In our first follow-up to [KM Q&A!] Bot's end-of-year interview session on the future of education, Knox Makers has received the kind assistance of University of Tennessee's own Professor Susan Benner. Professor Benner would like to take a shot at the same questions we featured with her own perspectives. What follows after the break are her answers in full.
Part I of our special on education futures located here.
KM Q&A! Bot: What is your background and experience as related to education?
Professor Susan Benner: I became interested in education during my senior year of study at Southern Methodist University while tutoring at an elementary school in a high poverty community in Dallas, Texas in 1971. Although I was too near the end of my undergraduate studies to pursue education, I remained interested in it as a possible career. In 1973 I received a Masters degree in Special Education from the University of Tennessee and taught in the Memphis City Schools between 1973 and 1976. My classroom teaching experience occurred during the first year of mandatory bussing in Memphis and the first year in which Tennessee mandated educational services for students with disabilities. It was a volatile time for education in Memphis as many white students left the system rather than ride busses into the center city to attend their assigned schools. I went on to complete an Ed.D in Special Education with specializations in mental retardation and teacher education from Teachers College, Columbia University. After spending one year at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, Indiana as an assistant professor, I joined the faculty at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee. In 1984 I was tenured and promoted to Associate Professor. In 1991 I became a full Professor. Over my career at UTK, I have served as one of three Co-Directors of the Institute for Teacher Education and as Department Head of Theory and Practice in Teacher Education. I am currently serving as Associate Dean of Professional Licensure and Director of the Graduate School of Education.
QA: What are the most pressing issues facing education today?
PB: The most pressing issues facing education today have to do with the pervasive challenges to sustaining a free public education for all children. Education reformists have the slogans and hype to appeal to many who do not understand or appreciate the long-term consequences of many of the policies they are successfully moving through state legislatures with the help of powerful lobby machines. The use of tax payer dollars to support for-profit Education Management Organizations (EMO) and associated charter schools, virtual schools, and voucher systems that do not offer a meaningful option to children from economically distressed communities puts our entire public education infrastructure at risk. While these initiatives may be offered by some of their supporters as vehicles for education reform, in reality they pose a threat to the educational foundation upon which a successful democracy is based—an educated populous. In fact, many of the EMOs are primarily profit-driven, not the institutions of social justice they purport to be. In fact, many are not seeing the great student achievement gains that have been promised regardless of their absurd names.
Comparable attempts to undermine the quality of teacher preparation through the systematic elimination of licensure standards and program approval processes rather than the imposition of higher standards for entry into the teaching force further erodes our P-12 educational structures. The policy that allows persons serving as instructors-of-record through the Teach for America program to be legally defined as “highly qualified” serves as one example of such lowering of licensure standards. How can it be that a person with a few weeks of training can enter a classroom designated as highly qualified? This semantic manipulation of words to appear to be complying with well-intended policies to accompany laws such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would simply not be tolerated in any other profession. Tax preparers who take a crash course to work in tax preparer offices during tax season do not have the authority to present themselves as expert accountants, yet inexperienced persons with very little professional educational preparation are deemed highly qualified. The examples that demonstrate how ludicrous this definition of a highly qualified teacher is are endless.
QA: What are your immediate thoughts and concerns about the future of education in general?
PB: Education is certainly in need of a substantial update. The school calendar and structure of the school day are becoming less and less functional as the population attending public school increases in diversity and poverty. For example, we have a substantial portion of the population of school children from economically distressed communities who experience significant summer regression annually, while children from upper socio-economic-status communities continue to advance over the summer as they engage in an array of enriching travel experiences, visit libraries, attend camps, and participate in organized arts and sports activities that develop social, physical, and mental capacity. It is far more challenging to educate a child who is facing chronic hunger, or one who is suffering from an abscessed tooth than it is to teach children whose most basic needs have been met. If educators are expected to bring all children up to grade level regardless of the resources and support structures in place within the home or community, they must have the freedom to provide flexibility and variability in school calendars, enrichment supports, and a means by which they can tap resources to meet comprehensive student needs.
