Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Educating Teachers

I am new to The Wall but not new to education and its social foundations. Since 1985, I have devoted enormous amounts of time and energy to the education of teachers. I use the term “education” (rather than training or even preparation) to emphasize one critical point about teaching at any level: one must be broadly and deeply educated to teach well. It matters not if one is teaching second graders, sophomores in high school, seniors in college or adolescents in Sunday school.

The precise nature of that education has generated lots of heat and occasional light over the past century. Perhaps the most astute commentary about the effort to improve teacher education was offered by former Harvard President James Bryant Conant when he called the issue “a power struggle among professors.” (The Education of American Teachers, 1963). It remains a power struggle. In today’s iteration, the debate seems to pit teacher unions and ed schools (“the education establishment” bent solely on maintaining their monopoly) against “reformers” operating out of institutions like the Fordham Foundation (who seek to bring sense, rigor, and of course “choice” to teacher education). That characterization is, of course, too simple.

At a minimum, I’d argue, a teacher should understand some body of knowledge quite well and, moreover, understand how that body of knowledge crosses paths, overlaps and leavens other bodies of knowledge. A teacher should know quite a lot about human behavior, seen in its individual, social and cultural faces. And that teacher should recognize that education is a political act, that schools of any kind embody political and economic values, serve political and economic purposes and have political and economic ramifications. (By the way, it’s not “bad” that education is a political act; it just is. It is only bad if we fool ourselves into thinking our own motives and understanding are pure, while the motives of others are political.)

I find it helpful to think about education as human interaction with two aspects -- one academic (what’s worth knowing), one moral (what’s worth doing). It is, I think, possible to view any educational scenario from either of these standpoints. It is not so easy – given the limitations of human attention and the tendency to categorize -- to recognize both at one and the same moment. But it is in fact impossible to avoid – ever – either aspect of what we do when we educate. Our impact is always both academic and moral.

I say all this not simply by way of introduction, but by way of response to an editorial by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof that appeared last week. Kristof joined the chorus of voices who maintain that teachers need no credentials (or competence) beyond “intellectual brilliance” and “personality.” He addresses a growing teacher shortage by recommending that we “relax the barriers so people can enter teaching more easily.” The barrier he has in mind is teacher certification, a function of the work that I do. I find myself grateful to Kristof who forces me to examine my lived reality as a teacher educator just as I join the merry band at The Wall.

Kristof rightly highlights the role that changing gender expectations has played in our present teacher shortage. Forty years ago, smart women who sought careers would have few options beyond teaching. Today their options seem limitless. Forty years ago, those smart women would have accepted relatively low wages, grateful to be working in a setting that challenged them intellectually, psychologically and emotionally. Today, women recognize that they can and ought to be compensated for the level of challenge a position offers. Forty years ago, women did not expect to support anyone but themselves. Today, women are often supporting a family.

The puzzle is that Kristof fails to follow his own logic. If the smart women (and men) who were teachers forty years ago have departed, both because of unattractive wages and unattractive professional constraints, then why not reconstruct a teacher’s position to make it more attractive to those with intellectual brilliance and personality? Provide teachers with the interlaced autonomy and (multi-faceted) accountability that NCLB has removed and pay them a wage that reflects the difference they make in children’s lives. Teacher education will have to change to accommodate the new reality of the teaching profession.

Instead Kristof is saying that there are brilliant, personable folks who want in and we would solve all our problems (quality and quantity) if we would just let them in. A little bit of training (such as that offered by Teach for America for instance) would focus the brilliance and personality in the right direction. Young graduates of prestigious schools and accomplished career-changers should be welcomed. (I agree with that last claim, by the way.)

The problem is that Kristof takes the other side in a false dichotomy that teacher educators have helped to construct – i.e. either teachers must be graduates of a university-based teacher preparation program or they need no particular education at all. Both positions beg the real question: how does one learn to teach?

The answer is deceptively simply but extraordinarily complicated. One learns to teach by teaching -- if one is able to see and interpret the relevant circumstances and factors, frame possible options for action, and anticipate the consequences of any particular instructional interaction. If any readers perceive a Deweyan spin on this view, you’re not imagining. It’s there.

This, by the way, is not an answer unique to teaching. One learns to practice medicine by practicing, but in the absence of background science knowledge, understanding of human development, and coaching by master practitioners it’s hard to make sense of the practice. One learns to write by writing, but without being able to recognize good writing (through reading) or having a basic skill set, it’s slow going. One learns to walk a tightrope by doing so, but doesn’t start on the high wire without a net.

