A Broader Role for the University On Its Way?

In 2006 when Erskine Bowles gave his inaugural address as president of the University of North Carolina, he took a surprising tack. In describing the goals of the university, he listed strengthening K-12 education as the first. “Nothing is more important,” he said.

The UNC Tomorrow Commission, which has just laid out a supposed future for the university in its new report, does something similar. It gives a high priority to improving K-12 education. “UNC should be more actively involved in solving North Carolina’s public education challenges,” the report says in a major finding.

It is possible that this emphasis on pre-college education is “mission creep” for the university. Or perhaps a political opportunity – maybe the system’s popular president sees a chance to become the “education czar” of North Carolina.

But equally valid is the view that the focus on K-12 stems from the confluence of two unhappy factors – seriously underperforming K-12 schools and University of North Carolina education schools that don’t teach teachers how to teach. Both need to change, and Bowles may be the one to do it.

Earlier this month, the Pope Center published a paper on the education schools in the UNC system. It was not flattering.

Education schools in the UNC system are more concerned with making children feel good about themselves than teaching them to read or do long division, said George Cunningham, a long-time education school professor in Kentucky. He examined UNC course descriptions, syllabi, and mission statements (known as “conceptual frameworks”) to come to that conclusion.

Cunningham argues that UNC schools’ commitment to “student-centered” learning or progressive education (as opposed to teacher-directed learning) has led them to minimize the actual imparting of skills and knowledge.

But – and Bowles must recognize this — poor teaching isn’t just the fault of the education schools. It is also the fault of the K-12 system. Again and again in his paper Cunningham cites decisions by the state’s Department of Public Instruction that promote ineffective instruction:

  • DPI “does not require memorization of the multiplication tables, teaching of the standard algorithm for long division, or multiplying and division of fractions,” he writes. (Cunningham includes an example of long division in his paper for those who aren’t familiar with it.)
  • DPI requires teachers to pass the PRAXIS licensure test; but PRAXIS devotes “such a small part of the test to the scientific principles of reading that a student could miss all of them and still pass the test.”
  • DPI requires education schools to meet the standards of NCATE (the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education) which, says Cunningham, “is firmly in the grip of progressive education theorists.”
  • So what’s to be done about it? Bowles, whose solutions are driven by data, wants to find out which teacher education schools are providing good teachers. Once he did this, he could, of course, give the high-performing schools greater resources while pressuring the others to improve. To evaluate the education schools, however, he needs the cooperation of the state’s K-12 system because that’s where most UNC education school graduates go.

    Fortunately, the data he needs are – almost — within reach.

    There is a method for measuring an individual student’s progress. It’s called EVAAS or the Education Value-Added Assessment System, provided by the SAS Institute and developed by William Sanders over many years at the University of Tennessee. It differs from current assessment methods. These come up with group or class performance averages. Because these are distorted by the differing composition of each group or class, they cannot provide a consistent measurement of which teachers, programs, or schools are improving performance or holding it back.

    Instead, EVAAS records an individual’s progress, or lack of it, from year to year. That record indicates what is working and what isn’t for each student and provides a more accurate picture of the impact of programs, schools, and teachers.

    Once the effectiveness of teachers is measured, why couldn’t teachers’ success, or lack of it, be used to assess the schools where they were trained?

    So far, however, the EVAAS system is being used in just a few schools in North Carolina. And the DPI doesn’t provide information to the university about where the graduates of education schools are teaching, and certainly not about how well they are doing. (Presumably, it has a lot of this information, since each year it gives the university figures such as the ten districts that hire the most graduates from each school.)

    All this brings us to the upcoming February 6 meeting of the state’s public-education governing boards (K-12, community college, and university). UNC is hosting the meeting and, according to a commentary in the Charlotte Observer, Bowles hopes to “shake things up” with “no-holds-barred discussions about what’s working and what’s not.”

    As a result of this “shake-up,” let’s hope he gets the data he needs. If so, it will be a good start in identifying which education schools are producing graduates who can convey essential skills to a diverse group of students. This is what education schools should be doing and, with some luck, it’s what UNC education schools will be doing in the near future.