How A Vocabulary Test Change My Life

Oct 15, 2014 by

Martin Haberman distinguished professor emeritus of curriculum and instruction in UWM’s School of
Education, discovered his life’s work while standing in a draft board line in New York City waiting to
take a 30-word vocabulary test.

“They had a fancier word for it, but it was basically a vocabulary test,” Haberman said. ” I f you
passed the 30-word vocabulary test, you could stay in college. If you failed it you went into the
army and would be very likely to go to Korea, where 58,000 service people were wounded or
killed.” Haberman passed the test the three times he was called up and was able to finish college.
Among “the 500 guys standing in line” waiting to be processed and tested, he found that those
most likely to fail the vocabulary test were Puerto Ricans, African Americans and poor whites. The
experience taught him two valuable lessons: “a sound basic education could save your life; and “the
fundamental inequities in the American public education system are life threatening. ”

That experience changed my life,” and his goal became to change the education system for the
children in poverty in urban schools — those for whom school success was fundamentally a matter
of life and death. He went into teacher education, because he felt that he could have more influence
there than as a teacher with no voice or ability to influence policies in highly bureaucratic urban
schools or state departments of education.” After earning his master’s and a doctorate in Teacher
Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, he went to UWM in 1962. He was awarded
Honorary Doctorates of Humane Letters from Rhode Island College and the State University of New

Forty-six years later, Haberman was still working to improve teaching in urban schools. Although he
officially retired in May after 43 years on the faculty of the UWM School of Education, Haberman
continued to lead a hands-on master’s class for urban teachers, writing, researching, and continued
to support the Haberman Educational Foundation ,chartered in 1994 to promote his research based
interviews for selecting STAR teachers for the children and youth of America.

Haberman developed more teacher education programs which have prepared more teachers than
anyone in the history of teacher education. The most widely known of his programs was the
National Teacher Corps, which was based on an internship program he developed in Milwaukee.
Early in his career in Milwaukee he developed an innovative internship program for liberal arts
graduates which caught the attention of the late Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson and Sen. Ted
Kennedy. This became the model for the National Teacher Corps, which eventually prepared
100,000 teachers. He once said, ” I t was a notable failure,” stated in his typical blunt style, “but I
(earned a lot about what doesn’t work and it made me famous.” And, he adds in a dry aside, “if a
program gets a lot of grants and attention nobody ever asks if it really helped kids?” But the
Teacher Corps, which ran from 1963-1972, was a learning experience, he stated, “and I’m a firm
believer in experimenting with teacher education models. We learned a lot about what worked and
what didn’t work.”

Building on that early experience and the 40-plus years of research since then, Haberman
developed a significant body of knowledge on the ideology and behavior of effective teachers for
diverse children and youth in urban poverty. “The surest and best way to improve the schooling and
the lives of the approximately 15 million children and youth in poverty is to get them better
teachers,” a statement he lived by.

In an article in the June 1995 Phi Delta Kappan, Haberman outlined 14 key teaching behaviors that
are characteristic of “star” teachers. In the same article he argued that “selection is more important
than training” and that a level of maturity must be reached before teacher training can have value.
“Two of the fundamental attributes of successful teachers are maturity and judgment,” he said.
“That’s why it’s important to establish programs that bring well-educated college graduates with
valuable life and work experience into the classrooms.

His mantra was this;” Fundamental belief systems separate star teachers and teachers who burn
out and fail in challenging situations,”. For example, “some teachers believe some kids learn more
than others because they’re smarter. Teachers who believe that might be good at grouping students
and marking papers, but are more likely to fail or quit.”. “On the other hand, teachers who believe
school success is explained by effort are more likely to get their students to succeed. Why? Because
they figure out ways to motivate, interest and get them to work harder.” At UWM and in Milwaukee
and Wisconsin, Haberman found such a wonderful laboratory for experimenting with ideas to
improve education that he never was tempted to go elsewhere. He stated, ” I was very fortunate to
be at UWM and in Milwaukee. They have also given me the opportunity to try anything I’ve ever
wanted. I couldn’t have found a better place. UWM has been an absolute, perfect laboratory. I can
say the same for the State Department of Public Instruction in Wisconsin which has accredited every
model I ever asked them to let me try.”

The Haberman Educational Foundation works with school systems across the country to screen and
interview teachers (principals and superintendents) who will be most likely to stay and be effective
with diverse students from poverty backgrounds.

A notable quote from Dr Haberman during his work was, “The number of cities that use my teacher
interviews bring in about 30,000 mature adults who will be effective with diverse children in poverty
every year.” ” I f you estimate the number of children those teachers will reach,” ” I ‘m touching the
lives of millions of kids in positive ways…. and that’s a very, very warm feeling.”

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