So the real question is when is someone “safe to practice”? At what point do we allow a doctor or a writer or a high wire artist – or a teacher -- to ply their craft without a net? When is a brilliant person with personality going to do children more good than harm?

We are all guilty of failing to face up to that question. Teachers unions, school administrators, and policy makers join teacher educators and folks who share Mr. Kristof’s viewpoint in missing the point. The question is not whether teachers need a degree in education or not. The question is how do we structure an educational system that builds in roles and supports that let prospective teachers (preferably brilliant persons with personality!) grow in understanding of the factors, the options for action, the possible consequences – and the shared values that ultimately ground decision-making?

Universities have a role to play in the education of teachers but I’m pretty well convinced they simply can’t do it alone. Differentiated staffing and compensation probably needs to be an element in this picture. Restructured schools, collaborative teaching and learning, individualized instruction, IEPs for every student – these actions would make it possible for bright young liberal arts graduates and career changers to make a contribution to schools while learning what Alan Tom called “a moral craft.”

Nicholas Kristof is wrong when he assumes that teaching requires nothing more than good intentions, a quick wit and an agile mind. Like other professions, it is a practice. Like other professions, teaching must be learned in the presence of and with support from those who have mastered the practice. But it will not be learned in the absence of prior and simultaneous learning about some body of knowledge, about the nature of human action and interaction, and about the social and institutional contexts in which teaching and learning take place. The challenge is to create the system that does that while also safeguarding the precious time and talent of the learners entrusted to us.

I look forward to responses to this post and to the opportunity to share my (always developing) thoughts in the weeks and months to come.


A. G. Rud said...

Barb is spot on in locating the problem with so much of this "anyone can teach" rhetoric. Of course intelligence and "personality" (what a murky, unexamined term that is, Mr. Kristof)matter for effective teaching. The question is how do we go about doing more than adequate preparation for practice? What is the optimal preparation that we university educators can offer, and how does that connect up with on-the-job experience and further training?

From the time education began to emerge as a separate discipline (I prefer area, actually) with Herbart and Spencer, much has been learned about how schools operate, how children learn, how curriculum should be organized, and on endlessly. Does Mr. Kristof really think that the enormous educational establishment, exceedingly complex from university research initiatives to innovative school based practices, accreted over centuries, is irrelevant in the face of (an unexamined) proffering of intelligence and personality?

Jim Horn said...

Welcome, Barbara.

I wish I could be as sanguine about the present war on public education as James Conant was in the 1960s in referring to the curriculum wars as "a war between professors," but the stakes are too high (pun intended) to pretend that this systematic attack on public schooling is some kind of power struggle within the university.

Unlike academia where, as Kissinger noted, "university politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small," the current politics are so vicious because the stakes include a half-trillion dollars a year spent on K-12 education and the economic prize that accompanies the continued subjugation of the poor and the brown in roles of second-class economic citizenship. Thus we have the freedom-to-fail philosophy expressed in the insanity of "the same high expectations for all," whether you dodge bullets on the way home from school in Camden or whether you drive your new Mustang home from school in Colt's Neck.

Last week's op-ed against ed schools is simply one in a continuing series over the past 5 years, some paid for by ED or the White House and some offered up by salaried opiners, as we assume in Kristof's case. But whether we are talking about Armstrong Williams, George Will, or Nick Kristof, the themes have remained as constant as the objects of blame. From Schools Matter on Saturday:

Showing what he does know about children who attend Exeter, Kristof shows what he does not know about children who attend public schools, those who have all the problems and issues that children who attend Exeter don't. If teachers do not have a grounding in the historical and philosophical foundations, how will they understand how public schools came to be the neglected and demonized unfulfilled panaceas that they are? If teachers don't have an understanding of the sociological and psychological issues of children, how can they deal with the real problems that children bring to school? If teachers don't understand developmental realities and cultural needs, how can they know who their students are? If teachers don't know about special needs students, how can they meet them and address their unique needs? If teachers haven't have done extensive observations in classrooms and completed supervised student teaching, how can they know what teaching is? If teachers are not stimulated to reflect upon their own practice and their continuing education, how can we place them in the critical role as preservers of our continued democracy?

And yet, Kristof offers this lie that he has been handed:

"The idea behind teacher certification is that there are special skills that are picked up in teacher training courses — secret snake-charming skills to keep the little vipers calm. But there's no evidence this is so. On the contrary, several new programs have brought outstanding young people into teaching without putting them through conventional training programs, and those teachers have been widely hailed as first-rate.

