An Interview with Alan Singer – No quick, simple, easy solutions

Jun 24, 2019 by

Alan Singer

By Michael F. Shaughnessy

1) Alan, you recently posted a piece about some concerns regarding education in New York City.

First of all, what brought this about?

There have been a number of problems with New York City schools. Mayors and School Chancellors come and go, and every new one proposes landmark changes which will transform the schools, and then don’t.  Michael Bloomberg followed a Gates Foundation model, closing large high schools he deemed to be failing and replacing them with multiple smaller high schools located in the same buildings and then these began to “fail” and be closed. His successor, Bill de Blasio, rejected school closings and initiated a renewal program to help struggling schools. A few schools made significant strides but most didn’t and that program was abandoned. De Blasio is now busy running for president, and it is not clear whether a new plan was ever devised or implemented. The New York City Council seems to be stepping into the void. On Tuesday, June 25, 2019, its Committees on Education and Higher Education conducted an oversight hearing on Teacher Preparation and Training. The committees called for the hearing concerned that prospective educators are not prepared for the challenges of today’s classrooms. Specifically, the greater inclusion of students with disabilities in regular classrooms and the large portion of the student population in New York City public schools who are English Language Learners. They were also disturbed that teachers of color, especially male teachers of color, are underrepresented among the city’s teachers. The Daily Kos post included my testimony at the hearing.

2) I tend to agree with you 100 percent that the average teacher, the average college graduate is simply not prepared for the wide diversity of students in today’s typical or average classroom. But how do Schools of Education rectify this?

As a teacher educator and former public high school teacher, I know we can do better. But I also don’t believe there are miracle or one-shot solutions. We can’t give preservice teachers a vaccine that ensures they can effectively address all the issues teachers must be able to address. I tell preservice teacher education students that at the end of student teaching they will be certified beginners. It then takes three to five years of dedication and hard work to learn how to really teach. There are no short cuts. We don’t expect doctors to be experts the day they finish medical school.

In my teacher education classes, I stress ways to apply what we learn about curriculum (what to teach) and pedagogy (how to teach) in actual classroom situations. I am less concerned with theories of literacy than what the theories offer about how to teach reading and writing in the content area. I do a lot of field observations and presentations in schools, so not only do I present sample lessons in methods classes, I also present sample lessons in middle and high schools. Most of the cooperating teachers I work with are graduates of the Hofstra University program so they are very familiar with the way we prepare preservice teachers to teach. Some of them also work at the university as adjuncts teaching methods classes. These partnerships are a key part of teacher education because they connect theory with practice. Schools of Education can partner with communities and school districts to better prepare new teachers and provide ongoing support for teachers already in the classroom, however Schools of Education cannot drastically improve teacher preparation by themselves. 

3) Further, teachers are nowhere near prepared for the vast variety of kids with IDEA disabilities – and I am going to list them here because I simply do not think the average parents or taxpayer is aware of them:  learning disabilities, emotional disturbance, behavior disorders, visually impaired, hearing impaired (or deaf) students with health impairments, students with physical challenges, speech/language delays or difficulties- and kids with autism or traumatic brain injury. How the heck can any undergrad program – prepare all teachers for all of these different exceptionalities and provide students with a “free appropriate education”? 

Mike, you know the answer as well as I do. It is impossible. It takes years of practice and staff development for working teachers to develop these abilities. That is why I argue that one teacher may not be enough in many classrooms. In New York City only specifically designated classes with a high number of students with registered disabilities have an additional teacher. But given the large number of struggling students, 15% are English Language Learners, more than 20% have IEPs and many more require 504 support, more than half score of the 3rd through 8th grade student scored less than satisfactory on Math and reading tests, almost every classroom needs a second teacher whether students are classified ELL or with disabilities or not. 

4) Kind of blunt and probably a politically incorrect question – but are there way too may kids being inappropriately mainstreamed into regular education who belong in special education classes?

Unless we are willing to honestly address questions like this one, there is no way we are going to improve education in our schools. Mainstreaming can improve the educational and social development of all children, not just those with special academic or social needs. From my perspective, the problem is not inappropriate placement but inadequate support personnel. That is why I advocate two teachers in almost every classroom.

5) Now, here we may disagree – but in a free country – should parents be allowed to home school their kids, or send them to a religious school, or even (gasp) a charter school – if they so desire?

I’m not sure what your position is so I don’t know if we will disagree. I support the right of children in a “free country” to be educated so they can become active citizens in a democratic society, learn to live and work with people who are different from themselves, and so they have the academic and job skills needed to support families and contribute to communities. As a boy, my parents had me attend religious school after the public school day. It was a supplement, not a substitute. I support religious freedom, but not at the expense of children. I think homeschooling deprives children of valued social experiences and should not be permitted except under exceptional circumstances. I don’t like private schools either because they contribute to class hierarchies, income inequality, and racial segregation, fracturing the social community, but I wouldn’t empower me to ban them.

