Monday, October 23, 2006

Three Arguments for the Value of Educational Foundations

What we need is not an explicit argument for why Foundations skills are unique; rather, we need an argument as to why they are relevant to the training of teachers

Craig Cunningham made this nice point in the comments thread of my original posting. So I thought this deserved its own post and thread. I want to argue (this argument is based on my introductory essay for a theme issue I edited) that the foundations field can be defended in educator preparation in three distinctive ways: the “liberal arts answer,” the “cultural competence answer,” and the “teacher retention answer.”

The “Liberal Arts” answer is that teaching is a complex practice, part science and part art, that requires our students to think carefully and critically about socially consequential, culturally saturated, politically volatile, and existentially defining issues within the sphere of education. The goal, here using Dewey’s terminology on freedom, is to enlarge our range of actions and thoughts. The “Liberal Arts” answer, much like the liberal arts themselves in higher education, is about fostering productive habits of mind—rigorous attention to detail, critical questioning of assumptions, respect for good data, and logical arguments—through engaging specific educational issues. Eric Bredo has nicely articulated this as avoiding errors of conceptualization. The “Cultural Competence” answer (and the one most referred to by educational policy documents) is that future educators must gain cultural competence. This answer references the “demographic imperative”: the ever growing diversity of the U.S. population; the racial and ethnic gap between youth and an overwhelmingly white teaching force; and the stark and persistent economic, social, and educational gaps between dominant and nondominant youth. The “Teacher Retention” answer indexes the “crisis” rhetoric in educational policy concerning forthcoming teacher shortages. Yet recent research by Richard Ingersoll and others has shown that teacher attrition, rather than teacher recruitment, is at the heart of contemporary teacher shortages. Over 200,000 teachers a year permanently leave the classroom. The attrition rate is much higher in poor schools than in wealthier ones and among new teachers compared to veteran teachers. In fact, almost 50% of new teachers leave within their first five years; recent data by ACORN has shown that in some urban schools the one-year attrition rate can be as high as 40%. While a host of reasons account for such turnover (retirement, job dissatisfaction, other career options, etc.), Ingersoll has argued that fundamentally, “school staffing problems are rooted in the way schools are organized and the way the teaching occupation is treated.” Teachers leave because they must deal with substantial paperwork, large teaching workloads, and sole responsibility for student misbehavior and discipline in return for average remuneration and with minimal decision-making influence. Such a structural setup of immense responsibility with little authority is prime fodder for teacher burnout. This is especially true in challenging work environments associated with poorer-resourced schools and populated by nondominant youth. Put otherwise, new teachers are not prepared for the bureaucratic and organizational features of an institution charged with the socialization and stratification of 90% of America’s youth. Such features include, among others, the isolation of teachers, the pervasiveness of a hidden curriculum of conformity, the loose coupling of decision making, the contradictory practices of conflicting goals, and the dominance of a calcified grammar of schooling. Because new teachers do not “get it” they invariably blame themselves or their students when things go awry. These are all issues that social foundations can and does address.

I do not claim that these three answers are unique or definitive. They have been articulated in a multitude of ways with myriad permutations. My goal here has simply been to develop a typology of these permutations that speak to and in the policy language games currently in play. It is to suggest that there are clear and concise arguments for why foundations has a role to play in educator preparation.


A. G. Rud said...

This post is excellent and helpful in broadly conceptualizing the role of foundations.

There is lots to unpack here, but I have one suggestion for broadening the discussion. Many foundations scholars are immediate colleagues of leadership professors, not teacher educators. Here at Purdue my subsection, called a "program area," of the Educational Studies department is Educational Leadership and Cultural Foundations. There is an entire department with just that name at UNC Greensboro, and there must be more examples.

So, let us think about how foundations can be part of leadership preparation. I am talking more specifically and in a nuts and bolts way than "all teachers are leaders" and so forth. I am thinking about the preservice preparation of P-12 principals and superintendents, with higher ed leadership too(higher ed leadership was just recently gutted at Purdue, so I am not specifically concerned with that in my case, though more broadly I am).

Aside: I do realize that "culturally" at least, foundations scholars often feel more attuned to teachers than principals and superintendents.

Anonymous said...

In the first day of all my undergraduate classes, I explain that there are different types of courses they'll take. Many are how-to courses, with psychological questions about what's in a student's mind and how students learn. Social foundations is different, I explain, because the field is about different questions: what-for and what-if, with very different non-psychological questions.

Occasionally I use the following analogy: when I was 12 or 13, I assumed that the hardest part of driving a car was physical coordination: keeping the foot on the acceleration pedal while you're turning the wheel, looking at the road while occasionally glancing at the speedometer—and, of course, I realized that wasn't the hardest part of driving. At this point, my students usually chime in with something like, watching around you! Methods courses tell you how to do the physical coordination bit. Social foundations shows you how to look around you so you don't end up crashing (or the educational equivalent).

Dan W. Butin said...

A.G., I think you are exactly right that we must look across all educator preparation-teachers, principals, and central administration. It is here, though, (and this is indexing Sherman's point) that foundations is least appreciated because it seemingly has less to offer in the day-to-day world of schools. The way I think about it is that most eductaion courses are "downstream" endeavors in that they seemingly help one to move to the goal. Foundations, on the other hand, is "upstream" in that it forces one to confront the implicit assumptions of one's basic presuppositions, such as what it even means to learn or teach. The problem of course is that very few of us like to be told that we started out with the wrong questions that were focused on the wrong goals and with the wrong methodology. Yet (and this is the metaphor that always works for me) if we think about target practice we can all understand that small errors at five yards become immense errors at one hundred yards. So when most of us walk around thinking about education in the moment (as Sherman noted in his most recent entry) our errors of conceptualization don't seem to matter much. But when this error is compounded across 55 million students, 3.5 million teachers, and 120,000 schools, the errors become large indeed.

