Commentary

Chiefs Can't Cast the First Stone At the Teacher-Training System

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In December, citing a need to bring more talented people into teaching, the Council of Chief State School Officers urged states to write new certification regulations that do not require all prospective teachers to enroll in undergraduate education courses. (See Education Week, Dec. 7, 1983.) The chiefs placed much of the blame for our current education problems on the admittedly poor quality of students selecting education as a college major, and on the 1,330 institutions that train teachers. This ludicrous idea must not go unchallenged.

At best, the chiefs' idea represents a misunderstanding of the nature of the problems in teacher education today; at worst it is the most crass kind of "buck passing." It is difficult for us to believe that the chiefs fail to recognize or admit their own role in causing this problem. An examination of the way teacher-training programs are planned, carried out, and evaluated clearly links current problems of teacher supply and quality to the state education agencies that the chiefs control. The lack of imagination and innovation that currently exists in teacher education throughout the country has been mandated--or at least strongly encouraged--by state certification laws and regulations. Moreover, some of the largest producers of teachers who can barely fog a mirror are state-run institutions.

In short, when we examine the leadership of these chief state school officers--looking at their rules and regulations and the work in their institutions--we find the major cause of the sorry state of the nation's teachers and schools. Now they are trying to pass the buck to teacher educators.

The fact is, however, that teacher educators in the nation's colleges and universities have had little power to shape the process over which they supposedly preside. Lacking political power and sophistication--and, more important, the legal power to truly change teacher-education standards--teacher educators have been forced into a reactive posture. Time and again they have seen some new state school officer arrive on the scene with a vision of how he or she is going to bring on the millennium. But an endless succession of these pedagogical "five-year plans" has led to nothing but mounds and mounds of paper and endless, meaningless work for those who should be educating teachers instead.

For example, in Pennsylvania in 1976, the state department of education launched a plan called "Project '81." Initially, it appeared to be a modestly reasonable attempt to change a few pedagogical details. But it slowly swelled to gargantuan proportions.

Eventually, teacher educators in the state could display a stack of state-generated paperwork more than a foot high. Then the project silently and mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again. Persistent inquiries about its fate met only with blank stares or mystifying suggestions that it had somehow metamorphosed into the new "School Improvement Project."

Worse, long after these political figures and their projects disappear from the scene, the harm they have done lives on for those who have committed their professional lives to the serious pursuit of excellence in teacher education.

It is unfair and the most profound folly to blame teacher educators for the mess the states have largely created, without giving them the opportunity to do it right on their own authority. The chiefs now propose to kill off or bypass undergraduate teacher training only because they lack the imagination and expertise to design it properly.

We suspect that much of the real motivation for the chiefs' recommendation is their need to find, quickly, more mathematics and science teachers to teach the extra classes being required in the current rage. Probably they hope to find some badly needed warm bodies by doing away with undergraduate education courses.

These state school officers must surely realize that the actual basis of the current teacher shortage in mathematics and science, and the projected shortages in other areas, is that teaching is a low-paying, low-status, and potentially frustrating occupation that most people with truly salable skills avoid.

It became that way under the "benign" supervision of our chief state school officers. Now, their idea of a cure is to bypass pedagogical training altogether for those who get a last-minute fever to teach, and to close their eyes and wish.

It is true that some education courses have a deserved reputation for being inconsequential, but that is not because there is nothing important for new teachers to learn about children and teaching. In the last 30 years, there has been an explosion of knowledge about how children learn and grow, and the irony is that this knowledge has not been adequately incorporated into teacher training. The hollowness of some education courses is often due to their being tied hand and foot by state regulations covering their content. It is also caused by chief state school officers' repeated failure to shut down teacher programs whose low quality is widely known. Yet this is their responsibility and theirs alone.

The more you remove teacher training from the colleges and universities--for example, training teachers using one-year internships in schools--the more you promote teacher-training based on mimicry rather than understanding. In a society such as ours, already so filled with this type of doing without understanding, such a mistake is seductively easy to make. And if we make it, we will unwittingly promote mindless vocationalism in the name of educational excellence.

The state school officers' recommendation is the precise opposite of what is needed if teachers are ever to become more than intelligent laymen. Teaching can be made more effective if and only if it proceeds from a scientifically derived knowledge base. It is not enough just to know the subject matter you teach, although this is of course a necessary condition of competence. But to be truly competent, it is essential that you understand the ways students learn or fail to learn; the ways students grow and develop mentally, socially, morally, and physically; and the ways they can be motivated. The one-year post-graduation internship recommended by the chiefs will never impart this type of learning. No teacher can fully appreciate all of these critical factors, much less use this information systematically, unless he or she understands it theoretically.

The Wall Street Journal recently cited the case of a "successful" English teacher who is now headmaster of a private school in California. The newspaper indicated that this teacher had dropped out of his first and only education course because it was "boring," but that he is now successful in his field and even teaches seminars on how to teach English. The Journal noted that despite his teaching accomplishments, he could not teach in California public schools because he lacks the required education courses. The paper quotes him as saying such a policy is "crazy."

This type of horror story is typically cited to justify loosening certification requirements. Possibly, however, certification is not the egregious example of mindless legalism it first appears. Had this headmaster ever finished his "boring" education courses, he might have discovered that upper-middle-class kids who go to private schools tend to do well regardless of how competent their teachers happen to be. Additionally, one cannot help but wonder how this teacher can generalize--on the basis of just one course--about all education courses in all cases at all times.

Law, medicine, engineering--any profession is subject to the same type of criticism as that cited in the Journal. Teaching, however, is one of the few fields in which we would even think of virtually eliminating professional training because of it.

The plain fact of the matter is that teaching will not be attractive to our nation's best and brightest unless and until teachers are paid more and dumped on less. Once that starts to happen, we can begin requiring them to be well educated in the subjects they would teach and well educated in how to transfer that knowledge to students. Until then, the state chiefs might just as well forget their tinkering. It will only make things worse.

Vol. 03, Issue 24, Page 20

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