Charter schools are a different issue. They were originally intended as experimental schools within public school systems, an idea that I support. Today they are being sold to poor minority communities as a market solution to educational problems. But they are selling cheap, not quality, goods. Charter schools as they are now constituted are not a solution; instead they are a big part of the problem. Charters are permitted to hire untrained, uncertified people and call them teachers, undermining teacher preparation and Schools of Education. The Charter chains run a Peace Corps type operation, recruiting people from elite colleges, predominately white, who want an urban experience, who follow scripts and then leave before learning how to teach. Meanwhile the charters draw off better performing children from the public schools and they have been documented either refusing to offer special services to students with disabilities and English Language Learners or counseling those children out of their programs.

6) Real difficult question – and we have know this for years – there is a teacher shortage, and a shortage of teachers of color – both male and female. Can this really be addressed?

In my New York City Council testimony I argued that if New York City wants to increase the number of minority educators, it will have to make teaching more financially attractive for people from lower income families. This would include providing opportunity scholarships and forgivable loans for local high school graduates that cover living expenses for college students who commit to teaching in high needs communities and specified certification areas. Teacher salaries must go up significantly. A one-bedroom apartment in a less desirable area of Brooklyn rents for $2,500 a month or $30,000 a year, more than half of a starting teacher’s salary. Why would a minority male with talent and options choose teaching? In addition, high-stakes multiple choice qualifying tests for teacher certification do not improve the quality of teaching. Instead, they block potentially excellent minority candidates, especially people who were English Language Learners themselves, from the teaching profession. I say drop the tests and let Schools of Education prepare and evaluate candidates.

7) Who is advocating for smaller class sizes in the teachers unions?

I recommend Class Size Matters, a non-profit organization that advocates for smaller classes. Their website has links to academic research supporting reduced class size including articles on how smaller class size can help reduce the racial and ethnic achievement gap. In New York City the group works closely with the teacher union.

8) Albert Shanker is dead – a man I respected and read – but who has taken his place in terms of leadership?

I am not a big fan of the “Great Man” version of history. Great men and women have the same flaws as the rest of us. The keys to their successes were timely relationships with broader social movements. Without the upsurge in both teacher unionism and teacher professionalism after World War II and in the 1950s and 1960s, no one would have heard of Albert Shanker. Al’s place has been taken today by a broad range of teacher unionists across the country who are organizing for both union rights and better educational funding. These Al Shanker’s live in Los Angles, Chicago, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, and Colorado.

9) Children who are homeless – living in cars, in church basements – what training do teachers need to work with those kids?

Education and teacher preparation are not miracle cures for massive social upheavals. We can make our schools better, but that will not address the over 100,000 New York City school children that are homeless at some point during the school year, the interrupted education of many young people arriving from war zones, the deterioration of public housing, and gentrification that produces overcrowding and general economic distress in poorer minority communities. Teachers need to be empathetic with children and remember that everyone has a bad hair day. My best teacher ever was Miss Berkowitz, my middle school math and official teacher. She knew that sometimes my father would forget to leave my younger brother and me money for lunch when he went to work in the morning so she always checked that I had lunch money and would lend me money if needed.

10) English language learners – what are the concerns here?

Many of the concerns are more social and political than educational and there are a lot of complexities. Students come from a number of different countries with different levels of education in their home countries, arrive at different ages, have different expectations of life in the United States, and very different experiences here. As a high school teacher I had a young woman in my class who had recently arrived from the former Soviet Union speaking no English. By the end of the school year she was taking advanced placement classes. Both of her parents were professionals and she was a former Latvian female age-group chess champion. In 2003 she won the U.S. woman’s chess championship and she is now a stock trader. Her story and preparation for school are very different from a young person arriving from a war-torn and gang riddled Central American or West African country where teachers had fled and people lived in constant danger.

For many immigrant groups in the past, including the immigrants themselves and their children, integration into the United States took multiple generations. My immigrant grandparents were barely literate and had tremendous difficulty with English, my parents were working-class high school graduates, and most of the people in my generation were college graduates and professionals. 

A major problem today is hostility toward immigrants escalated by President Trump, especially Latino immigrants, and the legal status of many newer arrivals. Families and communities live in constant fear of disruption, arrest, and possible deportations. These are not problems that can be addressed by having preservice teachers in Schools of Education take a class in supporting English Language acquisition.

11) What have I neglected to ask?

I think you’ve asked everything. People can follow me on twitter at https://twitter.com/ReecesPieces8 or email me at catajs@hofstra.edu and I will put them on my updates list.

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