Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Banking on the Future

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Banking on the Future

Article excerpt

Bank Street College of Education may have the answer to preparing effective teachers for a new era...

...but can they bottle it up for others?

On a snowy day back in February, during its annual African American History Month assembly, the very best of the "Bank Street way" was on display. There's no "star system" at the Bank Street School for Children -- every class has its moment, every child his or her say -- so that meant the stage was as crowded with children as the hall was with parents, watching their sons and daughters singing songs about human rights, talking about the "Letter from the Birmingham Jail" and reading letters of their own -- to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In fluting, childish voices, they spoke of their compassion for the poor and homeless, for gay families, for Muslims facing the post-9/11 backlash. And they spoke about their dreams:

"Dear Dr. King," said Jeremy, age 8, "I see wars all over the world. Now they have much more dangerous weapons. People are still bombing. People are still murdering. I hope none of these things happen in the future. I hope there will be no more killing...no more enemies, no more separation."

The assembly was a classic Bank Street moment, a showcase for the magic that can be made when children and teachers become panners in education. But the burning question being asked by observers across the nation is this: Can Bank Street put its magic in a bottle?

That is to say, can the Bank Street formula -- perfected at a progressive, private, independent school located in one of the most exciting cities in the world and affiliated with its very own graduate school of education -- be used to "save" failing schools plagued by crumbling infrastructure, tumbling test scores and persistent achievement gaps?

Dr. Augusta "Gussie" Kappner, president of the Bank Street College of Education, is sure that it can. Dr. Reuel "Rudy" Jordan, principal of the Bank Street School for Children, emphatically agrees. And Carnegie Corporation of New York is putting up $5 million to find out, according to Dr. Daniel Fallon, chairman of Carnegie's education division.

Specifically, Bank Street College has become one of the first four institutions -- the others are California State University-Northridge, Michigan State University and the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education -- invited to participate in a three-year initiative Carnegie is calling "Teachers for a New Era."

The initiative targets an area that has traditionally been regarded as "the black hole of philanthropy," as Fallon calls it: pre-service teacher education.

"It's an area where, over several generations, a great deal of money has been poured in with very little to show for it. As a result, some might think we're crazy to be doing this," he explains.

But Carnegie is armed with powerful new evidence that has only emerged in the last five to seven years. "And that evidence shows that the quality of the teacher is the single most important factor in producing student achievement gain," Fallon says. Indeed, in the new studies, teacher effectiveness has been proven to trump every other variable, including that dreaded triumvirate of race, class and poverty.

`DEFYING GRAVITY'

Bank Street College often walks a lonely path in a teacher preparation environment littered with standardized tests and highly scripted curricula.

For example, GRE scores are an anathema to the admissions committee for the 1,000-strong graduate school. "We don't think they tell you anything about whether or not someone is going to be a good teacher," Kappner says. So saying the school was "pleased" to have survived Carnegie's ruthless winnowing process, from 1,300 schools to 100 to four, would be putting it mildly.

"Bank Street is an institution that has been defying gravity for many years," Kappner recalls being told when she became the school's sixth president in 1996.

"And it's so true -- because institutions like this one, free-standing, teacher-focused institutions that are not a part of a big university either public or private, have generally gone out of business" instead of attracting high-profile, high-dollar philanthropic support. …

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