work of improving instruction, increasing student performance, and holding schools accountabl e for results. These goals must be accomplished student by student, school by school, community by community, and everyone, from parents to teachers to university researchers, has a role to play to ensuring that standards are higher, teachers have more re sources, and no child is left behind.


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