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Banking on the Future

Banking on the Future
By Kendra Hamilton


On a snowy day back in February, during its annual African American History Month assembly, the very best of the “Bank Street way” was on display.There’s no “star system” at the Bank Street School for Children — every class has its moment, every child his or her say — so that meant the stage was as crowded with children as the hall was with parents, watching their sons and daughters singing songs about human rights, talking about the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” and reading letters of their own — to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In fluting, childish voices, they spoke of their compassion for the poor and homeless, for gay families, for Muslims facing the post-9/11 backlash. And they spoke about their dreams:

“Dear Dr. King,” said Jeremy, age 8, “I see wars all over the world. Now they have much more dangerous weapons. People are still bombing. People are still murdering. I hope none of these things happen in the future. I hope there will be no more killing … no more enemies, no more separation.”

The assembly was a classic Bank Street moment, a showcase for the magic that can be made when children and teachers become partners in education. But the burning question being asked by observers across the nation is this: Can Bank Street put its magic in a bottle?

That is to say, can the Bank Street formula — perfected at a progressive, private, independent school located in one of the most exciting cities in the world and affiliated with its very own graduate school of education — be used to “save” failing schools plagued by crumbling infrastructure, tumbling test scores and persistent achievement gaps?

Dr. Augusta “Gussie” Kappner, president of the Bank Street College of Education, is sure that it can. Dr. Reuel “Rudy” Jordan, principal of the Bank Street School for Children, emphatically agrees. And Carnegie Corporation of New York is putting up $5 million to find out, according to Dr. Daniel Fallon, chairman of Carnegie’s education division.

Specifically, Bank Street College has become one of the first four institutions — the others are California State University-Northridge, Michigan State University and the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education — invited to participate in a three-year initiative Carnegie is calling “Teachers for a New Era.”

The initiative targets an area that has traditionally been regarded as “the black hole of philanthropy,” as Fallon calls it: pre-service teacher education.

“It’s an area where, over several generations, a great deal of money has been poured in with very little to show for it. As a result, some might think we’re crazy to be doing this,” he explains.

But Carnegie is armed with powerful new evidence that has only emerged in the last five to seven years. “And that evidence shows that the quality of the teacher is the single most important factor in producing student achievement gain,” Fallon says. Indeed, in the new studies, teacher effectiveness has been proven to trump every other variable, including that dreaded triumvirate of race, class and poverty.

‘Defying Gravity’

Bank Street College often walks a lonely path in a teacher preparation environment littered with standardized tests and highly scripted curricula.

For example, GRE scores are an anathema to the admissions committee for the 1,000-strong graduate school. “We don’t think they tell you anything about whether or not someone is going to be a good teacher,” Kappner says. So saying the school was “pleased” to have survived Carnegie’s ruthless winnowing process, from 1,300 schools to 100 to four, would be putting it mildly.

“Bank Street is an institution that has been defying gravity for many years,” Kappner recalls being told when she became the school’s sixth president in 1996.

“And it’s so true — because institutions like this one, free-standing, teacher-focused institutions that are not a part of a big university either public or private, have generally gone out of business” instead of attracting high-profile, high-dollar philanthropic support.

“That is always a good reminder to me that one must pay exquisite attention to the details of what one does if one wants to protect this kind of institution and have it around for future generations,” Kappner says.

Fallon admits that, compared to the other institutions on its short list, Bank Street might appear a bit “precious”— certainly there aren’t many K-8 schools like its School for Children. In sharp contrast to the schools Carnegie wants to save, there are only 435 children at the School for Children, according to Jordan, paying tuition that ranges from $18,000 a year for 3-year-olds to a little over $20,000 for 13-year-olds.

But far from being a lily-White island of privilege, about a third of the students are young people of color. And as economic diversity is as highly prized as racial diversity, Bank Street parents include firefighters, policemen and secretaries, as well as the affluent and the very poor. About one-third of the students are on financial aid.