QA: Where do recent DIY movements such as Makerspaces fit into the future of education?
PB: The wide array of instructional content available on the web through the DIY movements, including Makerspaces represents a substantial and growing resource available to children and adults. Such resources can be useful both inside and outside formal educational settings. For anyone who has access to the Internet and is motivated to acquire a new skill or gain new knowledge, they are terrific. The person who is not in a formal educational setting can learn with little concern about grades, schedules and deadlines, or dressing to impress his classmates. Yet, not everyone will have access to these resources or the motivation to take advantage of them. Teachers who tap these resources broaden and strengthen their instructional options for all children. Students may need a guiding hand or supporting comment offered by an educator to take full advantage of Internet-based instruction. The educator who is aware of these resources and is allowed to use them can couple their capacity to motivate and support with these rich instructional materials. The platform provides instant replay and review to the student who wants to see or hear something again and again. Educational venues offer human relationships, feedback, networking connections, and so forth. However, they no longer have exclusive hold on the knowledge and skill needed by up and coming students. Those in the education arena must recognize that knowledge and skill development outside sanctioned and recognized settings has the capacity to replace credentials if credentials come to hold little or no meaning or value or even present barriers to success.
QA: How do you feel about the Common Core Standards initiatives set by the US Department of Education?
PB: Technically, the Common Core Standards grew out of professional organizations striving to improve the quality of education and were not “set by the US Department of Education.” While they were in development, everyone involved made sure to emphasize this very point. Without a doubt, they are sanctioned and supported by the US DOE, but not “set” by them. Since I reside and work in a state that remains near the bottom in regard to student achievement, I am hopeful that higher standards can lead to better outcomes. However, it will take a substantial culture change to bring success to this initiative.
QA: What are your thoughts on open educational resources?
PB: Open educational resources (OER) are intended to create greater access to education and instructional materials throughout the global world. They represent a substantial shift in access to and control of intellectual property and knowledge. OERs cannot and should not be stopped. They will not stay contained or confined to distant global markets. As broad and significant as the OER agenda is to enable people living in developing countries to have the opportunity to become educated, it is only a bit of the likely long-term outcomes of open access to quality educational resources. Institutions of higher education and employers in the US and other developed nations will continue the debates regarding the value and meaning of a degree, the costs of tuition and ways one can verify expertise and readiness for the workforce. Educational institutions must adjust funding streams and adapt to these new structures without selling out to a business-model approach to our work.
QA: What are important considerations for the future of educational technologies?
PB: Technology is not education. It is a tool and certainly increases ease of access to material, but does not automatically make one learn. The human traits of motivation, dedication and discipline, practice, effort, intellectual and physical capacity coupled with opportunity are what drive learning. Effective teachers with access to technology know when and how to use it and when to set it aside and work alongside a student without the intrusion of technology.
QA: Do you have any advice for future students and parents of students?
PB: Understand that education is about learning, not about external rewards or pleasing others. Education offers the opportunity to open or shut doors in your life. Expect learning to be hard, demand that it be hard. Do not worry over external rewards or recognitions for school performance, as the greatest reward of learning is the learning. When you pursue education for yourself because you see its value and meaning in your life, the external recognitions and rewards may or may not come. What matters far more, the skills and knowledge will come.
QA: Do you have any advice for future teachers?
PB: Understand that teachers are among the most influential people in our lives. Your work is a challenging blend of thoughtful planning and preparation and split-second decision-making. You have the responsibility to have a firm understanding of the content being taught coupled with the capacity to interact with your many students as though they were the one and only student in our room. Never underestimate the importance of a teacher in the lives of your students or your capacity to be the one teacher to reach out and rescue a child from educational failure.
QA: Thank you for your time, Professor Benner.