Princeton's Commencement: how to really honor teachers

Christopher Campisano, director of Princeton’s Program in Teacher Preparation and President Tilghman  with NJ teachers honored at Commencement: (from left) Enzo Paterno, Victorina Wasmuth, Dana Maloney,  and Daniel Kaplan. (Photo by Denise Applewhite)

A few weeks ago, I attended my daughter’s graduation from Princeton University.  I was impressed with several events that occurred during the festivities.  First of all, at several of the ceremonies, parents were thanked by Princeton administrators, professors and the students themselves for supporting their efforts.  At previous graduations, I had never noticed explicit thanks offered to parents before – and it was appreciated.

More important were two other events.  President of the University Shirley Tilghman gave a stirring defense of a strong liberal arts education against the attacks of the data-driven corporate reformers and right-wing budget-cutters, who are continually devaluing the importance of a well-rounded curriculum.  Here is an excerpt of her speech:

Last October Florida’s Governor Rick Scott was quoted as saying, “We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. … I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on, those types of degrees, so when they get out of school, they can get a job.” Last year one of the campuses of the State University of New York eliminated the departments of French, Italian, Russian, classics and theater in an effort to balance the budget, clearly signaling the lower status of the humanities and the arts compared to the revenue-generating sciences. Even former Harvard University President Larry Summers joined in the fray, questioning the continuing validity of General George Marshall’s plea to a Princeton audience in 1947 when he said: “I doubt seriously whether a man can think with full wisdom and deep convictions regarding certain of the basic international issues today who has not at least reviewed in his mind the period of the Peloponnesian War and the Fall of Athens.” Summers suggested in a New York Times op-ed that skills in data analysis would be more valuable to today’s college graduate than learning from history.

It is ironic that these calls for more outcome-oriented education in the U.S. come at precisely the moment when other nations are racing in the opposite direction.  They have taken note of the immense creativity of the American economy over the past 50 years, and have concluded that education in the liberal arts promotes in citizens innovation, independent thinking and the ability to work across disciplinary boundaries. From the United Kingdom to Sweden, Australia, India, China and Bangladesh, educators are experimenting with more holistic educational curricula for their students, believing that education that specializes too early and too narrowly produces well -trained technocrats but few innovators.

Let it be noted that Shirley Tilghman is a highly esteemed biologist herself; so the fact that she is defending the value of a liberal arts education is especially noteworthy.  Here she echoes Yong Zhao and other experts who point out that even as Arne Duncan and Obama himself have said our schools ought to emulate Asian schools because of their high test scores, educators in these nations are trying to move more towards a system like ours, that values creativity and away from rote learning and high-stakes exams.

The other occurrence of note during the Commencement exercises was even more surprising…and inspiring.  Among the ten or more individuals honored during the ceremony, including those granted honorary degree like famed singer Aretha Franklin, were four New Jersey high school teachers: Daniel Kaplan of Matawan Regional High School; Dana Maloney, of Tenafly High School; Enzo Paterno of Middlesex County Academy for Science, Mathematics and Engineering; and Victorina Wasmuth of the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Academic High School in Jersey City.

Each of the teachers received a small monetary award of $5,000 plus $3,000 for their school; but much more valuable was the recognition they received at such a high-level prestigious event.  Here are biographies of each of the winners and a description of the overall program.

Every year, Princeton solicits nominations from both public and private high schools throughout the state. This year they received 75.  The staff of Princeton’s Teacher Preparation Program (TPP) selects eight finalists, each of whom is visited at work. Winners are selected by a committee chaired by Dean of the College, which includes Christopher Campisano, the chair of the TPP, along with three members of the Princeton faculty, a school superintendent and a state education official.

Here are more details of this process, provided by Stan Katz, a Princeton faculty member and a member of the selection committee whom I happened to bump into afterwards:

… one staff member visits each school for a day to observe the teacher, speak to the principal (the person who makes the nomination in each case), colleagues and students.  Then she prepares a report on each nominee, and our committee makes the final selection of four.  …  We don’t have a formula, but like to have a distribution of fields (science, English, etc.) and types of schools (rural, urban).  I think it works well, and it is my favorite committee assignment.

….We meet with the Prize Winners each commencement morning for breakfast, the whole TPP staff, the superintendents and committee.  Then, after the ceremony, the President invites them (and the rest of us) to the small luncheon she gives for honorary degree recipients — which is great, since it is just the teachers and the honorary degree recipients in attendance (and the teachers get to meet some even more famous people!).  I think it is, symbolically, the nicest thing this University does and I am very proud of the program.

–Stanley N. Katz, Director, Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, Woodrow Wilson School

Now there has been a lot of verbiage expended recently on how the profession of teaching should be treated to make it more attractive and to provide teachers the esteem they deserve.  Even teacher-bashers like Michelle Rhee have claimed that they are intent on “elevating” the profession, despite proposals to eliminate job security, ignore the value of  experience, and base salaries on factors like student test scores.  Arne Duncan, who has signed onto many of these policies, has a new initiative called “RESPECT’ to try to convince teachers that he cares what they think, teachers who otherwise may feel assaulted by his policies, including his demand through Race to the Top that their performance must be evaluated by crunching students’ test scores through unreliable value-added formulas.

In contrast, Princeton shows us a program that every college and university could emulate, one that truly honors the profession and recognizes teachers as the hugely important members of society that they are.

I followed up with Stan, to ask him if test scores are considered in the committee’s decision as to which teachers should be honored during Princeton’s Commencement each year.  Here is his response:

Nope!  The question has never even come up!

I bet most teachers would approve.

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