Holmes Group is hot on the trail of improved teaching. Deans of education join in effort to change their schools' programs

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHO will bell the cat? That's becoming a critical question in education reform. In the fable about some mice terrorized by a predatory feline, one mouse suggests a warning bell be tied to the cat. Fine, says another - but who will do it?

In recent weeks, 97 top education school deans - known as the Holmes Group - formally agreed to take on the ``cat.'' They will try to reform their teacher training programs - an area that lacks clear principles, ideals, and practices, they say, and drives away many of the bright, prospective teachers now needed.

A critical mass of top schools working to make teacher training more intellectually sound may spark similar reforms nationwide, some experts say - and significantly upgrade the quality of American schooling.

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But, say Holmes Group leaders, the education establishment will be a difficult cat to bell: It's characterized by ferocious special interests, patronage, and entrenched views. Requiring more hours of math and science, and upping teachers' salaries - typical of reforms in the early 1980s - is one thing. Deep, structural change is another.

Many Holmes Group members want to abolish the undergraduate education major. They want to establish serious ties with the liberal arts departments on campus, and create special teacher-training schools in local districts. They also plan to challenge what they say are ineffectual state course requirements.

The plans are all in the embryonic stage. They are all difficult. Some experts feel the nitty-gritty of long-term change may be more than the organiztion can manage.

Still, the group - named after Henry Holmes, a Harvard University education reformer of the 1920s - has sparked new enthusiasm for teacher training, long a ``tired'' field, as one dean put it.

Part of the upbeat feeling is due to Holmes's meteoric rise. Two years ago, it was an informal group of 20 education deans from major universities. Led by Judith Lanier of Michigan State, they frankly discussed their problems. These meetings were the first efforts at rethinking teacher education in several decades. By last April, 40 deans were involved. A set of reforms were developed.

The political climate also needed addressing. On the one hand, a new sentiment was rising: that any bright person could teach; education courses were superfluous. It was a ``naive view,'' Holmes members felt, held by educated policymakers who had never taught.

On the other hand, Holmes Group deans knew their schools needed tough-minded changes. The group, then, would step into the middle ground - not abandoning teacher training, but giving it muscle.

To this end, Holmes reorganized last year, inviting 117 universities to be charter members of a new pro-action group: 97 joined. Last month, funding and regional groups were set up. The outcome - in the murky, Byzantine world of education politics - was considered a miracle; ``a political coup,'' said Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

But the bell is still far from the cat. Now comes the tough part. The education deans must roll up their sleeves. There is no rigid scheme of operation. Each school has different problems. Some will find it appropriate to eliminate the undergraduate education degree, some will not. The main message is: Experiment.

But all deans will try to change campus politics. At present, schools of education are a kind of academic stepchild - looked down upon by liberal-arts deans and faculty. ``Ed schools'' lack money and power; Holmes Group deans must persuade English and biology departments that teacher education must be redesigned in partnership with arts and sciences. On paper, that sounds reasonable; in fact, it is likely to be grueling.

Many deans will find their own departments even more difficult to reform. Holmes schools are major universities, staffed by top education-research scholars. In most professional schools - law, business - there is a close relationship between research and practice. Not in education. As one professor put it, ``Ed scholars want nothing to do with teacher training - they shun it.''

State course requirements are another minefield. Many courses are highly specialized - ``redundant and insulting,'' is the way one professor put it. But the state often reviews them as though all courses are of equal importance. ``Precious turf'' is protected in many cases.

Starting practice teacher schools in local districts will demand a commitment many colleges have never had.

Dr. Lanier says: ``It's a multiple agenda. State, university, and local school policies are tightly interlocked, and the difficulty is we have to move on all fronts at once.''

The reform will be a test of mettle for the deans, experts say. They will have to take risks - often with no immediate gain in sight. Many are expected to drop out.

``A lot of deans joined because it's the new progressive game,'' says Prof. Gary Sykes of Michigan State. ``They love to fly around the country to meetings. But when you have to go home and fight, that's tough. We're talking about hard work. Sleepy folk don't want to do it.''

To date, the group's success is due to its wide-awake leader. Dr. Lanier - described as ``messianic'' in her effort to improve American education - turned Michigan State into one of the top education schools in the US. ``Her ability to mobilize is awesome,'' one observer says. Lanier comments in soft-spoken tones: ``To be an education leader in times like these and to do nothing - to defend the status quo - is hardly sensible.''

Phil Schlecty, director of a teacher's center in Jefferson County (Louisville), Ky. - one of the hottest school-reform districts in the country - is using many Holmes principles in his program. ``For reform to work, there must be interaction between practice and study. This is the professional development Holmes is talking about.''

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