Vanderbilt Peabody’s Dean Camilla Benbow:

Shaping future educators

08/09/2011  |  Stephen Murphy Editor-in-Chief
SEEN Interview

Camilla Benbow, Dean of Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development, talks about the role of the Education School in shaping the future of education.

SEEN Magazine: Peabody College has been ranked #1 for graduate education for the third consecutive year. What do you think makes Peabody stand out among your peers? What makes the school unique?

Dean Benbow: Relative to many of our peers, our small size means that our graduate and professional students benefit from strong mentoring relationships with faculty. And our faculty is among the best in the nation, with a history of national excellence in areas of special education, K-12 and higher education leadership, and teaching and learning—as well as psychology, human development, and community studies.



Another distinguishing factor is the opportunity to be involved with research, which means that our students benefit from knowledge discovery. They’re right at the forefront of what’s happening in the field.


Finally, as a private institution, Vanderbilt offers outstanding resources, including financial aid, that facilitate our students’ academic success as well as their satisfaction with their experience.


SM: We’re talking about teacher retention in this issue. Why do you think great teachers leave the profession and how do you think we can retain top talent in the teaching profession? How can you prepare new teachers for the realities of being in a classroom?


Dean Benbow: This a very complex issue and you cannot isolate only a few factors. It’s a problem that needs to be approached on many fronts. But I would point to the fact that many teacher preparation programs don’t offer future teachers as much clinical training as they ought to receive — especially training in high-needs schools; that districts are by and large not as effective as they might be at teacher induction and professional development; that teachers are generally under-compensated and specific individual excellence isn’t rewarded; and that the policy contexts in which teachers work are being constantly revised in ways that are sometimes contrary to research evidence. Add in hostile politicians and a cynical public and you have a recipe for professional unhappiness.


That said, I also think that more of our nation’s top universities need to get involved with education. It is too important to the well-being of our society. Deeper involvement by our leading universities would send a signal that this is valuable work and would also meet a demand for outstanding teacher candidates.


SM: Teachers have taken a lot of hits in the past year. Does the current environment impact recruiting for your programs? How do you encourage the best and brightest to enter the teaching profession?


Dean Benbow: At Peabody, we have actually been seeing more interest from better students. Some of that may be attributable to our high ranking, and some may be due to recent economic factors. But in general, we have been receiving inquiries from students with historically high test scores and very interesting, often idealistic backgrounds. Many of the students we have been enrolling want to be change agents in the field. A number of them are quite entrepreneurial and want to do things like teach in or lead charter schools.


SM: What do you think it takes to make someone a great teacher? Are great teachers born or made?


Dean Benbow: Excellence in any field cannot depend solely on natural talent. Great teachers are teachers who have taken the time to develop a deep understanding of how students learn. And they have engaged with the profession enough to be reflective about their practice, to know how to understand the data that comes from assessments, and to have the ability to change teaching strategies to meet the needs of their students. They have full command of an array of teaching skills that they deploy in the service of deep content knowledge that they must also hold.


Teacher preparation programs can do some of these things both in terms of instilling pedagogical and content knowledge, but again, it takes actual classroom practice and strong mentoring to make a really great teacher.


SM: Tying teacher pay to student scores on standardized tests has been a hot topic in education for some time now, and I know Peabody has done a lot of research on the topic — what are your opinions? Do you think current assessments do a good job of measuring teacher effectiveness? How can they be improved?


Dean Benbow: Our National Center on Performance Incentives conducted a three-year scientific experiment in Nashville in which we paid teachers substantial bonuses based on student test scores. And we found that bonuses alone did not lead to improved scores. That’s not to say that some other combination of incentives might not work, and we are certainly looking at those, as well.


But there’s a fundamental problem here and that’s the fact that many of the state tests that are being considered as a means of evaluating teacher performance were never designed to do that. Tests that measure student performance tell you about students; they don’t necessarily tell you about teachers. And there are so many other factors that also need to be considered: socioeconomic factors; past teachers; school settings and school leaders. The list of variables could go on and on.


There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with expecting teachers, as you would expect any other professional, to be accountable for their performance. But assessing that performance is fraught with difficulty and there is strong risk that the measurements being proposed are simplistic. This will take time to figure out how to do right, and that’s an area where educational researchers can help.


SM: In April 2010, you testified before the Senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor & Pensions) Committee regarding NCLB. Some NCLB’s critics say that it punishes (by withholding funds from) those schools that need the most help. What are your thoughts on that?


Dean Benbow:  What I tried to emphasize to the Senate HELP committee was the important role that education schools continue to play in preparing more than 85 percent of the nation’s teachers, in conducting the scientific research that should inform education policy, and in helping to design means for evaluating prospective teachers and school leaders. I also discussed the importance of education schools partnering with local districts to meet school needs and support innovation—especially in the STEM areas: science, technology, engineering and math.


Since then, Congress has made little, if any, progress, on NCLB’s reauthorization, and Secretary Duncan appears to be proceeding with the reform agenda basically laid out in Race to the Top.


Sooner or later Congress will need to weigh in. We still need NCLB (ESEA), probably in a less punitive form, to ensure educational equality as well as strong federal funding for teacher preparation.


SM: You have a strong background in STEM education – what do you think are the best ways to encourage student interest in STEM topics?


Dean Benbow:  Unfortunately, we continue to send very mixed messages when it comes to subjects like math and science. On the one hand, we all know the country needs STEM innovators and producers to remain economically successful. On the other hand, the culture tells students—often through their own parents or teachers—that these subjects are too hard, or that you have to have a natural aptitude to be successful in learning them. It certainly is possible to identify talent early on, but it’s far more important to offer opportunities for learning the right material at the right time to all students, and to encourage them to understand that effort is just as important as ability.


