How We Arrived at Five-Year Teacher Education
In June, the Holmes Group, a consortium of education deans from 28 prominent research universities, gave its blessing to the idea of a five-year teacher-education program leading to a master's degree. Earlier this year, the "excellence commission" established by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education made a similar recommendation. As a faculty member involved with a successful five-year program that has been in existence since 1968, I say, "Welcome--and what's been keeping you?"
At Austin College we decided long ago that, to prepare teachers adequately, we would have to completely restructure our approach to teacher education. During a long process of departmental self-evaluation that began in 1966, we learned that students and faculty alike had become disenchanted with our old four-year program, in which students qualified for certification largely by taking theoretical courses. Our goal was to design a system that preserved Austin College's traditional insistence on a broad base of liberal-arts learning alongside a new emphasis on practical classroom-teaching experience. Because the demands on our students' time were already high, that meant adopting a five-year program.
The result, the Austin Teacher Program, abandons the traditional approach to teacher training. First of all, our students major in academic disciplines--English, history, mathematics, chemistry--not in education. Students in our teacher program do take courses such as child psychology, educational sociology, and educational philosophy, but they take them through the departments of psychology, sociology, and philosophy.
Austin College students' primary undergraduate exposure to the field of education comes in a four-year sequence of credit and noncredit "lab" courses that combine theory with practice. During the sophomore lab, for example, the students design and teach a one-week unit. The senior lab requires students to teach, under supervision, a one-semester class. By the time our students enter the fifth year of the program, they are likely to have taught more classroom hours than have most people who have finished student teaching elsewhere. The idea behind this approach was to replace a late and limited involvement in teaching with early and extensive work in the classroom. Among other advantages, this system allows our students to make early, informed decisions about teaching as a career.
The fifth year consists of 36 hours. Professional courses--such as tests and measurements, legal principles in education, and special education--take up 12 of these. Additional study in the students' academic disciplines takes up another 12. The remaining hours are devoted to a 4-hour seminar on instructional practices and an 8-hour teaching internship--a full semester of paid teaching with limited supervision. Students cap the degree with a thesis or a comprehensive research project.
During nearly 20 years of experience, we have dealt with many of the same questions that the universities now experimenting with five-year programs will doubtless face. I pose them here as friendly challenges.
I would first ask any institution considering this change: Do you really plan to have a program that involves students in the department over the entire five years? Or will you simply add a third year to what, for all practical purposes, is a two-year program now? Teachers develop over time, and institutions that neglect would-be teachers as freshmen and sophomores are not being fair to those students. Half our freshman teaching prospects decide not to continue past the sophomore year. They make this decision based on exposure to real teaching. By the time our remaining students are juniors, they have logged an average of 100 classroom hours.
This issue of professional development is really the key to making an extended program distinctive. Again, there is a crucial difference between a five-year program and a fifth year of "more of the same." An Austin College student brings several strengths to the graduate year: a comprehensive and rigorous liberal-arts education, a completed academic major, and over 250 hours of actual classroom experience that begins with observation and ends with limited student teaching.
Thus, in the fifth year, we are dealing with mature and experienced students. (For those few who still need more training, we provide a fairly traditional student-teaching experience that lasts a minimum of 14 weeks.) Students who are ready to teach on their own are placed in internships. These students receive what the current research on "good beginnings" for teachers calls for: campus support, guidance in the schools, and individual attention. A program that does not offer this type of "solo flying" is in danger of filling the fifth year with courses of little relevance to beginning teachers, however interesting they may be to their professors.
Another question concerns academic foundations: Will you continue to offer bachelor's degrees in education rather than in academic subjects? A major concern in the current debate over teacher quality involves teachers' general and specific knowledge. If there are gaps in what beginning teachers know, can you eliminate them in traditional programs? I think not. Many of the hours required to complete an education major are necessary; some, however, merely subtract from the hours students can take in their majors. It is quite common for secondary-education majors to take only 24 hours--12 of which are upper-level--in the academic area for which they are being certified. Most academic majors require at least 36 hours.
Tied to this question of whether to do away with the undergraduate education major is what to call the new five-year program. At Austin College, we call it what it is: a master's degree. The students do the work, and they deserve the higher starting salaries that go along with the degree.
Many educators disagree with this line of thinking, of course. One young Ph.D., an employee of a Holmes Group university, recently referred to my ideas as "all that liberal-arts crap--it's just going to take students out of our courses and we'll be stuck with field experiences.'' That's a territorial reaction. Unfortunately, many education professors are not excited about working with underclassmen or supervising field experiences. I predict that the Holmes Group universities will face some huge internal battles if they try to radically change the curriculum of education students.
There are many other questions that schools considering a five-year program must ask. How large can your program be and still provide the individual attention that professional development demands? How much more of this extra time will you use for field work? How accountable are you willing to be to your graduates? Will the results from follow-up studies of your graduates be reflected in program changes? Will you give faculty members the time they need to work with students developmentally and individually? Will you back up your goals with appropriate incentives and evaluation systems? Does your curriculum reflect current research? Will faculty members be rewarded for working with students as much as for research? How credible are your faculty members as teacher educators? Are they models of good teaching? Do they even have teaching experience?
These questions are important because the change you are considering is important. You will be asking students to commit one more year of their lives to the process of becoming teachers. What are you willing to do to make such a commitment worthwhile? An institution that does not make the necessary changes will be guilty of demanding much from others at no cost to itself.
I welcome all you large research universities to the world of five-year programs. To be honest, I am somewhat skeptical of your ability to successfully maneuver these changes through your bureaucracies. I anxiously await your program descriptions. If your programs reflect the research you so generously disseminate elsewhere, if they are "total" programs that make full use of all five years, if they have clear principles, goals, and objectives that transcend territorialism, and if they emphasize the human aspects of becoming a teacher, then I hope you will forgive me for having been so doubtful.
Vol. 05, Issue 03, Page 24