Reforming Teacher Education: A View From Abroad

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The current surge of teacher-education reform in the United States (or, more precisely, of talk about it) epitomizes an international problem and opportunity. The problem is simple, but the opportunity at present inaccessible. Agitation about the state of public education, in many countries, has at last moved beyond the stage of proposing facile solutions to complex problems. Few, even of the ill-informed critics of educational performance, are now so naÃive as to suppose that anything much will be changed by a restatement of curricular guidelines, or by a toughening of procedures in assessment or examinations, or by getting nasty with teachers, or (most quaint of all) by a raising of the required standards of admission to the privileges of higher education.

The Holmes Group report, Tomorrow's Teachers, is in part a symptom and in part a cause of a more realistic analysis. It is increasingly recognized that significant improvements in public schooling depend on an elevation of the standards of the teaching force (which cannot yet sensibly be called a profession), which in its turn depends on achieving a series of complex and interrelated changes in the ways in which the delivery of instruction is organized. This is why the problem is simple but the opportunity at present inaccessible.

What are those changes proposed, with varying degrees of explicitness, by the Holmes Group? First and foremost, the report has the wisdom and courage to recognize that--however urgent the need for reform within teacher education--fiddling about with its programs cannot of itself effect the necessary improvements. Simply to eliminate such programs from all undergraduate education, however desirable in principle, would be likely to make things even worse. Bad teachers are better than no teachers, or so at least makers of public policy would be likely to conclude, even if philosophers remain free to disagree.

It is, then, the nature of teaching and the distribution of teaching tasks and rewards that must first be changed. Only then can claims for any form of professional status be realistically sustained and (which is to say the same thing in a less refined register) only then can salaries and associated rewards be sufficiently competitive. Only when a significant number of prospective teachers can anticipate lifelong rewards comparable to those available to their contemporaries in other activities will a sufficient number of smart people wish to become teachers. Great Britain faces a crisis in teacher recruitment of unprecedented severity in 1987 simply because that elementary truth of the marketplace has been rashly ignored.

If sufficiently competitive rewards and satisfactions are to be offered, then it seems improbable that they can be offered to all those now calling themselves teachers. In the first place, there are altogether too many of them. The key, therefore, lies, or so the Holmes Group prudently concludes, in producing a nakedly hierarchical profession.

My reading of the report suggests this is a political rather than a logical conclusion, for nowhere can I find an ordered rationale explaining why or how in principle the tasks of teaching should fall into this pattern: There is not, for example, any suggestion that the distinctions may roughly correspond to those between doctors and nurses. This is just as well, since any clumsy hint of that kind would explode the fragile consensus that at present seems to embrace the teachers' unions in amity with the regulatory-policy architects of the Carnegie tradition and the smiling deans of graduate schools of education. Before long, however, the contentious issue of how to define "a professional teacher'' will break through the presently calm surface of the debate.

I am nevertheless glad that the Holmes Group, being a realistic set of people, did not underline this question. They have been equally realistic, as well as ingenious, in squaring the circle of supply and demand. This is achieved by the device of Instructors--lively people for the most part, it appears, who having taken a bachelor's degree will plunge enthusiastically into teaching after a basic course in flotation, receive a license limited both in time and in scope, work under ill-defined supervision, and then face a choice. Either they make the necessary investment of time and dollars to secure a master's degree in teaching and become Professional Teachers, or they seek new pastures.

Later, they face similar choices: go on to a doctor's degree (with a bit of foot-shuffling in the report at this point) and the status of Career Professional teacher, or remain in the mainstream category, or leave teaching. Such a pattern, if widely prevalent, might indeed produce relatively cheap and transient Instructors, and relatively expensive career people. But the problems bristle.

There are at least two ways in which superprofessional, professional, and subprofessional roles might be defined, distributed, and--the key--rewarded. There are problems with both. The first method presupposes a taxonomy of tasks: Who is being required or authorized to do what? The Holmes Group cannot be criticized, and least of all by someone like myself, for not choosing this method of definition. It contents itself, as it must, with serviceable generalizations along the autonomy-supervision continuum. If, however, these proposals are to acquire the weight they need and deserve, it becomes an urgent task of research and development to establish such taxonomies.

