Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Arthur Levine and foundations

Arthur Levine's Educating School Teachers report is out today, with responses already from NCATE's Art Wise, Alexander Russo, and Jenny D., thus far. It's sure to get other press as well.

Let me focus on the section which discusses the history of teacher education (pp. 23-26). Praiseworthy: Levine's read one of the old classics on schools of ed, Clifford and Guthrie's Ed School and one of the sure-to-be-classics on normal schools, Chris Ogren's The American State Normal School. On the other hand, Levine entirely missed Jurgen Herbst's classic And Sadly Teach as well as David Labaree's more recent The Trouble with Ed Schools, and those omissions may explain some blinders in both Levine's treatment of the history and an amazing inconsistency in the general approach to reforming teacher education.

Levine's focus on the story at elite institutions misses the broad use of teacher education institutions for more than teaching teachers. In the late 19th century, educational institutions were far less specialized than their names often implied. Often as not, a state normal school would be the local tertiary school that local residents could access. So they were as filled with general education as with teaching specific skills. The historical irony of state normal schools is that their success in providing access to general education helped many rise in that common institutional trajectory upwards into college and university status. The tried-and-true example for education historians is Illinois State University, whose college town is Normal, Illinois.

I think the omission is important. Levine ties the dislocation of ed schools from practical effectiveness to a claimed historical shift to a more theoretical curriculum in the competition with disciplinary schools (such as chemistry and psychology). He specifically calls out two social foundations areas—sociology of education and history of education—as prime examples of such theoretical lacunae (see p. 23 of the report). There are several factual problems with Levine's claim. First, if there's any discipline that colonized teacher education, it was psychology, not sociology or history. Second, this story is true primarily for elite institutions, where the influence was largely with administrators, not the bulk of teachers. It isn't even true at some very important teacher education institutions, historically Black colleges and universities, which have never risen as high in institutional status as their historically white counterparts. Third, the only institutions where humanities and social-science perspectives on education dominate teacher education are in liberal-arts colleges with educational studies programs. My impression is that many schools and colleges of education attacked their social-foundations components in the 1980s, leaving many teacher education programs with the shells of disciplinary perspectives on schooling. Whether that has led us to better or worse teacher education is beyond the scope of this entry, but teacher education programs are more likely not to know what is the desired relationship of pedagogical knowledge to professional perspectives than to go off in search of the theoretical. Or, if our non-foundations colleagues are in search of the theoretical, it's less likely to be based in disciplinary fields than Levine implies.

The broader (nay, even theoretical) problem with this selective understanding of teacher education's history is with Levine's implication that the Search for Status has crippled teacher education by dividing faculty from the work of schools. The problem with Levine's narrative is that distance from schools is not clearly related to distance from teacher education. In some cases, the Search for Status may encourage faculty to leave teacher education for the loftier status of graduate and research education or (even better, for some faculty) mostly research. But there is nothing in that status competition that is related to "connection to schools." I know many colleagues who spend much of their time in graduate education and research programs who engage schools deeply. They design programs to be tested in real classrooms, encourage their graduate assistants to "get dirty" in real schools, and so forth. They're still isolated from teacher education but not from schools.

By contrast, I know many faculty who spend most of their time in teacher education but little time in schools. Some have spent plenty of time in professional development schools but found the work largely unrewarded by a university that promotes a relatively narrow view of research. Others are absorbed by their teaching assignments and barely eke out enough time for writing.

I'm not sure at this point how Levine's report fits into all the other reports on teacher quality and teacher education. But if I were to grade him only on the passage referring to the history of teacher education, he'd get a B: he knows part of the literature, and he has an interesting (but factually wrong) argument.

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