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September 2009  |  Return to issue home

Who Is Ken Zeichner?

Ken Zeichner
Ken Zeichner

We sat down with Kenneth “Ken” Zeichner, the director of the Teacher Education Program, to find out more about his background and his future plans. Read on!

First, thanks for taking the time for this conversation. You’ve accomplished quite a bit in your career, most recently serving as the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education associate dean for undergraduate, international, and teacher education. What makes you passionate about teacher education, professional development, and practice?

“My passion for teacher education and schooling comes from my own experiences as a student in the Philadelphia public school system. This firsthand experience of going through a large urban school system gave me the desire to raise the quality of education for kids in public schools, particularly in urban areas. I graduated 20th in my class from a large urban high school and went into a university, where I was placed in remedial classes, like a large number of kids coming out of public schools today. Even though I was ranked highly in my high school, that meant very little in terms of my ability to do the same level of work as kids who had attended more advantaged schools.

There is an inequitable distribution of well-prepared teachers today. Some kids have access to well-prepared teachers but many kids, mainly racial/ethnic minorities or  students living in poverty, do not. I’ve been in schools in major cities where they can’t find enough well-prepared teachers to teach and the kids are often taught by teachers with little or no formal preparation. At a certain point, I made a decision that this was an important issue for me. I wanted to address the problems that I personally experienced as a student. I really had to work hard in order to succeed in the university in terms of acquiring the academic skills and habits that many other kids who went to more advantaged schools had already acquired.

In order to make the contribution I wanted to make as an educator, I had to have the credentials and I began as a university student to focus on academics. I was lucky enough to meet the woman I eventually married. She went to Philadelphia High School for Girls, an academically advanced public school in Philadelphia, and she taught me a lot about how to study, and write. 

I taught elementary school in predominantly poor, African-American neighborhoods and I began my career as a teacher educator as a team leader in the National Teacher Corps, a federal program to prepare teachers for high poverty schools. that was initially modeled on the Peace Corps.  While, I was in the schools, I had the goal of becoming a principal and a superintendent, of staying in the schools and creating change. I got the licenses needed to do this, but I never went down that path because a job as a university teacher educator came along at UW-Madison. This was my first job out of graduate school and I’ve been there from 1976 until now.

You’ve obviously accomplished a lot, for the school and for your community there. How have you felt about your time at Madison?

I’ve really enjoyed my time there. They hired me to develop a doctoral program in the study of teacher education and to develop a program of research on our teacher education programs. My colleagues and I built an exciting program to prepare teachers and also to teach the doctoral students who worked in the program how to do teacher education well. One of the main purposes of having a teacher education program in a research university is the preparation of teacher educators. The teacher education programs in research universities need to be cutting edge, experimental, pushing the boundaries, so that the next generation of teacher educators moves things forward. It was very stimulating at Wisconsin in the sense that we were always working on something new in the program, trying to make it better. I’ve learned a lot [at Madison] over the years.

Well we are certainly eager to welcome you as the director of the Teacher Education Program at the University of Washington College of Education.  What do you hope to accomplish in this role?

I see myself continuing along the same lines that I’ve been working at Wisconsin. I‘ve been an evaluator of the UW Teachers for a New Era project for the past three years, so I know a lot about what is going on in teacher education at UW. This work is very compatible with my interests, such as connecting the preparation more closely with schools and being able to prepare teachers who are able to learn in and from their practice. As schools help us prepare teachers, we also need to help the schools do their job of educating students. I also believe that the community, the people who send their kids to public schools, have a voice in the process. Community-based learning is now a part of the UW elementary program.

Also, UW faculty have engaged in various forms of  “mediated instruction”, where the teacher educators who teach methods courses on campus are deliberately connecting this work more closely to the complexities of teaching in urban schools. The UW also has an increased focus on high poverty urban schools which is exactly what I’m interested in working on. The situation in Washington offers some new and exciting opportunities for me. My role as the director of teacher education will be to work as part of a team of school and university-based teacher educators to continue offering first-rate programs that prepare teachers to educate all students in Washington’s schools.

Many of our readers are familiar with the recent redesign of the College of Education’s Teacher Education Program. Can you tell us what you believe to be the most pressing issues facing teacher education today?