Inevitably, therefore, the Holmes Group is driven back ad interim into the second method, which is to equate the roles (Instructor, Professional Teacher, Career Professional teacher) with the mysticisms of academic status (bachelor, master, doctor). They have good reasons for doing just that. In the first place, it directs attention from our inability to generate other and more substantive equations. Second, it responds to the prejudice that professional status always has been and must be entwined with the rites of passage that the university regulates. Third, it brings business to the graduate schools of education--and especially the reserach universities--at a time when those establishments are more than usually uncertain about their purpose and anxious about their prospects.

All that is not only understandable but also, if it is thought important that the serious study of education should survive, virtuous. At the same time, it raises two related problems. There is a deceptively neat orthodoxy that asserts: Professions are distinguished by monopolizing a knowledge base; without that knowledge base the professional tasks cannot be discharged; the knowledge informs (or "undergirds''--a splendidly evasive piece of rhetoric) effective practice; it is generated and distributed by universities and especially in graduate study; teaching should be a profession; therefore, the graduate schools of education within the research universities have (or will tomorrow) the knowledge base for teaching. The danger of such an orthodoxy is as obvious as the attraction. The danger is that, at several points, it may be demonstrably untrue. It is highly questionable when persuasively applied to established professions: law, the clergy, even medicine. The claims for the knowledge base must not, therefore, be overpressed. Power and autonomy, rather than knowledge, link the historic professions to the universities, and teachers should note that.

The Holmes Group is absolutely correct in insisting that the research universities must be closely associated with the formation of the teaching profession, but should recognize that in making such noises they are singing a hymn and not reciting a creed. In that way, the first problem raised by the claims of the research universities may be dissolved. The second problem proves to be more substantive, and relates to the graduate schools of education as they are. There are limits to both credibility and gullibility, and if able people are to make investments in graduate study then something substantial, as well as symbolic, must be offered them. Institutions providing such advanced study will need to change much more fundamentally than the Holmes Group, at least in its published report, acknowledges.

At present, or until very recently, such prestigious establishments distinguished themselves--for good external reasons--by neglecting teaching and teachers at the expense of other academic and professional pursuits related more or less peripherally to the diurnal business of the classroom. Changing that world, as the Holmes Group wishes it to be changed, implies a massive shift in objectives, in the criteria for esteem and promotion, in the balance of research, in the exercise of power. Given what the report so clearly says about the centrality of pedagogy, it follows that a new generation of specialists in the relevant fields must shortly rise to prominence. They are not yet in place.

One test, 10 years hence, of whether the Holmes agenda has "happened'' will take the form of a study of faculty lists in selected institutions. If reform has bitten, there will be fewer economists, sociologists, historians, administrative theorists (above all, them), and even psychologists, and many more specialists in curriculum, teaching, and teacher education. Where will they all come from, and how soon?

One of the greatest of the many virtues of the report is its insistence on the concept of professional-development centers. Integral to this insistence is the recognition of the indispensable contribution to be made to teacher education by the more able practicing teachers and of the importance of the proper articulation of clinical experience with graduate study at the university. There is even, as in the Carnegie report, A Nation Prepared, an unembarrassed and long overdue bow toward the analogy of the teaching hospital. The professional-development centers are important in other ways as well, and not least as sites on which it will be possible to develop and analyze new patterns of schooling and teaching. They should serve to demonstrate both the viability of hierarchical models of organizing the teaching force and the concrete possibility of improving the working conditions and satisfactions of career teachers.

It follows that if I had the privilege of advising foundations and others on areas of strategic intervention to propel reforms common to both Holmes and Carnegie, I should propose only two. They would address the anxieties of the last two paragraphs and require the foundation of a number of professional-development centers, and of a number of chairs in such areas as mathematics education, or sciences, or languages. These are things that could happen now. They have as much importance for the characteristically regulatory Carnegie formula, where the stress on an examination (and the neglect of universities) generates precisely the same problems of describing the knowledge base as the Holmes Group stress on the centrality of universities (and comparative neglect of examinations and national boards). The similarities are much more important than the differences.

Similarly, both Carnegie and Holmes raise dilemmas about undergraduate education and about minorities. "Teachers must have something to teach'' has become a slogan, whether in Britain or the United States, that contrives to be both obvious and aggressive.

