Where “We” Stand on Urban, Comparative, and Teacher Education

Where we standBy Bill Henk – Suffice it to say that it’s been it’s been both a fascinating and mildly frustrating past two days for this education dean.

Hang in there as I explain in a longer post that’s hopefully worth your time.

Day 1 — The National Urban Stand

On Tuesday I had the honor of participating in an event my College co-sponsored with the Marquette University Law School entitled, Lessons from Elsewhere: What Milwaukee Can Learn from Work on Improving Urban Education Systems Nationwide.” Personally, I thought this session qualified as the most intriguing education-related program in this public policy series to date, among several very good ones.

The event first included keynote interviews with Michael Casserly, the Executive Director of the  Council of Great City Schools, and Paul Hill, Founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, who many will recognize as a foremost advocate of portfolio districts, most notably exemplified by New Orleans, New York, and Chicago.   With the Law School’s Mike Gousha and Alan Borsuk, respectively, doing separate interviews with Michael and Paul, and then a joint one with these experts, the audience was treated to a wealth of important information about the national urban education scene in relation to where we stand.  What they shared really did amount to lessons from elsewhere that Milwaukee would do well to consider in relation to our urban schools.

In the next 75 minutes, I moderated a discussion with four local shareholders in the Milwaukee education scene:  Nata Abbott from the Community Relations’ arm of GE Healthcare, Larry Miller from the Milwaukee Board of School Directors, Kole Knueppel from Schools That Can Milwaukee, and Reuben Jacobson from the Coalition for Community Schools.

This distinguished line-up had been assembled by Alan, and I had the privilege of guiding the discussion.  Nata spoke to business/education partnerships, Larry commented on a range of issues related to MPS, Kole focused on urban success stories and cross-sector collaboration, and Reuben elaborated upon several aspects of the community school model, one of the options being considered for certain MPS schools.

Each panelist proceeded with great knowledge and conviction, and at points the interchanges among them and with the audience became, shall we say, spirited!  In the collective, lots of important and useful information was shared, and viewpoints were expressed in a way that helped the audience see both the opportunities and challenges that exist currently and lie ahead.  So you know, the entire event can be viewed by clicking here.

smartest kidsDay 2 — The International/Global Stand

The second event occurred on Wednesday, and was sponsored by the Kern Family Foundation, a book talk and Q&A by Amanda Ripley, author of the New York Times best seller, “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got that Way” at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.  At the heart of Amanda’s outstanding presentation was international comparative education — namely how the United States stands up against the countries like Finland, South Korea, and more recently, Poland.

And although she clearly had the global statistics at her fingertips, she focused more so on the illuminating stories of three American exchange students and their educational experiences in Finland, South Korea, and Poland, as well as the perceptions held by some number of foreign exchange students’ of their American schools.

The content of Amanda’s remarks were positively riveting, and unfortunately go far beyond what I can hope to recount here and do any justice.  So don’t think of my skeletal account as a tease, but rather as whetting your appetite.  Here’s a book review to tide you over.    I cannot wait to read her book, and even without having done so myself, if the presentation was any indication of the caliber of the volume, I’d recommend that you check it out asap.

The Teacher Education Stand

As much as I enjoyed both events, both Amanda and Michael made comments about teacher education that I feel compelled to address rather briefly before concluding this post.  When asked what he thought about teacher preparation programs, Michael answered, “Not much.”  And Amanda commented that teacher preparation programs vary wildly in quality and had never heard a case of an applicant being rejected from an Education school.  Insofar as I oversee an academic unit with such programs, these statements understandably got my attention.

At the Law School event, I’m fairly sure that many of the attendees, a veritable Who’s Who of Milwaukee education circles, expected me to rejoin Michael’s comment — including him since he looked my way and said something about probably offending me.  (In fact, a tweet afterward lamented that I was not a program participant instead of the panel moderator, so I could have been asked about teacher education).  But I refrained from any rejoining, because my role that day really needed to be restricted to asking questions, not answering them, or worse, pontificating.

However, for the record, I did (1) speak to Michael briefly afterward, (2) tweet back that I’d be happy to answer any questions about teacher education, and (3) have a nice talk with Amanda when she graciously signed a copy of her book (courtesy of the Foundation) following her talk.

For what it’s worth, in my experience, some of the harshest critics of teacher education (a group that most definitely does not include either Michael or Amanda by the way) actually know precious little about the programs that they vilify.  Much of what they argue rates as hearsay and equates to parroting conventional ignorance.  It’s not that there may not be truth in what they say; they just don’t know it within much degree of certainty.

