Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself: The Future of Teacher Education

If it wasn’t scary enough to go trick-or-treating last night, then it is certainly scary to read two op-ed pieces which came out yesterday. (Thanks to the eduwonk for always being on top of this one.) One was by Arthur Levine and the other by Jay Mathews. Arthur Levine is pounding the pavement for his recent study; he has published nearly identical articles here and here. The key, argues Levine, is to create higher standards for education schools, accrediting committees, and state boards such that we can tame the “wild west.” This is the standards side of the debate about teacher education, which is aligned with Linda Darling Hammond’s longstanding argument that teaching is fundamentally a profession and as such analogous to the professional preparation and standards of medicine and law. See Marilyn Cochran-Smith’s nice summary of the debate (even if a little dated by now). Mathews, an education columnist for the Washington Post (he has a weekly column, “Class Struggle”), provides a seemingly neutral description of Levine’s study. He throws in contrasting perspectives, summarizes some of Levine’s main buzzwords and suggestions, and lays out the contrary side of the debate in the form of alternative licensure programs such as Teach for America. (I must take issue with his characterization of TFA as providing “minimal preparation.” Check out TFA’s summer institute and their manuals [by request from TFA]. It is pretty intense and more comprehensive than many education school programs that I have seen and been a part of. Disclosure: I worked for TFA 15 years ago.) But what Mathews is really doing is adding yet another brick in the wall of his overarching argument that education schools are out of touch and irrelevant to truly make a difference in the lives of students (especially urban youth). (See a good example of that here.)

So what’s scary about all of this? Just like Halloween, it is not the fake ghosts and goblins, but the fact that you eat way too much candy. The scary part of such arguments and attacks are not the fake problems (e.g., professors out of touch, curriculum irrelevant, etc.). For goodness sake, hospitals accidentally kill 1000,000 people a year (according to the Institute of Medicine’s conservative estimate). And the legal profession?? Do you really want to go down that path? The argument for higher standards is in general a good one, but it is a setup to presume that once we have high standards we will have great teachers. There are bad doctors and bad lawyers and there will be bad teachers. And I’m not even going to go down the path of attempting to justify standards vis-à-vis the preponderance of evidence that shows miniscule statistical support for licensure positively impacting student outcomes (see the comments thread of a previous post of mine for more discussion of the problems of basing “quality” on long-term student outcomes).

The scary part is that such attacks continue the useless “art versus science” argument about teacher education. Levine argues it is a science (=a profession). And Mathews implies it is an art that can be done with “minimal preparation.” This latter argument is one of the bedrock principles of the alternative licensure movement, allowing potential teachers to avoid educational coursework in many states (see the recent Secretary’s 5th Annual Report on Teacher Quality for the detailed numbers; I’ll be blogging about this one soon enough). So, just like yesterday’s Halloween, the argument is an either/or. Either we don’t eat candy or we eat way, way too much. And in education, it seems, either we have standards or we don’t. But this is just plain silly. Teacher education requires the opportunity to learn (coursework), the opportunity to practice (field-based practicum), and the opportunity to change (self-reflection of oneself as learner and teacher). Where this happens, from my perspective, is more or less irrelevant so long as it does happen. The complexity and challenge and the heart of preparing teachers is to figure out how to do all three aspects well. To simply have one or two of these doesn’t do justice to the complexity of teaching. It just lets all those hobgoblins keep on writing op-ed pieces.


A. G. Rud said...

I don't detect much traction for Levine's reports. I read 'em both, but doubt many have and nobody here except for a few have read past the exec summary. An influential dean elsewhere opined to me that the study is old news,reliant on old data,and besides, "Art isn't a 'player' anymore." Hmmmm.

Dan W. Butin said...


I agree in general. But then why is he getting all the media attention?


A. G. Rud said...

Apparently my comment didn't make it a few days ago.

Why do we listen to Levine? Well, most of us don't. I do, as I find him thoughtful and articulate. But I don't think many folks do, for reasons I have given.

But, why is he getting media attention? Here are my somewhat random musings: Because he is urban, because he was formerly connected to an Ivy League institution, because there is a need for an east coast counterweight to the Darling-Hammond/Shulman west coast teacher ed reform juggernaut, because he criticizes teacher education which many people, especially the folks who live in the Boston/NYC/DC power and media corridor, believe needs fixing, but he also is "of education" so he has some cred, even though he is not a trench dweller.

But better that he is not in the trenches for that may be too much of the dreaded "e" word (education: first generation college, lower middle class, teachers' college graduate) for the power brokers to bear, and they wouldn't read his op-eds.

His recommendations are too extreme to be enacted, imho, so maybe there will be some university or "institute" that will enact some of them.