One superb initiative for young college graduates is Teach for America, which last year had 17,000 applicants for 2,000 spots teaching in low-income schools. Among those who applied were 12 percent of Yale's senior class and 8 percent of Harvard's and Princeton's."

Nick, go to this site and read the research by Stanford professor, Linda Darling-Hammond. To whet your appetite, here is a clip form the Abstract:

"Controlling for teacher experience, degrees, and student characteristics, uncertified TFA recruits are less effective than certified teachers, and perform about as well as other uncertified teachers. TFA recruits who become certified after 2 or 3 years do about as well as other certified teachers in supporting student achievement gains; however, nearly all of them leave within three years. Teachers' effectiveness appears strongly related to the preparation they have received for teaching."

The Hidden Agenda Coming to Light

What is going on here with Kristof firing the first big gun, is that May 15 is the NCLB deadline for states to line up and tell Mrs. Spellings if they have met requirement for "highly-qualifed" teachers in every American classroom, with "highly-qualifed meaning teachers who have state certification and a major in the subject they teach in high school, or one of the big four subjects for elementary teachers. Many states will come up short, given the fact that four years was another one of those impossible NCLB targets.

We will see, however, beginning on May 11 with a National Press Club show by ABCTE, a full-scale campaign to use the imminent failure by the states to meet the deadline to argue for eliminating the need for those bulky teacher certification programs in favor of degree majors who have passed a teaching test. Get it? Create an emergency with un unrealizable goal, and then solve the problem by making teachers highly-qualified by making them less qualified.

James G. said...

I am complete agreement that teachers are underprepared to enter the classroom. I am a graduate student at DePaul University where I have been an outspoken critic of the failure of the school to "teach" me anything relevant. And when they have tried, say to discuss race, class, gender, sexuality within the context of education, it was a pale attempt which resulted in many of the students saying things like: "This is too hard." If that kind of intellecctual/academic work is too hard then those people should not be teachers.
I am a strong supporter that teacher education needs a great focus on foundations and philosophy of education. But more importantly, people going into teaching SHOULD BE WELL EDUCATED IN THEIR FIELD. That is a crisis that education faces. It has taken the wrong path at the juncture. Teachers should have masters degrees in their subject first, or at least a significant load of graduate level work. Then a practicum in teaching where you spend time in a school as an assistant for half the year and student-teacher the following half. Being in a school would provide real experience to adapt the theoretical learning to.
I'm glad that you speaking about this, but I wish more people who thought like you would be teaching teachers.

A.J. Castro said...

Marilyn Cochran-Smith (2005) summarized two major problems concerning the debate over teacher education and the policy at large: reform rhetoric and the complexity of teaching. Basically, current “reformers” who oppose the process of teacher certification speak in slogans—simplistic, reductive statements about teacher education and education in general. They make outrageous statements, such as the current system is “broken” (US DOE 2002) and reduce teaching to a bottom line: achievement via standardized testing (Hanusek 2002, Ballou & Podgursky 1998 & 2000), as if learning only manifests itself on achievement tests. Rhetoric from people like George Wills (2005) in Newsweek arguing against the role of beliefs and dispositions (and anything cognitive really) in teacher education claim a commonsense-speak, a simple-right-in-front-of-your-nose (duh!) answer.

Like the “reform” movements of the past, a crisis is being generated, but this time generating this crisis comes with real significant costs. This isn’t just report making that Berliner and Biddle (1995) described in their Manufactured Crisis. Legislation has been built around these reductive notions: learning achievement is tested achievement, knowing your content makes a person a good teacher, research is only about numbers, and if schools ran like businesses (and within a free competitive market) then they would be better. These quick-fix, easy-to-bear, slogan-like ideas are being imposed on our current system of education with equally lofty goals of 100% perfection.

The second problem facing teacher education and the fight for public awareness deals with the complex nature of teaching. Nestled within the rhetoric of reform is the “commonsense” belief that teaching is all about imparting knowledge. However, teachers know that teaching is a complex, dynamic process. Lampert (2001) discussed ways that teaching is a challenging profession: teaching is never routine, has multiple goals, involves forming relationships with diverse groups of students simultaneously, and requires to the teacher to integrate different types of knowledge (pedagogy, content, developmental, psychological, organizational, motivational, etc) to teach effectively. Now, try to create a slogan for that!

The act of teaching (students or teachers or anyone else for that matter) always exists within the context of politics. Questions of who determines what is taught, by whom, to whom, and for whose benefit always surround institutions that bear a major responsibility for regulating society in general. These “reformers” control the dialogue, the conversation at the dinner table. It is a conversation that most people, non-teacher educators, can understand and happily join in. “Can you believe it, those teachers at it again…Oh, my….”