On both sides of the Atlantic, its reiterated promulgation has led to an emphasis on subject studies, specifically but not exclusively for the benefit of future teachers. In the United States, it seems to be accepted by those who have the right to speak with authority that undergraduate education in the arts and sciences, and especially in the universities, is in a mess. What is less readily acknowledged is the structural difficulty of reform. It is one thing to argue that matters should be improved, standards raised, rigor cultivated, slackness eliminated, coherence pursued. To achieve these admirable objectives will not be easy within a culture of higher education that traditionally and justly prides itself on the virtues of accessibility, flexibility, variety, mobility, and so forth. The reform proposed would have the result, although hardly the intention, of increasing the volume of "failure'' in the system. Will that prove acceptable?

A related dilemma is embedded in the intractable difficulties about minorities. The scale of the problem here is awesome. By the end of the century, one-third of all Americans will be members of a minority (and already in California there is a majority of minorities in the first three grades of schooling) and there seems little hope of producing a teaching force that will even begin to match this balance. Both reports (Holmes and Carnegie) confront this problem, but neither can find very much to say about it.

It is, of course, even more of a problem for the examination-centered Carnegie proposal, which must stress such qualities as the objectivity and absolute nature of the battery of tests that will control entry into teaching. Here, as in the restructuring of undergraduate education, the problems are ideological or cultural rather than technical. Equity and social peace (as well as vaguer notions of democracy) do in both these areas conflict with standards, rigor, accountability, professionalism. Critics of the Holmes proposal, and even more critics of the Carnegie version, will not forget what happened to access to the profession for women and blacks after the Flexner reforms in medical education.

Europeans can feel only reverence for the noble ambitions for teacher education in the United States. Less ambitious and (I would argue) less imaginative societies have accepted, and are accepting, dual patterns of teacher education: a high-grade one for high-school teachers, and a cheaper version for elementary teachers, or (more offensive yet) a university-based education for the teachers of academic children in secondary schools, and something less for the rest. The Holmes Group, firmly rooted in the American tradition, seeks to establish divisiveness of a less unacceptable kind--one based on professional skills and commitments. Will it work?

The resistance groups reserve great powers of veto. Within the teacher-education establishment in its present anarchic and sprawling condition, there will be much opposition from those who see their institutional interests threatened by the imperialism of the graduate schools of education, which (they will feel) have taken little enough interest in the past in the teachers the "lesser'' institutions have been allowed to produce. Politicians, and especially at the state level, will be apprehensive both about the costs and about the threat to their freedom to maneuver their way through cycles of teacher glut and shortage.

Teachers themselves will show pathological ambivalence about whether they wish to use their collective power to change fundamentally the realities of teaching, with all the implications for bargaining and exerting influence. Simple-minded polemicists will continue to peddle solutions that look cheaper and simpler since they require only that teachers should be kicked harder. Parents and school-board members will not readily surrender the control they now have, or believe they have, over "their'' schools, in order to concede to professional teachers that autonomy which is a necessary precondition of serious educational improvement.

Still, there are two grounds for optimism. Of course, Holmes will not "happen.'' The United States is too large a country for any one thing to happen in it, and should rejoice in that good fortune. But where coalitions can be built, locally and regionally, effective change in the spirit of Holmes will be enabled. Not easily, for such change needs to be holistic: The rules of licensing, the structure of schools, the rewards of professionalism, and the functions of schools of education will all have to change in step with one another.

The second reason for optimism lies in the very nature of the Holmes Group itself. It represents a coalition of those who wish to see change in a well-defined direction, without specifying with precision the legal and organizational forms that such change might take.

There is, in my mind, no conflict between the Carnegie and Holmes proposals. If Carnegie "happens''--which must mean initially no less and no more than the successful creation of a national board and the manufacture of new examinations--then the work of Holmes will be greatly facilitated. But if Carnegie, which is much more of a high-risk/one-big-push enterprise, is defeated by the forces of darkness, then the Holmes program will remain in place. All that is required is that those leaders who have produced it remain together for long enough to protect and coordinate reforms generally acknowledged to be long overdue.

Vol. 06, Issue 39, Page 32

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