Monday, April 28, 2008

Taking on Teacher Education III

I didn't want to cut off the lively discussion about NCLB -- whose ox is getting gored and who is complicit in its consequences, both intended and unintended. But that conversation is slowing some and I want to talk one last time during April about teacher education in particular. I'll focus on the third of the questions that I raised early on: Are the people responsible for teacher education doing the job?

There are numerous individuals (e.g. the Washington Post's Jay Mathews) and blue ribbon panels (e.g. the one headed by former Teachers College President Art Levine) who are inclined to say that "Ed Schools" are presently responsible and they are simply not doing the job. Art Levine goes so far as to call teacher education "unruly and chaotic." This will not be a defense of ed schools. Criticisms of teacher education are too often warranted. Still I want to think a bit about the question of who is currently responsible for teacher education.

Responsibility in its richest sense implies the prospective ability to respond to challenges. Accountability, on the other hand, is linked to the kind of retrospective judgment that assigns blame. In the case of teacher education, I think ed schools carry accountability without responsibility. Let me explain.

As I suggested in my last post, teacher knowing is dynamic and contextual. It involves different kinds of claims (logical, cultural, pedagogical and professional) on different bodies of knowledge (their subject field, the liberal arts generally, popular culture, the social science of teaching, learning and interaction) in the context of practice. And they make those claims out of their own understanding of (or way of being) social self and teacher. This means that the education of teachers cannot possibly occur solely in ed schools. Nor can it occur solely in colleges and universities. Some phases of teacher education (more now that we have easy access to web video and other technologies that make case study possible at a distance from P-12 schools) can well occur in ed schools. Some phases must (and do currently) occur in liberal arts colleges. But significant portions of the education of teachers can only occur in practice contexts, in practice contexts where the value commitments of all are transparent and open to discussion.

This means that responsibility for teacher education is already located in P-12 schools (with responsibility shared by teachers and their unions and administration) and in liberal arts colleges and in ed schools. It seems curious to me that we would only hold ed schools accountable.

So why are ed schools nominally in charge? There's a long history there, the story of normal schools and their development into/absorption into universities, a story that's still being told at my normal school turned university where the glee that we have risen above our teacher education roots to become a liberal arts school is palpable. Teacher education is low status, partly because there's still a tinge of "women's work" associated with it. Accountability has been dumped on ed schools without the economic resources and the authority to marshal intellectual resources and the resources of practice. Teacher unions and school administrators and liberal arts deans all say "not my job."

So folks in schools of ed fool themselves into thinking that 18 year old university students can become 22 year old mature teachers by sitting in classrooms first listening to us talk about Piaget or No Child Left Behind or reading in the content area and then going into the schools to "apply" what we've told them. Do we really think that can work?

There's been lots of talk about teacher "career ladders" over the past two decades, but that talk comes and goes without changing a reality – that a teacher's responsibility is as great the day he or she enters a classroom (at 22!) as it is the day he or she retires (post-55). The idea that we have truly "educated" a teacher by 22 seems ludicrous. Holding ed schools accountable for what's not happening also seems ludicrous.

There have been significant efforts to bring the domain of practice, the liberal arts and the ed researchers together with respect to teacher education. The move to create professional development schools is significant. The Project 30 initiative, funded and sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation in the late 80s was another. But these efforts – because they are limited to certain institutions, often research institutions with small, "boutique" teacher ed programs -- don't begin to address the deep and growing need for teachers. And rarely are teacher unions significant players in the effort.

Some have argued for a 4+1 approach to teacher education. That is, let future teachers earn a liberal arts bachelor degree before diving into professional study. I have never been a fan of this proposal because of the way I think about the knowledge of teachers. I will gain more from my academic study if I have a pedagogical intention – and at least minimal opportunity to ply the pedagogical trade – while I'm trying to make sense out of that subject matter. I can learn it – and learn it more effectively – if I'm thinking about how to teach this subject matter to some group of students. So I think it does make sense to integrate professional ideas and sensibilities with intellectual study.

