When Peter Cookson Jr., president of Teachers College Innovations at Columbia University, looked through the window of a public school classroom in the South Bronx, he did not see jungle gyms, baseball fields, or picnic benches. Instead, his gaze met the barbed wire that framed a prison across from the school.
“I think that speaks worlds,” Cookson said.
Speaking at Dwight Hall on Friday, Cookson addressed a group of approximately 20 students about school choice. His talk was the third installment of Dwight Hall’s new Intersections speaker series. The invited speakers will cover a wide range of educational policy issues this semester.
The deplorable state of many public schools, exemplified by the one Cookson visited in the Bronx, has fueled recent support for vouchers and charter schools. But Cookson said he believes such educational alternatives will not improve the American public school system.
“I have a hard time believing that deregulating the system is the strong and smart way of going about it,” Cookson said.
In addition to founding the Center for Educational Outreach and Innovation at Teachers College, Cookson has taught at both public and private schools and published several books about education, including “School Choice: The Struggle for the Soul of American Education.”
“I think the reason I’m in sociology of education is because I’ve either gone to or been kicked out of every kind of school,” Cookson said.
Cookson dismissed claims that school choice plans result in any true academic improvement. Rather, Cookson said, vouchers and charter schools tend to further stratify a system already rife with economic and geographical divisions.
Cookson said he supports change on a more fundamental level.
“We need dynamic new curricula and a talented teacher core,” he said. “We need to create a generation of school teachers different than the generation that preceded them.”
At Teachers College Innovations, a nonprofit organization, Cookson is attempting to do just that. TC Innovations works with new teachers across the country through small classes and their Web site to provide support and growth opportunities.
Cookson said the program works because it “breaks down the isolation of the classroom” by creating a setting in which teachers, protected from the school administration, can talk about anything.
“It’s grassroots; it’s relevant,” he said. “The teacher is the star.”
Erin Scharff ’04, a member of the Dwight Hall Executive Committee and the Social Justice Network liaison, said Cookson’s talk provided a welcome chance to think about her own service in local education.
“Dwight Hall does a lot of work in public schools, and this year we are finally talking about it,” Scharff said. “I liked the chance to think about how we can get involved.”
Jack Gillette, director of Yale’s Teacher Preparation Program, said he agreed with Cookson’s opinion about school choice plans.
“[Cookson] comes from the progressive critique of some of the choice movements, and I think that it’s accurate,” Gillette said.
After discussing education policies for nearly 90 minutes, Cookson ended his speech with a universal message for his audience.
“Take this opportunity to become as profoundly educated as you can,” he said. “That’s really what we need — people who love learning.”
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