About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


Google Groups
Email Me Blog Updates
Visit this group

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Reflections on Harriet Ball, Teaching, and Teacher Education


            Go to YouTube and type in “Harriet Ball.”  You’ll find three or four short clips on this wonderful Houston teacher, including a tribute (she died in 2011) from KIPP charter school founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin.  It seems that in 1992 when the young Feinberg and Levin—fresh Teach For America recruits—landed in Houston, ready, in Feinberg’s words, “to change the world by lunchtime,” they didn’t have an easy go of it.  As Feinberg put it, he lost control of his class by lunchtime and didn’t regain it until Christmas.
            Harriet Ball was teaching down the hall, and Feinberg and Levin found her, and had the good sense to latch on to her.  Of Levin, Ms. Ball says, “he was hungry.”  This short film is a sweet tribute, clearly heart-felt.  “She was one of the most remarkable teachers I ever met,” observes Levin.  The duo named the charter school they went on to found, the Knowledge Is Power Program, drawing on a line from one of her chants about the power of reading.  Today KIPP is the nation’s largest network of charter schools.
            This tribute sparks for me so many issues related to contemporary school reform: from the nature of teaching and the many qualities it takes to do it well to the incessant drumbeat of criticism directed at teachers and the institutions that educate them.  Harriet Ball is remembered for inspiring Feinberg and Levin to start KIPP, and for the songs and chants she devised to help her students learn the metric system, state capitals, and a lot else.  But if you view those clips of Ms. Ball and read what you can find written about her when she died, you get the sense of so much more: of someone with a keen intelligence about children, pedagogical creativity, humor, an in-her-bones understanding of race and social class, a deep commitment to those students in her charge and belief in their ability, and the kind of authority that emerges from all the above.  In general, education policy and mainstream reform do not address these qualities.  This is an unfortunate irony, given KIPP’s iconic status in school reform circles.
            One of the themes you will hear from various mainstream education reformers is that there is a “talent gap” in the teaching profession, that we need a better quality of students to go into teaching, and that education programs need to be more selective.  Of course I, and everybody I know in education, wants to recruit talented, hard-working young people into the profession, and I certainly have a list of things I’d like to see happen in teacher education—and in some education programs these are happening: a better blending of research and practice on how people learn, for example, or better methods of guidance and supervision as novice teachers move into classrooms. 
            What is worrisome is that in the drive for improvement, reformers can narrowly define “quality” as, for example, the pedigree of a prospective teacher’s undergraduate institution, or the selectivity of that teacher’s education program.  We need to throw a wide net in recruiting teachers, tapping a range of backgrounds and talents.  Those who advocate alternative teacher recruitment and training programs also want to cast a wide net, though their goal is often to recruit people from other professions and from business and management backgrounds.  This is certainly worth doing, but if you also want to draw in young people from low-income households, or who are the first in their families to attend college, or who represent a broad range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds, then you need to draw from a broad range of institutions.
            Which takes me back to Harriet Ball.  The obituaries mention that she got her degree from Huston-Tillotson University, a small Historically Black College in Austin, Texas.  The website for Huston-Tillotson notes that in 2010, the university had a 90% acceptance rate—the lack of selectivity bemoaned by critics of our teaching force and of the schools that produce them.  But in fact a lot of very good teachers come from such institutions.  A while back, I went through two books that profile first-rate teaching: my Possible Lives and Karen Chenowith’s How It’s Being Done.  I also looked at the Council of Chief State School Officer’s National Teacher of the Year Program.  Only a handful of these top-flight teachers got their bachelors degrees from elite private institutions or from flagship public universities.  A number hailed from state universities.  And a considerable number came from small, local colleges with teacher education programs.  More recently, David Kirp found a similar pattern in the admirable district he chronicles in Improbable Scholars.
            One of the things that I witnessed as I travelled across the country to write Possible Lives was the significant role played by local small colleges in semi-rural and rural areas—in some cases, the colleges were tiny satellite campuses of a state college or university hundreds of miles away.  These schools had to be open to their communities to survive.  In turn, these institutions were often the only avenue available for locals to attend college and enter teaching.  Finances, family obligations, cultural norms—all sorts of factors made it nearly impossible for them to go away to college.  Similar factors sometimes come into play in urban settings where more choice appears possible, but might in fact not be.
            Recently, the National Council on Teacher Quality—an organization critical of teacher education programs—issued a report that, as its president said, was produced to reveal the “widespread malpractice” of such programs.  In a nutshell, the Council’s analysts relied primarily on syllabi, course descriptions, and other program materials from 1200 undergraduate and graduate programs and rated these programs on a scale of 0 to 4.  The analysis, therefore, was built mostly on one kind of information—that which could be gleaned from documents—and was further limited by the fact that many schools chose not to participate, given the Center’s anti-ed school orientation.  So the analysts, I presume, had to use what they could find on the Internet and other sources.  In the end, they were not able to rate a number of programs on all their categories, but did issue only four top ratings out of the 1200 and, on the other end, gave over 150 programs a zero rating and marked them with a “consumer alert” warning.  This alert, according to the Council president, would caution prospective students about attending these programs and warn district administrators about hiring the programs’ graduates.  The programs, therefore, would have to change or be driven out of business.
            There is so much to say about the conceptual and methodological problems with this report, and fortunately a lot of it is being said, as an Internet search reveals.  Of course, if a program is terrible, it should be put on notice, but one thing I kept thinking about as I read through the report was the arrogance in assuming that some analyst in Washington, D.C.—the location of the Center—could pass damning judgment on a program in, for example, East Tennessee or Central Oklahoma or Northern California without ever visiting it, interviewing faculty, students, and district administrators, or observing graduates of its program as they teach.
            Among its many flaws, the Center’s report represents the kind of narrowness in defining teaching and teacher education that concerned me earlier.