I'm also not a big fan of five year undergraduate programs. Those programs insure that teachers will be 23 instead of 22 when they accept accountability in the classroom, but it's not enough. And we need people in classrooms now. And those novices need real formation in practice on site, formation guided by master teacher/mentors.

So "teacher education" isn't a four-year effort and it isn't an ed school responsibility.

Here's what I'd do if I were the Queen of the education universe: Those who want to be teachers – at any level – earn a bachelors degree in a discipline (about 1/3 of their study) with a strong general education component (about ¼ of their study), and take "pre-ed" studies (ed psych, social foundations and philosophy, assessment and inquiry, developmental psych, learning theory and student difference, pedagogy seminars linked to liberal arts courses that help them students of teaching and learning, linked to time in schools). They graduate with the option to go into or away from "ed school".

But "ed school" cannot be a university place though it can and should involve partnership with a university. Ed school has to be an institution unto itself, akin to a teaching hospital – run by teachers unions in collaboration with university-affiliated educator/researchers and permeated with reflection on teaching as intrinsically relational, as a moral craft. (I'm thinking about what happened to med schools after the Flexner Report when the AMA stepped up to take control – and exert quality control.) In my imagination, ed school is a three year program with increasing levels of responsibility and compensation. First years eke out a "Peace Corps" type existence as they learn practice through integrated work and case-based study. Second and third years earn a modest salary (say $20-25K) as they work under the direction of a master teacher who is responsible for collaborative planning. Only then are they ready to be sent out with primary responsibility for a classroom of students.

My proposal is "unrealistic," of course. I get that. It would require a restructuring of schools and their financing, a refocusing by teachers unions, the creation of a range of roles in some schools, the ones that devote themselves to being "teaching and learning schools." But isn't there something appealing about the idea? Until educators at all levels make common cause around the education of their peers, teacher education will remain "chaotic and unruly."

And by the way, that might be the answer to the fourth question that I posed originally but won't have time to answer this April: In what kinds of schools can talented, well-educated teachers be most successful? In schools where they and their students (including future teachers) are teaching and learning all the time.


Chano03 said...

I too feel very strongly that teachers need much more real-life experience to meet the needs of our ever-changing school system. I really like the ideas of practice or more intensive student teaching to prepare teachers for their future much more thoroughly. Teaching any subject, whether it is in school or not is a very difficult task. When you throw in changes in cirriculum, budget cuts, excessive mandatory testing, and all the other changes that have occurred in the last ten years, it's no wonder some teachers struggle. Teachers aren't paid enough to be thrown into the fire, and if you don't require someone to do more, they aren't going to do it on their own. We must begin a new program for teachers in this country that includes everything that is currently required, along with some form of extensive, hands on teaching practice. Teachers aren't what is wrong with our school system, much the opposite, they are the only thing that is working right now. But, that doesn't mean that they couldn't be more prepared when beginning their career.

Nancy Flanagan said...

Interesting post.

I suspect that ed schools continue to exist and serve as policy and opinion punching bags because the other options--the "instant teacher" models like American Board Certification for Teacher Excellence--are built on the contention that teaching is something anyone with sufficient content expertise and no criminal record can do. Perhaps we do need a kind of Flexner report outlining the intellectual complexity of teaching. And then, we need teachers themselves and their advocacy associations to believe and act as if the work is vital and intellectually challenging. In the meantime, ed schools (good ones, at least) maintain and develop the (weak but growing) core of technical knowledge around effective teaching--if there were no ed schools, where would research be generated?

I am in full agreement that ed schools play only a small role in the actual readiness of would-be teachers in America. Still--I know TFA graduates (still teaching, remarkably) who say that it wasn't until their second or third year in the classroom, but eventually they understood the value of what they had missed in foundational education courses. Maybe teacher education is wasted on the young and green.

