A Flexner Report for Education?

by Robert Pondiscio
March 9th, 2009

Patrick “Eduflack” Riccards suggests teacher training needs its own version of the Flexner Report — a 1910 report on the wildly uneven quality of medical education in the U.S. that changed the face of the medical profession and led to the closing of half of all the medical schools in the U.S.  “Those that remained bolstered their quality,” Riccards writes, ”turning out a better doctor to meet the growing medical needs of our industrialized nation.”

Isn’t it time for such an approach in teacher education?  Don’t we need a comprehensive study of our teacher training programs, one that focuses on how we crosswalk the latest in teacher educator research with current curricula, ensure that teacher training programs are empowering our teachers with research-based instructional strategies, require clinical hours, build mentoring and support networks, use data in both instruction and intervention, and ensure graduates align with both the content and skill needs of the communities and states they are serving?  Of course we do.  

Riccards suggestion comes in the wake of news that the University of the District of Columbia plans to shut down its undergraduate education department, which has managed to graduate less that ten percent of its students.


  1. Studying Teacher Education.

    You could buy the book, but it will cost you $156.

    Comment by tm willemse — March 9, 2009 @ 11:38 am

  2. Seven to eight percent graduate in six years? That’s not a program of higher learning. It’s a junior high school. Can it get any worse? The DC public schools have the reputation of being the worst public school system in the country. I fail to see how the UDC program could possibly help Michelle Rhee improve the DC schools.

    This is simply another example of higher education in this country being nothing more than big business. There’s a college out there for everyone. Sure there is – for a price. 93% of these kids are going to be exiting this program with nothing but college loans to repay.

    Of course the seventeen members of the UDC faculty think it’s an injustice and think the national teacher test is biased. What else could they say publicly? They’re all about to lose their jobs.

    The program is an embarrassment and an insult to other reputable programs around the country. Shut it down.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 9, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

  3. I hate to always be the cynic, but I don’t see much reason for optimism. A “Flexner report” would have to become somebody’s responsibility. Who is that going to be? I would expect that some commission would be set up to select a team of researchers. Who will they be? Educational leaders? Education professors? It seems reasonable that we would want to hire the best educational expertise available. That would be those presently on top of the educational pyramid, or at least it would seem that way to any political body charged with setting up the basic framework of the report. I would expect that any commission or team of researchers would end up being those people who have been at the top for many years. That, it seems to me, is the problem, not the solution.

    Suppose we narrow it down to just one field – math. Who would be selected to lead the study of how math is presently taught and how it should be taught? I suppose the NCTM would? Is that good? No, in my humble opinion, that is bad, very bad, counterproductive, disastrous. There are math wars going on, and with very good reason. The NCTM, though they have backpedeled some in recent years, has staked out a position of math pedagogy that perpetuates frustration and mediocrity. But they are the math ed “establishment”. They would be seen as the experts. They would be put in charge. They would design the plan, and interpret the results. They would spin the rhetoric.

    Any “Flexner report”, I would expect, would be mostly a whitewash. There would be some recommendations made of course, and many of them would be unobjectionable. But the report would not say anything dramatic. It would reaffirm the basic status quo. There would be winners and losers, but no dramatic changes, and no substantial improvement.

    What should be done? Scrapping teacher credentialing would be a good start. That idea won’t come from the educational establishment. It might come, someday, from some brave state legislator who introduces a surprise bill and rushes it through before the establishment has time to react. We can dream, can’t we?

    Comment by Brian Rude — March 9, 2009 @ 3:47 pm

  4. While the Flexner report led to more standardization and a general upgrade in scientific bases for medical training protocols, there were some negative outcomes, too. Medical school became more selective and expensive, seriously limiting the pool of applicants who had the initial credentialing and finances to become doctors. It also meant fewer doctors willing to serve poor and rural populations, and increased specialization of practice–which has impact on cost, availability, convenience and personalization of good care.

    Were those things to occur in education–more rigorous, standardized and expensive training–who could afford to become teachers? This is a serious issue, when you think about diversity in student populations vs. diversity in the teacher pool.