            How about this? What if all the philanthropies that supported the questionable report from the Council on Teacher Quality contributed an equal amount to a less partisan organization to study excellent teachers who come from modest backgrounds and attend their local (often less selective) colleges?  How did they get so good?  What did they bring with them and what did their programs nurture?  How can we recruit more like them?  And while we’re at it, let’s throw a few bucks of that philanthropic funding their way, for many find it hard to make ends meet, yet regularly spend their own money to make wondrous things happen in their classrooms.

You can share this blog post on Facebook, Twitter, or Google reader through the "Share" function located at the top- left hand corner of blog. 


  1. I had a number of reactions reading Mike's post.

    I am a graduate of an elite liberal arts college, although I did not make it through until my 3rd attempt there (and 4th undergraduate enrollment) shortly before my 27th birthday. So on the one hand I fit the model of those who push programs like Teach for America. Except I teach Social Studies and I majored in music.

    I came to public school teaching much later, as I approached 50. Thus I fit the model of those who come to education from other backgrounds.

    Except I recognized that I needed appropriate training, and enrolled in a very thorough MAT program at Johns Hopkins, which did a good job of preparing me, but not a complete job. I still, despite 16 weeks of student teaching, had a lot to learn on the job once I got my own classroom. Which Hopkins recognized, because we did not receive our degrees until completing an induction seminar after we began teaching, even though we had received our certification.

    I was thinking about what Mike says about things like rural colleges. I volunteer in free medical/dental clinics in the Appalachian Mountains of Southwest Virginia. In Wise, there is the College of Wise, which is part of the University of Virginia. In Grundy there is a pharmacy college and the Appalachian School of Law. In both places these lesser known institutions are very important to the lives of the communities in which they are based.

    I have taught in a nationally known high school in the suburbs and in an inner city charter middle school. The former serves as a professional development school for the excellent teacher training programs at nearby University of Maryland in College Park. The latter gets its teachers where it can - although on the team I was on the academic background of the teachers also included places like Penn's education program on the one hand and HBUC institutions like Hampton and Winston-Salem.

    I am of a generation where many of my compatriots went into working in higher education. As a result, lesser known institutions wound up with superb faculty - an expert on Byzantine studies at a state institution on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the founder of a major center for Western European medieval studies at a non-flagship state institution in a midwestern state with two flagship research universities. And at many smaller colleges and universities as well.

    We should remember that two nationally known white historians, Staunton Lynd and Howard Zinn, taught at Spelman College.

    I mentored 5 student teachers from Maryland. Two were later my colleagues. Four made it as teachers. The one who failed was on paper the most qualified - straight 4.0, junior Phi Beta Kappa, but unfortunately unable to connect with the students.

    If I am asked what I teach my answer is students. I have curricular responsibilities, to be sure, this year, having come fully out of retirement both AP Government and courses in our STEM program. But the starting point is always the young people entrusted to my care. The particular academic institution from which one has graduated and its supposed selectivity has no meaningful correlation with the ability of the teacher to connect with the students. And to exclude or demean based on the supposed selectivity of an institution, or one's prior secondary academic preparation is to deny young people the many gifted and dedicated teachers who come from such lesser backgrounds.

    I am proud of my academic background.

    I look at some of the teachers I have most admired who have come from "lesser" institutions - state colleges, HBUCs, a few religious institutions - and I know that screening on background or previous education would have kept some of these from being the inspirations for thousands of students who passed through their classrooms.

    I thank Mike Rose for this very thoughtful and timely post.

  2. This is my first time reading a blog by Mike Rose and I am very glad I did. I am a first year college student and had many wonderful, and no so, teachers in the past. Of course as a student we are not allowed (nor do most of us even care) to question academic job prospect of our teachers or where they received their teaching degree. This blog made me wonder where so of my favorite teachers, the ones who inspired me to learn and motivated me to do better, received their teaching degree ? And is that really even important?

    Through middle and high school I was able to attend four school. Two of those schools were in a upper class neighborhoods, and the other two school were popular for many reason except their academic achievements. Looking back now I can't say that the teachers in those schools were very different. I had good, bad, difficult, easy, motivating, and inspiriting teacher in all of them.

    This blog was very intriguing and though-provoking.

    Teaching, and the ability to able to import your knowledge to younger generation, is a talent that can't be taught. It has to come within. One has to love to teach and be able to interact with children to become a teacher. It is mainly about who that individual is, where he or she get their degrees of teaching comes in second.