Eduwonk Blows the Whistle on a Whispering Campaign

William Buckley said in any debate whoever resorts to insults first has lost. If that’s true then David Steiner has soundly beaten his critics.

Steiner, a Boston University education professor, is the author of a controversial chapter in the new book “A Qualified Teacher In Every Classroom? Appraising Old Answers and New Ideas” published by Harvard Education Press. (PPI’s Andrew J. Rotherham is a co-editor, and the full chapter list is available here). Steiner’s chapter looks at the course of study in elite education programs in the United States. Specifically he and colleague Susan Rozen analyze syllabi from 16 teacher preparation programs (14 top tier and two comparison schools) as measured against a framework of what they consider to be a rigorous and high quality program.

The results are not encouraging. Steiner and Rozen found a pervasive ideological slant and a lack of rigor. They’re certainly not the first to raise these issues, but they are among the first to try to systematically analyze them because of the difficulty of compiling data on a varied set of courses and program requirements. Steiner’s data is less complete than he’d like. Steiner acknowledges the shortcomings and invites others to review the data (for reasons of confidentiality he cannot publicly disclose the specific courses he analyzed) and replicate and expand his work.

Steiner first presented his work at a 2003 conference in Washington and then subsequently revised it for publication based on feedback at the conference. Yet before the book even hit the shelves he found himself at the receiving end of a nasty whispering campaign. Rather than disprove his findings, or — even better — just put syllabi on the web to facilitate easier analysis by others, defenders of the status quo in schools of education have derided Steiner, often in personal terms. You won’t see much of this criticism in print with a name attached to it. But mention his work at a conference and you’ll get an earful, not about the ins and outs of the work but instead just claims about what garbage it is and what a hack Steiner allegedly is.

In addition, rather than defend what they’re teaching, schools of education argue that syllabi are largely irrelevant to what goes on in courses (that disclosure might come as a surprise to tuition paying parents, students, and taxpayers) or that Steiner’s framework is flawed. Surprisingly no one is yet rising to defend the syllabi or reading lists and forthrightly say that, “this is what we teach and we’re proud of it!”

A praiseworthy exception is Dan Butin, a sociology of education professor at Gettysburg College. Butin is challenging some of Steiner’s findings as they relate to social foundations of education programs. His critique will be published in the online Teachers College Record later this year, and the 21st Century Schools Project will subsequently host a debate between Butin and Steiner.

What is needed is exactly that, debates, discussion, and more research instead of whispering campaigns, personal attacks, and intellectual McCarthyism. If nothing else, the mostly underhanded response to Steiner’s study is pretty damning evidence that he’s probably a lot more right than wrong! Read it for yourself and decide.

Ironic They Eat Their Own Afterthought: By the way, Steiner’s not a Lynne Cheney type or an ideologue, he’s basically a lefty! Don’t step out of line with this crowd…

Update: Dan Drezner agrees and notes that his syllabi are a pretty good indication of the content of his courses…

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