    I’m all for recruiting smarter and more capable candidates into teaching. But a good part of any teacher’s effectiveness is their ability to generate trust and motivation, to embrace and care about children of diverse backgrounds, to be role models for their students. Something to think about.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — March 9, 2009 @ 6:26 pm

  5. Nancy,

    I wonder about your string of claims beginning with “a good part of any teacher’s effectiveness is their ability to generate trust…” etc. Can’t a teacher just be a decent man or woman who knows how to teach his subject well? “Generate trust?” OK, I won’t lie to my students about the Crusades, but must I listen to their secrets and keep them? “Embrace and care about children?” I trust you don’t mean “embrace” literally. But what DO you mean? If you mean show compassion and appreciation for them, OK. But if you mean effuse love and develop a quasi-parental bond of intimacy, I have my doubts. “Be role models.” I suppose I might agree with you here: I think any teacher or leader should possess a good character and conduct himself with as much Confucian propriety as he can muster, in the classroom at least.

    In general, this way of talking about teaching sticks in my craw because that’s all we ever hear about the ideal teacher, it seems. All this AFFECTIVE stuff. It reinforces our anti-intellectual tendencies, casting the classroom as a mush-bucket of emotions rather than (gasp) a place of intellectual work-outs (with a little fun thrown in).

    Comment by Ben F — March 9, 2009 @ 10:22 pm

  6. Ben,

    I’ve given your question some thought–about a person who might know great about a subject, but doesn’t know how to motivate students, build trust, demonstrate that they care about diverse students’ learning, or be a role model. And I’m sticking to what I said

    In fact, there’s some solid research (Bryk & Schneider, Tschannen-Moran, among others) that trust is a core resource that must be in place between teacher and child, parent and teacher, parent and school, to leverage student achievement gains. Much of the work was done in Chicago Public Schools, and demonstrates clearly that social relationships strongly impact students’ learning capacity. Schools where trust has been a conscious goal show significantly more improvement than schools where no attention is paid to relationships.

    I know you realize that trust embodies more than keeping secrets and “embrace” doesn’t always mean “hug.” But I’m scratching my head over “effuse love” and “quasi-parental intimacy”–those came out of your imagination, not my words.

    Further, there is absolutely no dichotomy between a challenging, intellectually rich curriculum and positive relationships between teachers and their students. Returning to the topic of the article, the Flexner report, one of the things that gradually was went away when medical training grew more expensive, specialized and selective was the visiting general practitioner, the family doctor with long-term knowledge of and commitment to his patients and the trust of a community. We still have teachers who fill that role in some community schools, and I think that’s worth something.

    Sorry about your craw.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — March 10, 2009 @ 10:10 pm

  7. Nancy,

    No one would disagree that it’s wonderful for kids to have great rapport with their teachers. My beef is with talking about this as if it’s the most important thing. What about the nice, nerdy female English teacher whom the mean girls have targeted as a loser? (I’m thinking of my own 6th grade English teacher who was hounded out of teaching by mean girls). Good rapport may be impossible all year. Should that teacher’s evaluations suffer because “relationships” in the classroom are sour and distant? Should we weed out teaching candidates who lack personalities/personae that don’t pass muster with the socially powerful kids?

    The Chummy Coach Teacher is America’s current teacher archetype, at least in public schools. It’s my sense that that’s what principals look for when doing interviews. Ability to relate to kids trumps ability to provide intellectually-rich instruction. Of course hip AND brainy is ideal, but if a principal had to choose, I’d guess that most would choose hip over brainy. And I think America’s ranking in international comparisons reflects these values.

    My school is currently in the thrall of this relationship-is-so-important talk, and we do scores of things to help build “relationships” (e.g. have teachers relate personal anecdotes to school assemblies to show our human side; we’re encouraged to attend kids’ sporting events, etc.) But we do nothing to amp-up the slack intellectual tenor of the school.

    I think we need to make Erudite Teacher the new archetype. Emphasise deep mastery of his or her subject. If the dude has a winning persona, all the better, but that consideration should be distinctly secondary. Of course sadists and tyrants should be weeded out, but American schools should not select for popularity over erudition.

    I don’t see why kids can’t learn a ton from a merely-civil adult who teaches fantastically. I don’t buy it that the kids can’t learn unless the teacher inquires about their softball games or shares stories about his or her life. Yes, these things can enhance rapport and make kids more favorably disposed to class, but why can’t the excellence of instruction make kids’ favorably disposed? And why must we suppose that kids will be negatively disposed if the teacher is merely a teacher and not a para-parent or friend?

    Was public education a shambles back in the day when the teacher persona was more distant, even slightly authoritarian? I don’t think so. And since the advent of the friendly, informal teacher starting in the Sixties, has academic performance soared? This noisy rhetoric about building relationships is leading us down the wrong path. We need more scholars –people whom students will like and respect because of the richness of their minds and what they have to teach. Kids can and should get their emotional needs met from friends and relatives.

    Comment by Ben F — March 12, 2009 @ 3:26 pm

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