Colleges of Education Urgently Need Reform, Psychologist Says

Published December 1, 2005

Dr. G. Reid Lyon is probably best known for his role as a research psychologist and advisor to President George W. Bush on child development and education research and policies, and as one of the architects of Reading First, a federal legislative initiative to improve the reading skills of children in kindergarten through third grade.

Now, Lyon is senior vice president for research and evaluation at Best Associates, a Dallas-based private merchant-banking firm with a special interest in educational initiatives. He is helping develop innovative approaches for the American College of Education, a national teacher’s college that trains teachers and administrators to use the most current scientifically based educational methodologies. The college is located in Chicago but uses a blended model–live instruction supported by online interactions with professors.

Lyon is also helping develop the Texas-based Whitney International University, part of a worldwide effort to create high-quality higher-education institutions in key regions of the world and make private postsecondary education more available to all qualified students. Classes, which will begin in the 2006-07 school year both online and in classrooms worldwide, will focus on professional, technical, and practical training and education that prepares students to enter the workforce successfully.

School Reform News reporter Nancy Salvato recently met with Dr. Lyon to discuss teacher education and philosophy.

Salvato: At a 2002 forum sponsored by the Council for Excellence in Government, you said if you could pass any piece of legislation, it would be “to blow up colleges of education.” How will your new college prepare teachers so they can meet the individual needs of their students?

Lyon: My comment was born out of frustration, given the level of evidence we have about what works and how kids learn, and the distance between that knowledge and what our teachers are provided in their teacher education programs.

You only have to look at the billions of dollars states and districts are spending on professional development for teachers already teaching, to understand the gravity of this situation. Why in the world would schools have to re-teach concepts to teachers they should already know? And it is the case that higher education and teacher education [have] a very hard time changing, no matter what the circumstances.

There are many reasons for this, but a critical one is that colleges of education are not accountable for what their graduates know and how that knowledge affects students in their graduates’ classrooms. Colleges of education are process-driven, not outcome-driven–the faculty, rather than student achievement, reinforce the teaching and the scholarship within the college.

Teachers can matriculate knowing absolutely nothing about evidence-based approaches, why evidence is critical in selecting and implementing instruction, and [they are thus trained to] implement instruction on the basis of philosophies and beliefs [not based on evidence]. However, when many of their students fail to learn to read, they and their schools are blamed. The institutions that provided them with the faulty information are not held accountable.

When we provide teachers and administrators with the most current and accurate information, they will know how to determine whether concepts such as multiple intelligences and differentiated instruction are valid. They will know how to ask, “What evidence of effectiveness do these approaches have, and have they been found to work with students similar to those in my classroom?”

This is the level of training that is critical. Teachers and administrators must have the means to make accurate decisions about kids’ lives. Many [teachers] prepared in our existing colleges of education are not at that level.

Salvato: How critical are parents and their own education to their children’s success in school?

Lyon: Parent education is critical, and it has never been mobilized the way it needs to be.

We scientists haven’t done a good job of presenting information in a compelling, user-friendly way. There’s not a lot of useful information being provided to parents currently, and we have to remember that many of our most disadvantaged parents cannot read. We must be able to provide the most useful information in a way that makes sense and gives parents direction in how to improve the education of their children.

We need to focus on numerous ways to communicate to all parents so they become genuine partners in the education process.

Parents must hold us accountable for ensuring their children receive the most effective and appropriate education. Information must be transmitted through churches [and other] groups and organizations they trust. As we are establishing the American College of Education, there is a lot of thinking going on about how we provide information to all parents in a way that is meaningful. Parents want to help their kids succeed.

Salvato: Why is the American College of Education offering courses only in Curriculum and Instruction and in Administration? Since you helped craft Reading First, why not include a course on reading methods?

Lyon: First, developing the American College of Education is an enormous task. But you have to examine which areas of education have a significant impact on all the learning activities that take place in school. Teachers in a curriculum and instruction program frequently do teach reading at the elementary and secondary levels. Many also become curriculum directors of reading and math programs. They must [have] the best information possible, because they will influence the culture of the school environment.

You can have the best teachers and the best programs, but without strong, building-level leadership, students typically fail.

In all of our programs that will be coming online as we move forward, we are making sure everything we teach and everything we do is based upon the most current and accurate information available. We are also making sure everything that is taught to teachers can be immediately applied to ensure relevance and improve fidelity of implementation. All of us learn better and retain what we learn if we can use the information in our daily lives.

Our students will be receiving information both from faculty and from online resources. A tremendous amount of current research indicates this blended approach is highly effective. Why? Because concepts that are learned can be applied and implemented and practiced through immediate, online interactions. Moreover, students can work together online to collaborate and solve problems directly relevant to their everyday classroom practices.

In using online platforms as well as faculty involvement, we can check to see if our students are understanding the concepts they are learning, and can then provide additional, immediate instruction if they do not understand. This ongoing progress monitoring is essential. Very importantly, we are developing assessment systems that allow us to track our students into the classrooms they teach in, and determine if what we taught them actually benefits the students they teach. This is a very effective way to determine how well we are doing where it counts: student achievement.

Nancy Salvato ([email protected]) is president of The Basics Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal, and social issues important to our country.