I work with a major national corporation which has launched a project to fund and support long-term employees who wish to end their working lives as teachers--to "give back to the community." These novice-but-mature teachers have some distinct advantages--parenting skills, experience as coaches, a great deal of applied content knowledge. What they don't have is a sense of how to turn that knowledge into lessons, or the long fuse necessary in working with kids whose internal motivators burned out years ago. So they're older, and wiser, but still in need of some very critical dispositions and skills. The lucky ones land in schools with a core of effective teachers. I also had a mentee who didn't make it through September; he just couldn't cope with what he saw as bad planning and leadership in the typical school environment.

These older teachers regard teaching as a kind of missionary work. They have been told that schools are crying for excellent STEM teachers, but then are frustrated when those STEM jobs are in high-needs schools. Working conditions and low pay make teaching jobs seem like sacrifice.

Which is the only drawback I can see in your Utopian plan--the idea of teachers working for subsistence wages. I understand that medical residents, legal clerks and other apprenticeship positions are low-paying as well--but there is a payoff down the road (although it's becoming increasingly difficult to get out from under the debt load). For teachers, however, slogging along for an additional 2-3 years learning their craft only to reach a starting salary of $39,000 is probably what's kept us from building the kinds of extended internships that would significantly upgrade the profession.

Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis had an in-house program to ease young teachers into the profession, with significantly reduced workloads and phasing in of teaching challenges, genuinely good mentorships and induction activities. They created and ran the program themselves, in conjunction with the U of M. They also had teacher-led professional learning experiences like weekly brown-bag lunch discussion, where veteran and novice teachers would select readings/topics for in-depth examination. They were "allowed" to bend all kinds of regulations (class size, teaching loads, re-defining teacher and administrator duties) in order to make it fly--mostly because it was a poor school with a large Hmong population, and the alternative was closing the building. A pretty remarkable place, and a great model for growing your own teacher expertise.

Barbara Stengel said...


Thanks for taking this all seriously and for pushing the thinking further.

One quick note: I didn't include all of my proclamations as "Queen" but one would be that teachers start at $45 or $50K once that have full responsibility. So the slogging along for three years is the dues paying that IS rewarded. By the way, I would also have rigorous review after two full years and pop them up significantly ($5K) and then another review after 5 years and pop them to the top of the individual teacher scale (say about $60-65). Increases after that would involve differentiated responsibilities like master/mentor teachers in teaching/learning schools.

Also, I didn't mention this but there are some folks all over the country doing really good work in research in practice that understands the integration of content/method/student/context and that offers "standards of practice" (like medical standards of care). You can get a flavor for this kind of thinking by viewing Deborah Ball's talk at AACTE in February.

Ball's talk generated a lot of "concern" from folks who felt she was being too prescriptive, but the kind of prescription she's talking about seems to me to be needed for those learning the craft.

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, yes. I felt woefully unprepared for the moment I walked in to the classroom. There was nothing like the rapid learning curve of 23 eager faces, and thankfully, a master teacher who took me under her wing, even though she was not paid to be my mentor.

Many of my peers were not as lucky. And many of them are quitting teaching forever. Be it from the low pay, the lack of support for new teachers, or the ever increasing responsibilites, they are moving on to other professions. That is why I am writing a book called "Why Great Teachers Quit." I wanted to share the voices of teachers who are currently working in today's schools, and are frustrated by many of the things you discussed in your post.

So here is my shameless plug. I need to hear from teachers from all over the country about why they are leaving, or thinking of leaving, or even just about their deepest frustrations with teaching today. I've got some publisher interest, and now I need more comments from teachers.

I've set up a blog for this purpose at Why Great Teachers Quit. Teachers can either leave their thoughts as comments or email them to me at You can learn more about the project there, too.

I'm hoping in your dream scenairo, this could be required reading for preservice teachers (and principals and superintendents!) so they can learn what it is really like, and work toward improving the situation for all teachers.

TeachMoore said...

I don't think your dreams are all that Utopian. It is past time for a Flexner-type approach to changing the way we do teacher ed. Interestingly, the same organization that spawned Flexner (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching), is taking another look at ed schools. I'm also encouraged by models like the Boston residency program. What about the teacher ed programs in places where teacher unions are not as much a factor (such as here in the Deep South)? Most of the nation's black teachers still graduate from the historically black colleges and universities.