Each day this week, Amicus will feature an editorial post written by one of CRCL’s new General Board members.  Today’s post discusses the challenges inherent in education reform and producing great teachers.

The past two decades have seen the filing of dozens of cases of so-called “educational adequacy” litigation, state court cases in which plaintiffs have charged that the state has a responsibility to offer all of its children an adequate education.  These cases—which are based on clauses in state constitutions that guarantee all students some essential level of education—have succeeded more often than they have failed.  Indeed, a major outcome of these efforts is that state Supreme Courts throughout the country have held, in clear and forceful terms, that students have a right to an education that will allow them to make effective life decisions, play a meaningful role in the political process, and compete favorably in the job market.  Some courts have gone further, ruling that the constitution requires the state to fund after-school programs, health services, and pre-kindergarten.

Many courts have made a point of stressing the centrality of effective teaching to adequate education, without which meaningful learning—at the primary level, at least—is close to impossible.  But even if it were undisputed that children have a moral (or at least civil) right to quality teaching, there would remain the obvious problem of formulating a consensual, coherent definition of effective pedagogy.  Many state legislatures have attempted to address this challenge by requiring statewide peer review of teachers.  Peer review, however, is limited in its efficacy; it relies on the assumption that senior teachers—the teachers who do the reviewing and thus set the tone for their younger colleagues—are capable of powerful, imaginative pedagogy.  If they are not, however, what results is merely a case of the blind leading the blind.

The failure to agree on what constitutes effective teaching points, naturally, to a related set of issues: the process teaching the teachers.  A recent New York Times story profiles some of the familiar difficulties inherent in relying on colleges and universities to mass-produce quality teachers.  For one, to the extent that education schools are driven by profit, it is not clear whether they can be expected to make responsible decisions about how best to fulfill their mission (the same must be said, of course, with regard to law schools).  Even more obvious is the fact that effective teaching requires the ability to perceive how students think and feel, which in turn requires high levels of discernment, empathy, and emotional awareness—skills universities do not impart.

Not surprisingly, as illustrated by an oft-cited 2006 report from the Education Schools Project, there is little consensus about the value of formal, university-based approaches to teacher preparation.  But whatever one thinks of education schools, efforts to achieve educational adequacy through courts must be accompanied by a willingness to think about precisely what it means to be a strong teacher, and about whether the skills that make a teacher great can themselves be taught.  The answers to these questions will play a vital role in shaping the future of education reform.