Prioritize teacher education

Having directly experienced activities at SUNY Plattsburgh’s Sibley Hall for more than 40 years, I read with great interest the article by Suzanne Moore in the June 28 issue of the Plattsburgh Press-Republican. The article, which concerns the creation of a new “Neurobehavioral Health Center,” describes a positive move to “better connect programs” at the college “to meet its mission of providing services to the community and educational opportunities to our students.”

It is interesting to speculate as to why no mention was made that Sibley Hall was once the site of the former Educational Research and Demonstration Center and currently provides limited space for the college’s teacher education programs. Some history may be useful.

The Sibley building was constructed with millions of dollars in the 1960s, built to the specifications for educational research and exemplary teacher education programs. It was designed by teachers of teachers as a state-of-the-art research center with closed-circuit television in every classroom, a video production laboratory and one-way-vision windows for observation of learners in their natural habitat to prevent disturbance of classroom activities. The building included a science laboratory and physical education facilities and much, much more.

The SUNY Research and Demonstration Center was dedicated in 1967. The main speaker at the ceremony was Frank Jennings, author and editor-at-large of the Saturday Review of Literature and the educational director of the New World Foundation. Approximately 20 persons attended that important meeting. This might have signaled a message about where innovative teacher education was placed on the priority list at SUNY Plattsburgh.

Teacher education programs were housed in Sibley Hall alongside its kindergarten through ninth-grade classrooms, offering easy access for teacher candidates needing to learn firsthand about learning and how to facilitate learning as a future teacher. Faculty members in those classrooms were part of the Education Department with advanced degrees and exceptional track records in teaching and learning.

The Campus School at that time was part of a nationally acclaimed program in teacher education referred to as the “Open Curriculum.” The program was based on a new rationale for education designed to respond to the needs of education, addressing issues later explored in the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk,” commissioned by President Reagan.

The Open Curriculum project received the full endorsement of Dr. Ralph Tyler, considered the dean of educational research and an instrumental-force in the “Eight Year Study” that certified the superior outcomes of education in the progressive schools of this country. He was a leader in the establishment of international assessments used today to compare worldwide educational systems. He gave testimony after studying the project that a commitment of 10 years would be required to ensure the system was fully operational as designed.

In less than three years, the Open Curriculum project, along with its research effort, was phased out, and the faculty positions were transferred to a newly formed Business School, ignoring the specialized facilities of the building and leaving the largest program on campus without a research and demonstration center. The building then became the site for a variety of offices and activities for college-sponsored programs with a few classrooms reserved for teacher education.

Given all the controversy the Common Core curriculum and standardized testing has stimulated, at least teacher education should be mentioned as existing at SUNY Plattsburgh; after all, it is the largest program on campus. At the very least, one could expect some mention of a tendency to promote whatever seems to be in vogue at the moment, even when historical evidence points to other important issues.

Improving education for our youth should be at the top of the priority list of our institutions, even if “neurobehavioral health” (however defined) is thought to be essential. Public education, now under siege, has serious long-range implications for the future of all our citizens and our collective way of life.

Millions of dollars were spent in the 1960s on a much-needed site for a research and demonstration center for education in the North Country, only to be displaced by other priorities. Another $8.5 million will now be invested in the same building to accommodate housing for programs selected from a list of fluctuating institutional priorities.

We are now saddled with an intense movement to forcefully modify education in our public schools (creeping slowly into the SUNY network of colleges) that promotes a troublesome form of standardization and excessive testing procedures. Public education is increasingly housed in profit-making charter schools supported by taxpayer funds. Parents and educators have expressed their deep concerns.

Yet teacher education appears to be off or low on the priority list of critical issues to be addressed at SUNY Plattsburgh and elsewhere. This trend is not new since SUNY and local school officials also turned down an opportunity to establish a regional center for learning and research under nonprofit charter school provisions. In the present climate for achieving grants, it is doubtful any money for a research and demonstration center for education would receive much attention unless it came up with a more exotic title and ensured its conformity with the standardization movement. Who thinks our politicians and SUNY officials should move teacher education and educational research to the top of the priority list? Email me with your answer at remakingourschools@willex.com.

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.