Craig A. Cunningham said...

I am intrigued by these two metaphors (given by Sherman and Dan) for the role of foundations in teacher (and leadership) education. Sherman talks about foundations helping a driver to pay attention to "what's around you" so that you don't crash. Dan talks about foundations as an "upstream" endeavor that helps us to focus in on small errors that may be insignificant on a personal level but become serious on a social level.

The two metaphors both point us toward the context of our practices; the first, on the social, political, and cultural contexts; and the second, on the philosophical and historical contexts. If we take the metaphors seriously, we see that if we don't pay attention to the former, then unobserved "objects" or forces will come suddenly into our path and throw us off course (even if our driving is point-on). This, it seems to me, is the part of foundations that has been generally accepted as critical for teacher education; that is, understanding how cultural, ethnic, familial, and other contextual factors can seriously affect the success of what is done in the classroom.

The second metaphor, it seems to me, is much less accepted these days, and I think it has to do with (1) assessment methods that cause us to pay attention ONLY to teachers' effects on individual students achievement (as opposed to the impact on society as a whole) and (2) a generally anti-theoretical attitude toward educational purposes exemplified in the growing tendency to see schools in terms of business processes and structures. Just as businesses (increasingly) pay attention only to the profit to shareholders (and little to the social consequences of their work, especially the long-term consequences), the attention to watching the effect of teacher work on individual achievement is like focusing on the road right in front of the car instead of paying attention to the larger environment.

So I find these metaphors fruitful ones, both in their differences and in the things they help us to pay attention to in combination. Finally, they lead me to ask, where in contemporary educational policy and practice does anyone pay attention to the long-term consequences of what teachers (and the system of which they are a part--including people like the contributors to this blog) do? That, it seems to me, is the special function of foundations as attention to the possible ways our conceptualization errors will play out in the future of our society.

Dan W. Butin said...


Nice points. To your last question: “Finally, they lead me to ask, where in contemporary educational policy and practice does anyone pay attention to the long-term consequences of what teachers do?”, the answer is: NOWHERE. I did a study a couple of years ago (accessible here: which was a content analysis of 10 major policy reports from the introduction of NCLB through 2004. I found that foundations-type issues were explicitly addressed in just four sentences out of 224 pages. That’s it. The fascinating thing, though, is that much of the policy language games being played reference issues that foundations scholars should obviously be a part of: issues of equity, diversity, and schools as bureaucratic organizations. Yet there is no formal mechanism that I am aware of (policy-focused organization, think tank, etc.) by which to do so.

teacherken said...

Just a caution. I am not sure what is meant by long-term effects of teachers. I will note rthatg William Sanders claims that he could trace teacher effects for 3 years out using his proprietary TVAAS, a value-added assessment approach that was a black box. I will note that when two outside auditors mandated by the TN state auditor examined his system (and not necessarly its internals) a few years ago, both basically said that his claim of seeing effects three years out was not supported. I am quite pressed for time, but if necessary I can dig through my study and find the citations - I'm pretty sure I still have copies of the reports from both outside evaluators.

Craig A. Cunningham said...

But Ken, doesn't this response fall into the trap of (again) looking only to the effect of teachers' practices on individual students? I'm asking us to think about the effects of a system of practices on the many systems in society.

A. G. Rud said...

Long term effects of teachers are attested to in numerous and ordinary ways, in testimonials, in letters students write to their teachers after years, in the words and gestures we all may use in our own teaching (my fifth grade teacher, my mother; my major professor; the charismatic college philosophy professor who went from positivistic ethics to Socrates to Freud and Derrida, and finally lost his mind. So I think that teacher effects are simple and ordinary, but only so because we all have experienced them.

But what are the effects that we foundations scholars have on our *undergraduate* students? I have a pretty good sense of the effects I have on my graduate students. But I don't have a firm sense of my influence on the 125 or so teacher education students I have this semester.

A. G. Rud said...

Just saw Craig's response as I entered my above response. I leaned toward individualism and now see we are talking about the systematic. Back to thinking this one over...but I still like my response above!

Dan W. Butin said...

Marilyn Cochran-Smith has, to my mind, one of the best thought-through responses to this issue of how to grapple with what we mean by "outcomes." In 2001 she published a great piece in EPAA( entitled "Constructing Outcomes in Teacher Education:
Policy, Practice and Pitfalls" where she showed that there are three major ways to think about outcomes (and here I am cutting from her abstract):

"Then I identify and analyze three major "takes" on the outcomes question in teacher education—outcomes as the long-term or general impacts of teacher education, outcomes as teacher candidates' scores on high stakes teacher tests, and outcomes as the professional performances of teacher candidates, particularly their demonstrated ability to influence student learning."

One of her major points is that by positioning all our focus on student outcomes forces us to miss a heck of a lot more that is just as important in terms of outcomes that are not as easily measurable or politically sexy (e.g., teacher growth, school culture and climate, etc.).

This speaks directly, I think, to TeacherKen's point. Long-term "proof" of student outcomes may be ephemeral (and are I would argue impossible given the wickedly complex methodological problems), but that in no way undercuts the argument that foundations or other relevant requirements (e.g., student-teaching practicum) don't have long-term "latent value."