The real issue at hand, unfortunately, involves much more than just a marketing problem. The very conception of what is legitimate knowledge for students (testing) and for scholars (scientifically-based research, research funding) is being altered and, in the process, limits what counts as legitimate discourse.

A.J. Castro,

Craig A. Cunningham said...

This (AJ Castro's comment above) is a very thoughtful and helpful overview of the problem. One question: how do those of use with more familiarity with the real issues of school reform and teacher education begin to influence the public debate in a way that finds its way into the dinnertable conversation of average Americans? (Comment also posted to

A.J. Castro said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
A.J. Castro said...

As I have elaborated in my initial post, these “reformers” have managed to direct the conversation at the dinner table by encapsulating dialogue in simplistic, reductive language. Power politics is a politics of language. It is a game that even the most prolific scholars of teacher education, the Darling-Hammond’s and Cochran-Smith’s and Kenneth Zeichner’s, can’t seem to compete in. Although popular books such as “A Good Teacher in Every Classroom” sponsored by the National Academy of Education and “Many Children Left Behind” edited by Meier and Wood have reached the bookstores, they drive little fan-fare. The reality beyond this is we must seek a different approach.

This afternoon I had lunch with colleagues and the topic of NCLB came up (and I wasn’t the one to bring it up!). A woman who worked in accounting explained how her sister, an elementary school teacher, had four students who failed the state standardized test. She was instructed to inform each student individually and felt heartbroken when one of her most hardworking students, who has a learning disability, cried profusely upon receiving the news. What was she to do?

I make reference to this conversation because it illustrates a fundamental concept of those on the “inside” versus those on the “outside.” Insiders have access to special knowledge, they are part of a greater whole, and speak with authority and legitimacy upon that situation. Outsiders approach the issue from a distant, location—much like a commentator reporting on a basketball game or (even better) the thirty-something-year-old sitting in front of the television, holding a beer, and yelling out strategies to the television as if they know better. What made this conversation unique is that inside knowledge had been introduced into the discussion. This knowledge is concrete, specific, and local. My colleagues (none of them educators) became drawn into the situation and expressed concern.

(Recap: Outside knowledge is public, simplistic, and easy to broadcast. Inside knowledge is concrete, specific, local, and, in many cases, private.)

Sounds simple? Here’s the catch: Many scholars/professors (and grad students who blog!) also exist as outsiders. We get so got up in public discourse, that we ignore the power of the every day, localized knowledge. We think we are the only insiders to teacher education and teaching.

I suggest that inside knowledge exist in at least three different communities, which overlap in many cases, but function separately and without alliance. The teacher education community finds fault with the public schools; whereas, the community of public school teachers lament the lack of parental involvement; whereas many parents and community members remain uninvited into the public schools.

I do not view it as a question of how we influence the “public debate,” but rather the private debate. This means as teacher educators we must seek alliances within these three communities. Although Robert Yinger’s (2005) recently advocated for a community-centered context to teacher education, a “whole community” including home, schools, museum, libraries, churches, and local media, I found that he did not address specific strategies for teacher educators. So I will offer a few.

For example, in a central Texas urban, school district, representatives from the local certification programs have formed an advisory group with school district officials, community leaders, and a parent advocacy group to discuss issues of induction and retention for new teachers. Through these quarterly meetings, consensus is being built around the local needs and issues for teachers and students.

In a South Texas school district, professors at the university and public school teachers have established a program to recruit high school students interested in being teachers. This area suffers from a shortage of teachers and this program attempts to promote parent involvement, volunteer activities for youth as tutors, basic instruction on pedagogy offered by university professors and public school teachers, and college preparation.

Here’s another example. Texans For Quality Assessment began as a local, central Texas organization that aligned university professors, teachers, parents, and even students to rally against the state standardized test (see Although growing to involve more central Texas cities, this inclusive organization builds heavily on insider knowledge. Here we have people speaking to policy within the context of their own schools and neighborhoods.

In my opinion, the professional development schools movement offers many possibilities for building these connections. A key component, however, must be that parents are afforded serious roles as stake-holders with real, pertinent issues of teacher education and quality.

A.J. Castro,

Craig A. Cunningham said...

Thanks for these further comments, A.J. You are welcome to participate any time in our ongoing discussions, either as an outsider (as you are now) or as an insider (which would allow you to post ont he main page of The Wall. Let me know.