The Challenge of Training Teachers to Teach -- and Students to Learn

Those of us who have spent our professional lives as educators know that the most essential ingredient in learning is a great teacher; one who has the ability to engage students, to make math and science interesting as well as instructive and to make the lessons of history both fun and a foundation for our journey through life, making good decisions and learning from our mistakes.

A recent report from the New York City Department of Education on teacher training gave the Touro College Graduate School of Education high marks for producing a large number of -- I daresay -- great city teachers, especially in special education.

But it's not just about educating teachers. It's also about the performance of our students, the efficacy of our education system and what we can do as educators and teachers to improve that. This is not confined to colleges or graduate schools, but something that is as important -- or perhaps even more important -- in elementary and high schools, from kindergarten through 12th grade.

The New York Times attempted to address this issue twice in recent weeks. In one instance, it published a full-page editorial with a series of recommendations to improve education in the United States. All grades in all schools must play a role, but the editorial noted that American students continue to fall behind their peers around the world, despite efforts to improve the teaching of science.

Whereas educators once suggested that, although the lower quartile of students may be behind, our best students are as good as people anywhere in the world. While we're still training the next generation of superb entrepreneurs, engineers and financiers who will keep our country in the lead, we have to do more on education and social equality. Still, what the Times lamented was the fact that even that doesn't appear to still be the case.

My take on the fundamental problem we face and what we can do as educators of educators to fix it is different from that of the New York Times. Some schools of education do reasonably well, but more focus on practically-oriented training is surely needed. Inequalities in school funding and in opportunities for disadvantaged students must be addressed. Nonetheless, even these changes would not address the root cause of the poor performance of our students.

Rather, the U.S. is hampered by a focus on the wrong values. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of popular culture, but I believe our heroes should be teachers. Our heroes should be scientists. Our heroes should be educational innovators who work to ensure the next generation succeeds.

Which isn't to say, of course, that students can't enjoy popular culture. But somehow, we have to emphasize that instead of self-absorption, they should strive to contribute to society; to fight against prejudice and inequality; to advance technology and the arts, medicine and public discourse.

Until our students understand that part of their mission in life is to build a better world, we'll continue to fall further behind other countries in educational performance.

Yes, there are lots of specific things we could do better. For instance, teachers must find new ways to relate to their pupils, such as a Touro professor who incorporates popular music into his curriculum to teach the lessons of Socrates and Plato.

Education must continue to nurture the kind of leaders that our country has produced for the last 200 years and not get lost in the details of People magazine, American Idol or sports. Such distractions are enjoyable, but certainly not of paramount importance.

We must inculcate these values in our next generation of students. In addition to the technical aspects of improving the education process, we can close that gap by demonstrating to students that everyone has a chance to help our country and their generation will be the leaders of tomorrow.

It won't be easy. It's not a challenge we normally think of as falling within the realm of educators, but it's imperative that we create a new paradigm for teaching our young people. And it's an example that we must set at every level, in every school.