Bank Street does things its “own special way,” Fallon concedes — but that seems to have been one of the things that made the school attractive. It was originally conceived in 1916 by its founder, Lucy Sprague Mitchell, as a “Bureau of Educational Experiments” in which psychologists and teachers would determine, by observing and working with children, how they developed and learned, what environments were most conducive to that learning, and how teachers could be taught to create such environments. It has stuck with its original mission with such success that, by the 1960s, Bank Street classrooms were being touted as the national model for the nascent Head Start program.

Today Bank Street has programs in 30 of New York City’s 32 community school districts and is working to “restructure” public schools in 20 other cities around the country. The school is also a national leader in developing early childhood programs, “best practices” models, research and technology. For example, it participated in the design of Head Start and Follow Through, publishes its own readers and has even developed the Bank Street Writer, the first word-processing program easy enough for children to use.

“Having the School for Children here keeps us honest,” is how Kappner describes the relationship between the college and the School for Children. “We don’t just preach about teaching, we say, ‘Come and see it in practice.’

“So that’s who we are,” she adds. “We train teachers. We demonstrate best practices here. Then we go out to the real world and make changes in public schools” in places like Newark, N.J., and Pittsburgh and Baltimore and Milwaukee and many others.

Carnegie Corporation “has become convinced that Bank Street is producing excellent elementary teachers on an extremely reliable basis,” says Fallon, adding that “the preparation of elementary teachers is a great unanswered question nationally.

“So this is the challenge: Can you replicate this model so it can be exportable and usable by other institutions in other settings?” Fallon asks.

A Critical Time

There may be no more critical time than the present to pose such questions, Kappner says.

First, there is the impact of the policies of the current administration to consider. “We’ve had many education presidents, but probably none of them have left as deep a mark as this president is going to leave on education,” Kappner says.

Kappner notes she’s frightened by the ideological drift behind the reforms in the No Child Left Behind Act, particularly in the area of teacher preparation.

“There’s a feeling that what it takes to make a quality teacher is basically a B.A. and knowledge of subject matter. There is this belief that graduate level teacher education is perhaps not needed, and so we see all of these fast-track alternate teacher certification programs.”

Kappner admits that teacher preparation is riddled with problems, but adds, “I think this emphasis on fast-tracking teachers is very, very dangerous, particularly to minority communities because they use public schools to the greatest extent. And I worry that 10 years from now we’ll be sitting around saying, ‘What happened to this generation of children?’ Well, this generation was taught by those teachers whom we believed could learn to teach in six weeks.”

Of course, it is precisely such facile conclusions about teacher preparation that the Carnegie initiative appears designed to combat. The corporation’s aim seems ambitious indeed; it appears bent on achieving nothing less than the elevation of the professional regard in which teachers are held.

To that end, the design principles to which the Teachers for New Era schools are being asked to adhere to are rigorous indeed. The programs they develop must be evidence-based — no mean feat in a profession rife with storytelling, according to Fallon. “I placed a clove of garlic around the child’s neck, and suddenly he could multiply,” he jokes.

In addition, there must be “effective engagement” with arts and sciences disciplines. In other words, teacher trainees must acquire knowledge of subject matter, as well as a general liberal education.

“Having a major is important but not sufficient,” Fallon explains, “because the typical major does not give the deep structure understanding that students need in order to teach a subject matter, so this is a reform item for arts and sciences divisions as well.”

Finally, the programs developed must conceive of teaching broadly as an academically taught clinical practice. Teacher trainees “can only learn so much by being a college student and taking classes,” Fallon says. “They also must be in classrooms early, receiving mentoring by master teachers. And those master teachers must hold faculty appointments, and faculty members from the arts and sciences disciplines must be in the classroom with student teachers as well.”

With evidence and postgraduate monitoring of the students produced by Teachers for a New Era programs, it may well be that a radical change can be wrought not just in teacher education but also in our culture’s regard for education.

“When you see an outstanding teacher, it’s not just thrilling — it’s inspiring in the deepest possible way. Teaching is very, very hard work. It’s intellectually demanding and challenging work. And the fact that these people are forgoing large incomes and much easier lives to do what they do, well, it’s awe-inspiring,” Fallon says.

“It’s also the case that there are dreadful teachers. So our initiative will shine a spotlight on bad ones, reduce their numbers and hopefully allow the profession to take accountability,” Fallon explains. “In short, no more whining and no more excuses.”

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