For that matter, I’m always curious about their evidence, and in those instances when they produce some, it’s never risen to the level of being very compelling to me, and as an educational researcher, I’m obliged to be open to it.  If something is broken, I want to know so it can be fixed.  In any case, I’ll give the critics the benefit of the doubt on the old “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” count, but the reality is that few have ever taken the time to explore a teacher preparation program up close and personally.  Instead they jump on the popular and convenient negativity bandwagon.  Honestly, if they approached the situation more scientifically, exhaustively, and qualitatively, they’d have much more credibility with me.

At the same time, don’t get me wrong.  I, too, strongly suspect  that there are mediocre and poor programs out there.  But Marquette isn’t one of them.  Not even close.  Quite the contrary.

That’s why it’s paradoxically both difficult and easy to endure the broad brush stroke of disrespect for the teacher preparation discipline.  On one hand, I don’t like being lumped into the critique, but on the other, because I know we don’t belong, I can handle it — well, at least most of the time.

At any rate, basically what I shared with Michael and Amanda were these four facts:

  • Aspiring teachers in our College of Education have ACT scores equivalent to all other high quality academic units at Marquette due to our central admission policies.
  • It turns out that nearly every student in our teacher preparation program graduated in the top one-third of her/his high school class, just like in Finland and South Korea (and from very fine high schools I might add).
  • We undergo a truly rigorous national accreditation process that demands excellence and continuous quality improvement, unlike the seriously flawed NCTQ analyses endorsed by the Council of Great City Schools.
  • Our graduates tend to be coveted by knowledgeable superintendents and principals, because they know how well prepared they are.

In fairness, I honestly don’t know if our teacher education programs here represent the exception or the rule.  That’s because, like the broad-brush-stroke critics, I don’t have any thorough or compelling evidence about other programs either.

All I know is that when it comes to defending “where we stand” in teacher education at Marquette — I’ll proudly “take my quality stand.”









3 Responses to “Where “We” Stand on Urban, Comparative, and Teacher Education”

  1. 1 Rosemary Wirth April 9, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    Hi Dr. Henk,
    First of all, I appreciated you sending a link to the Lessons from Elsewhere program. While I am usually a regular attendee at these events, I was unable to be present on Tuesday. I will look forward to viewing the presentation.
    Secondly, thanks for taking the time to enlighten your followers on the teacher preparation program at MU. It is good to know there are high standards in place as far as admissions to the Education program are concerned. (Something I myself never doubted.) If the general public understood the rigor involved in many of our local teacher education programs I believe they would be shocked at the depth of what is all involved prior to obtaining a teaching license.
    I am wondering just how you feel about the additional layer of preparation which has presented itself in the edTPA. Are you comfortable with this model as an accurate assessment for those hoping to gain access to the teaching profession? I’m just curious about your thoughts on this particularly in how it will affect the current MU teaching program.

    Most Sincerely,
    Rosemary Wirth


    • 2 billhenk April 9, 2014 at 8:08 pm

      Sorry you couldn’t make this event, Rosemary. I’ve definitely noted that you’re a regular attendee. The general public doesn’t know about the intensity of a good teacher training program nor the rigor of national and state accreditations. They just assume we’re falling short primarily because children in our urban schools have struggled academically for so long, and we’re the ones preparing their teachers. I don’t want to make excuses, but they underestimate the ravages of poverty and the toll it takes on urban education insofar as presenting acute challenges for teaching and learning.
      At any rate I’m supportive of the new edTPA requirement. It’s the best objective assessment we have to gauge teaching acument prior to licensure. Society isn’t willing to accept student teaching as the litmus test, so we needed something else to make a case for our value. So you know, I was part of the group in the state that made the recommendation to adopt it. Our feeling was that it rightly should give our programs additional credibility, although some critics will never afford us much in the way of respect. Even so, we believe it is a very good instrument that will provide data which can help us make continuous quality improvements.


      • 3 Rosemary Wirth April 9, 2014 at 10:11 pm

        I am glad you have confidence in the edTPA. Full disclosure, I am an assessor for the Early Childhood edTPA and I have found it to be a truly rigorous measure of teacher candidate abilities.
        As a classroom teacher as well, I find that I learn something valuable from virtually every assessment I score.
        I am proud to be part of the process of assisting our next generation teachers to be the best they can be.
        Thanks for continuing to be a strong voice in the field of education.


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