Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Death or Rebirth of Foundations? Looking Beyond Teacher Education Service Courses

The elimination of foundations as a requirement has really already happened in my state of Wisconsin, although in a more subtle way. Instead of actively eliminating the requirement for foundations, the state has instead eliminated requirements and created a set of standards for certification of teacher ed programs. And these standards do not really address “foundations” issues.

Even if foundations is not eliminated, it often seems to be increasingly absorbed, generally by C&I departments. Non-foundations people often believe that lots of faculty can teach "that stuff," and, anyway, when we teach it, I sometimes hear, we generally don't relate it well enough to practice.

This absorption of foundations by C&I (and others) is partly driven by the increasingly precarious budgets of our public universities. We are in a new world than we were even a decade ago. Departments must increasingly fight for their piece of an ever-shrinking pie. The old days, when other departments would be generous to others are long gone--at least at my university this often seems to be the case. The point, here, is not that non-foundations people completely disregard our usefulness. Instead, given a wide range of competing demands, it is, pragmatically, difficult--even for me, at times--to see why we deserve a faculty line more than, for example, early childhood or exceptional education. This is especially true with more “esoteric” fields like philosophy of education. Foundations faculty will not be completely eliminated—especially in major research universities--but we will certainly continue to be marginalized.

We can’t survive without service classes—but I am increasingly convinced that a focus only on service classes is a losing strategy. The fact is that, in the current climate, nothing succeeds like success. If you want a faculty line, you'd better be able to show that you can bring in either the research $ or the enrollment to support it. Fighting for the shrinking scraps of service classes from other departments in this environment is a losing proposition, since the only enrollment we can promise is enrollment that we "take" from "them."

We need to act more proactively. In fact, I think we generally play down our strengths. At my university, our Cultural Foundations of Education Masters program is _the only graduate program in the school that has seen a significant increase in enrollment_ over the last year. Let me say that again: Foundations in my school is a growth industry!

This was not always the case. A few years ago, our classes were almost empty. We realized that if we did not quickly turn our enrollment numbers around, we would quickly be put on the chopping block. And so we began a focused PR campaign. We created flyers that emphasized our strengths, and focused on areas where we had a competitive advantage. In part because we also have an undergraduate program in Community Education, only about 1/3 of our Masters students are actually certified teachers. The rest come from government, community organizations, and a diverse range of other places. So we sent flyers to churches and to government offices and community organizations.

At the same time, we developed a specialization in Social Foundations of Education, which has proved popular. And we developed a specialization in Community Education in our Masters program (adding only a couple of classes and reaching out to other departments on campus) to be more attractive to youth workers and other non-profit staff who “educate” outside of schools.

The fact is that graduate work in foundations is extremely attractive to a wide range of potential students. At our best, we provide a kind of interim space where practice and theory come together in unique ways. Students will rarely find this in the Literature, Science, or Arts departments, which often downplay the importance of practice. Many non-teachers are very interested in education, but not necessarily in the more pragmatic methods-based approach of C&I. At the same time, many teachers are tired of what may seem like the same old classes they took as undergrads. They want something that will stretch their minds in different ways. Others just need/want a Masters degree, and because it doesn't really matter what it is, they find their way to us as the most interesting and feasible option. In fact, people in social service positions not infrequently end up in our program instead of social work because ours is so much easier to complete and, again, because it stresses analysis over practical training. Foundations also often attracts students from oppressed groups who would like to examine issues of inequality, race, ethnicity, class, etc., in more detail than C&I can do given their wider array of concerns. Frankly, the non-teachers in my courses are often the most challenging and refreshing.

In my department, we argue that we provide not answers but new ways of asking questions. We provide an understanding of the social context in which education takes place, and give people the understanding they need to develop their own strategies in response to the challenges they encounter. And, clearly, this argument has proved convincing to a wide range of students.

I also believe, and I think students have found, that a Masters in foundations is one of the best preparations for doctoral work.

Another reason our program is attractive is because, since we don't have to meet any licensure or other requirements, we are able to keep the number of credits to a minimum as well as the requirements. Aside from our 4 core courses (philosophy, sociology, history, and research (yes-philosophy is a required class in our department), students can basically take what they want. And all our classes are offered in the evening, making them accessible to working adults. Students interested in social work, for example, frequently end up taking our Masters program instead because it is much easier to complete.

My department will at least survive--and hopefully continue to flourish--because we have developed an independent enrollment base that the rest of the school increasingly depends on. And we are constantly trying to figure out how to attract an even broader base of students. In my state, the contribution of our foundations graduate programs to the bottom line $ of the school is especially evident because of changing requirements that no longer require teachers to collect graduate credits to maintain their certification, contributing to enrollment drops across the school.

Our tendency to despair, at times, may actually play into a general sense that our time has come and gone. Right now, at most universities, "they" don't need "us." From a budgetary and enrollment standpoint, this often seems an inescapable truth to harried
administrators and threatened faculty in other departments that no amount of thoughtful analysis will, I think, be able to overcome. I hope that foundations will be able to reclaim its place in education, but we need to survive until that happens. Until we can show, in concrete, $ based ways that "they" do need "us," we will continue to be in danger.

(One way to do this, by the way (although my department doesn't), is to require that a course or two in our degree programs come from other SOE departments, so that increases in foundations enrollment translate directly into increased enrollment for other departments. In this way, they end up providing "service" courses to us, and become dependent on us in the same way that we are usually dependent upon them. The day a C&I department gets a faculty line specifically to support a degree in foundations will be the day that we become indispensable, again.)

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