More brickbats for faculties of education
Guest Blog by Mark DeWolf - letter to the editor in response to Margaret Wente's column on faculties of education
Bravo on this morning's column regarding the lack of math knowledge and skills among elementary teachers of math. And you may very well be right in suggesting that there is too much emphasis on other "learnings" (to use the current jargon) in university Education departments. I suspect that part of the problem stems from an underlying problem that afflicts all sorts of organizations, namely, the need of administrators, managers, and consultants to continually come up with new and apparently promising approaches in order to justify their positions and quite possibly enhance them. In math teaching, we've seen all kinds of new approaches being recommended to teachers (and student teachers) in the past 20 years, the use of "manipulatives" being one I can think of. While working as a Literacy Coach in the Halifax school system, I kept coming across boxes of these blocks and other interesting shapes gathering dust in book storage rooms. I was also shocked to hear that the use of the terms "numerator" and "denominator" was being discouraged by the Math Coach (preferring the terms "upper number" and "lower number") on the grounds that the previously-used terms sounded too intimidating for junior high students. This, despite the fact that the kids had no trouble with words like "terminator" and "refrigerator". That's just one little detail that illustrates how silly and wrong-headed some of the new approaches can be. But they keep coming.
Perhaps a column on the paucity of knowledge and skills among English teachers is in order as well. In my three years as a Literacy Coach at the junior high level (and in my 25 years as an English teacher in Halifax before that), I was continually surprised (even shocked) by the inability of younger English teachers to write a sentence that was free of errors, and their complete lack of knowledge about some of the most basic "rules" of English expression. Communications from school board officials (many of whom had risen through the teaching ranks) were littered with errors of all kinds, and one of my Literacy Coach supervisors actually had to ask me to tell her if any of her messages to the coaching cohort contained errors, as she admitted she wasn't very confident in "areas of correctness."
In Nova Scotia, teacher training is conducted by three universities: Acadia, St. Francis Xavier, and Mount St. Vincent (this last in Halifax). The MSVU education program lasts two years, and includes a good deal of in-school practice teaching (a welcome improvement over earlier one-year programs with limited classroom practice) and I have been led to believe that administrators of the MSVU program are not afraid to 'wash out" B.Ed. candidates who prove unfit for teaching. I believe that receiving repeated negative evaluations from supervising professors and teachers may be enough to remove a student from the program, but I wish I could be assured that their actual knowledge and skills in the subject they propose to teach is also looked at carefully. Ideally, competence in their proposed subject area would be evaluated at the time of acceptance into the program. Years ago, when I was temporarily B.Ed. Coordinator at Dalhousie University (back when Dal had an Education department), it was my job to approve any applicants for the program, and remember clearly having to reject applications from would-be teachers of English (who had already earned B.A.s) on the grounds that their application letters were full of obvious errors. But at a time when universities are fighting to keep their numbers up, pursuing a strict policy of weeding out unsuitable candidates is very much against the interests of Education departments. Sadly, not pursuing such a policy is very much against the interests of good public education.
Again, Margaret, thank you for this morning's column.