I serve on the National Science Board. Last year we released a report that offered three recommendations to develop STEM innovators: we have to provide opportunities for excellence, we have to cast a wide net, and we need to create a supportive ecosystem. We do the first by offering curricula that challenge students in the right ways at the right times, while allowing them to develop a sense of mastery and to follow where their curiosity leads them. We do the second by tapping pools of talent that often are ignored, including minority students and those who are economically disadvantaged, as well as students with spatial intelligence, which tends to be overlooked. And the third, as I say, involves shifting the culture in ways that create expectations for success and that celebrate students who excel in STEM areas.


SM: What is the role of the education school in reforming education in the US?


Dean Benbow:  First, by far, education schools continue to educate almost all new teachers entering the profession. Alternative certification programs are leading interesting, innovative, and often successful efforts, but they do not have the capacity that resides in education schools. Education schools, of necessity, must be part of the solution.


Many education schools, although not all, have become much more effective at producing teachers with the right combinations of content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and clinical experience. We need to continue to refine and improve our curricula as we learn more about what works in education.


Research clearly is a large part of what we bring to the table. At Vanderbilt, for example, we have three federally-funded national centers on school choice, performance incentives, and scaling up effective schools. What you get when you really look at the evidence are not wholesale endorsements of one reform or another, but nuanced investigations that often show both positive and negative outcomes. Our role is to influence public discussion by offering the evidence, not opinion. And we apply rigorous standards to the research we conduct across the board, from special education to psychology.


SM: There has been a lot of talk about charter schools in the context of education reform, yet some studies have shown that charter schools as a whole don’t necessarily perform better than traditional public schools. What is your take on the emphasis placed on charter schools?


Dean Benbow:  Well, certainly, I’m a big proponent of charter schools. I think they provide an an opportunity to experiment and innovate in trying new models. And when you are experimenting and innovating, some of those new ideas don’t work. That’s the whole point of a charter school – to be able to try out something new and different. So you’d expect that some of the things they are doing would not work.


What we need to move on to is to be able to ask the questions of when does it work?, why does it work?, under what conditions? For both charter schools and public schools let’s look at the ones that are doing really well, the ones that are successful and let’s try to understand why they are successful and for whom. What was it about them that made them successful? It’s not just about charter schools versus public schools — there are a lot of nuances we need to consider. What works in one place and one social setting, will likely not work in very different social setting.


The social context of education is so important and you’ve just got to take that context into consideration. And that makes the work a lot harder, a lot more complicated and complex. It just isn’t easy. We have to tailor of educational interventions to make sure they fit the cultural context but that time consuming work is expensive.


SM: What are the best ways to assess student performance and student intelligence?


Dean Benbow: The exact nature of intelligence will probably always be subject to debate, in part because it’s a construct. Practically speaking, I think you probably have to distinguish between things like verbal, mathematical, or spatial intelligence. Well-constructed assessments can give you a snapshot of knowledge about a particular topic at a particular moment in time, including the ability to perform certain operations. Assessments have utility which gains in value as more are conducted over time. These formative assessments really do become valuable to teachers monitoring student progress and learning gains. Our experience with the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth suggests that certain tests like the SAT can be helpful in identifying talent and have long-term predictive value.


SM: I’ve heard you say that at Vanderbilt Peabody, you emphasize real world experiences for undergraduates. How do you accomplish that?


Dean Benbow:  Peabody’s degree programs, whether intended for undergraduates or graduates, all have in a common an approach that emphasizes practice as well as theory. In our teacher licensure programs, students spend hundreds of hours in a variety of school settings, beginning as early as their freshman year. Our undergraduate major in human and organizational development prominently includes a full-semester capstone internship experience in companies or organizations in select cities across the country and even London. The projects students execute for these organizations are often quite significant. We believe one of the hallmarks of the Peabody experience is the way our programs move students from theory to practice.


SM: This past year, Peabody introduced a new Master’s Program for teaching & learning in urban schools. How did that go? What were some of the lessons learned from the pilot year?


Dean Benbow: This program represents a kind of partnership I think education schools can be doing successfully with their local peers, and we are pleased with how the first year went. First, it meets a need in critical subject areas—science, math and literacy. Second, the program offers rich educational content that goes beyond most undergraduate teacher preparation, and it makes that learning real because the students have opportunities to practice it in the classroom every day as full time-teachers.


One thing we were not entirely prepared for was the way other teachers in the schools would seek out our expertise when our faculty members were on site in the schools. And that was a very pleasant surprise.


SM: Any final thoughts for our educators?


Dean Benbow:  Becoming a teacher you want to create positive change, you want to work with kids and you want to be a positive force — you can make a positive difference in the lives of kids, and you hope that the kids you work with will go on and be better because of your interactions with them.


And that’s the reward — It’s hard work, but the rewards are: Can I make a difference? Have I been able to open some doors for somebody? Have I been able to push somebody along or spark an interest in someone that wasn’t there before that enabled them to go on and do great things.? Those are the things that are so satisfying. I think that teachers are drawn to the classroom because they hope that they can make a difference in the lives of people.


In our classrooms today, we need to look at the balance of all the things we try to accomplish — teachers are asked to do an awful lot — but I don’t think we should lose sight of the fact that in addition to teaching students and making sure their achievement levels are high, teachers can also be a source of inspiration for kids that help them do great things.

Find out more about Camilla Benbow and her leadership
at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College 

Comments & Ratings

  9/17/2011 8:31:10 AM
Patrick e. Phoebus, M.Ed 

New Comment 
Dean Benbow displays a unique understanding of the challenges facing educators. I appreciate her genuine approach to resolving these issues.