Professional Knowledge on Schooling Remains Undefined, Experts Say
Washington--Despite the rash of changes in teacher-education programs across the country, no one has yet defined the core of professional knowledge about schooling that future teachers should master, a group of education experts said here last week.
They also argued that to be effective, changes in teacher education must be accompanied by alterations in the structure of schools and the teaching profession itself.
Representatives of more than 30 national and state organizations, colleges of education, and local school systems met Oct. 10 for a national "Summit on Teacher Education and Certification," sponsored by the U.S. Education Department, the National Center for Education Information, and the American Enterprise Institute.
Denis P. Doyle, director of education-policy studies for the aei, noted that there was remarkably little dissension among those present about issues that "no one was even talking about a year and a half ago,'' including the possibility of a national teachers' examination and the need for education students to acquire greater knowledge about the academic subjects they plan to teach.
But a still unanswered question, according to C. Emily Feistritzer, director of the ncei, is what the content of teachers' professional education should include beyond knowledge of their academic subjects.
It would be an "error" to exclude from teacher preparation the "professional, university study of education itself," said Judith E. Lanier, dean of the college of education at Michigan State University and chairman of the Holmes Group, a consortium of education-school deans working to reform teacher education.
But opinions differed about whether there now exists a core of professional knowledge about education on which everyone could agree.
The fundamental teaching process of recitation, seatwork, and short lessons has changed little during this century, said Herbert Walberg, a research professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
In the last 5 to 10 years, he said, there has been a "tremendous" growth in the knowledge available about effective teaching, but little of that information has made its way into teacher training. He attributed this to a "bifurcation" between those who conduct research about teaching and those who train teachers.
State legislatures and the public are increasingly inclined to support spending fewer hours instructing teachers in pedagogical content, stated David C. Berliner, a professor of education at the University of Arizona, in a paper distributed at the conference.
According to Mr. Berliner, this at-titude is "based on the belief that pedagogical courses are wasteful of the students' time because of their irrelevant and common-sensical content."
Yet the public's lack of faith in pedagogical training is occurring ''at the worst possible time," he wrote, because "there now exists a body of knowledge and a fresh set of conceptions about teaching on which to base teacher education."
These include, in Mr. Berliner's view, such things as knowledge about teachers' allocation of time and choice of content, the match between curricula and tests, the relationship between teachers' expectations and students' performance, and the use of positive reinforcement.
"The last thing we need to be doing now," he concluded, "is to abandon or reduce the scope of teacher-education programs."
Gary Sykes of Stanford University, however, said he did not believe there was a broad consensus regarding a professional knowledge base. And Barbara Lerner, director of Lerner Associates in Princeton, N.J., said the knowledge base that exists is "intertwined with codified and even sanctified misinformation."
Moreover, too many bright people turn away from teaching because they cannot tolerate the "low intellectual caliber" of the materials offeredin teacher-education courses, said Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
In addition, he said, there is too much "unconscionable" teaching that relies on ideological information about children rather than on any knowledge base.
Changes in Structure
Educators also argued that changes in teacher education and licensing must be accompanied by changes in the structure of schools and of the teaching profession.
Demographic changes alone--including a pending teacher shortage, an aging population uninterested in financing education, and a growing minority enrollment--will necessitate changes in the structure of American education, participants said.
To ignore possible changes in the structure of schooling in favor of a system that is "impossible to maintain, cannot be staffed, won't work, and doesn't work," is to lose out, said Mr. Shanker.
Even without demographic changes, he added, teaching is beset by other problems, including its low status and pay, the lack of intrinsic rewards, and the excessive amount of time spent lecturing instead of engaging students.
Others expressed concern about the "bright flight" of talented students into private schools and the "anti-intellectualism" they said is pervasive in the United States.
Ms. Lanier suggested that problems in teacher education--including preservice and inservice training that is brief, fragmented, lacking in depth, and overly technical--are inherently tied to the nature of the teaching profession.
Participants painted visions of schools in which different teachers would perform a range of different functions, with different training, pay, and entry points into the occupation. In particular, they talked about the development of a core of professional, career teachers and an additional group of instructors who would rotate more rapidly in and out of teaching.
"People's classroom readiness varies dramatically," said William J. Bennett, Secretary of Education. "We should have a system of teacher certification and licensure that recognizes that fact."
Other Needs Cited
Educators also described the need to develop "teaching schools" along the lines of "teaching hospitals" that could provide a learning environment for adults as well as children. Phillip Schlecty, director of teacher-curriculum-development programs for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in North Carolina, noted that there has been an unnecessary assumption that teacher training should be confined to colleges of education.
Mr. Doyle also mentioned the possibility of year-round schools, opening school enrollment on a metropolitan or regional basis, and giving teachers some "real control" over the selection of textbooks and tests.
Despite the variety of changes in teacher education and licensing that states and schools are now experimenting with, said Chester E. Finn Jr., assistant secretary for educational research and improvement in the Education Department, "a great many of us are discontented with the sum-total of those activities."