UW has been working in recent years on estabishing the idea that teacher education is a university wide responsibility. For the last six years, I’ve also been working at UW-Madison on this issue. We have tried to rethink the types of arts and science courses that students need to have to be effective teachers of various school subjects. I know that arts and science faculty are very engaged in this type of work at UW. . Universities need to take responsibility as a whole for high quality teacher education, particularly at public universities like Washington or Wisconsin. Public universities must contribute to the betterment of public education in their state as a central part of their mission. One piece of this is the preparation of teachers for P-12. It is in the interest of universities to be engaged in this work because those individuals whom we prepare as teachers will be educating the pupils that will be our students in the future. The university as a whole is affected by the quality of public education as is the state’s economy and overall well being. In Washington, the UW as a whole is taking responsibility for the preparation of teachers. While this all institution commitment is not that common, it’s a critical piece that needs to be present in a high quality teacher education program.

Another issue is the relationship between schools, the larger community, and teacher education. Increasingly there are teacher education programs in the U.S. that are run by school districts, state departments, and for-profit  companies that sometimes provide very little preparation before teachers take full responsibility for classrooms. College and university-based teacher education needs to be closely connected to schools and communities and draw on the expertise within them to educate teachers. Universities have been disconnected nationally from the everyday concerns of schools, and mediated instruction, support for new teachers, and a number of the initiatives at UW in recent years are helping to define a new and more relevant direction for teacher education nationally.

 There also needs to be more adequate investment on the part of the states and university systems into teacher education. Teachers in may parts of the country spend a lot of time working with student teachers or interns in addition to their full-time jobs, and they usually aren’t compensated very well for this important work. Furthermore, the reward system in higher education does not encourage faculty to engage in work with schools. Its been a challenge to develop connectedness and the relevancy of the university in relation to public education. If this isn’t dealt with nationally, it is  doubtful in my mind that colleges of education will be involved in teacher education much longer. The UW College of Education is trying to change that dynamic by connecting in meaningful ways with  schools and communities.

Your most recent book is titled Teacher Education and the Struggle for Social Justice (Routledge, April 2009). Why is the issue of social justice so important for teacher education and education in general?

It is really important for the country because of the gaps that exist in the quality of education available to different students. In a democratic society, this is inexcusable. The gaps are in part related to inequitable distribution of high quality teachers. And, as Jonathan Kozol has written, different amounts of money are spent on the education of students in different school districts. In many ways, schools have become more segregated than they were when the civil rights movement began. Its important for our nation that teachers are prepared to go into public schools with the focus of providing the same high quality education to all students no matter what background they come from. This requires action in classrooms and beyond classrooms. Factors like access to health care, nutritious food, housing, jobs that pay a living wage, etc. affect the quality of learning. These issues can’t be completely solved within the classroom but teachers have an important contribution to make to the broader struggle for a more just and humane society. It’s important to the future of our democratic nation. We really need to focus on improving the quality of schooling for those kids who aren’t getting a high quality education currently.

My book includes a variety of different essays about aspects of this issue and different debates about how to address the problem.. It includes a  broader analysis of the landscape of public education in the U.S as well as my views on the direction that we need to take in educating teachers for our public schools.

Last spring, you were elected to the National Academy of Education. Many of your colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison were members and, at the University of Washington, you will be joining fellow members John Bransford and James A. Banks.  Can you tell us about the your role with the National Academy of Education?

One of the things the Academy does, is to form task forces to address major issues and problems. Before I was elected to the Academy, I spent four years on an Academy task force that John Bransford co-chaired with Linda Darling-Hammond. This committee analyzed the state of teacher education in the U.S. and made recommendations for improving it. Several books and many public presentations about the knowledge base for teacher education came out of this work. 

My first annual meeting will be next fall, and I suspect that I’ll continue my involvement in the area of teacher education as well as with other issues that are critical to the future of public education.

We’ve talked quite a bit about your professional role. Can you tell us what you enjoy in your personal time or leisure time?

I don’t have much leisure right now with our move to Seattle! I like to go camping and hiking. I try to read  novels and other non-fiction books  in addition to all of the reading that I have to do regularly to keep up in my field. I do most of the cooking at home now and I’m trying to improve my cooking . My wife, Andrea, writes a vegan food blog, Andrea’s Easy Vegan Cooking. Right now I’m apprenticing – I use her recipes and I also take cooking classes and I generally try to pay more attention to what I am doing when I am making a meal so that people enjoy it. I also have taken yoga and meditation classes. But I mainly like to just get outside and walk, and be in the outdoors.

You’ll find some great opportunities for that in Seattle! We look forward to seeing you here soon.

September 2009  |  Return to issue home

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