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The Human Cost Of Teacher Education Reform

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Julie's mother called me the first day of last semester. At first, I thought she wanted to know why her daughter had received a D in my educational-foundations course the semester before. It took about 30 seconds for me to figure out that the point of the call wasn't to discuss Julie's performance, but for Mrs. James to call me names. "I know about you, lady" she informed me. "A lot of us know about you. Your class is impossible; students drop it all the time. That university ought to get you out of our kids' way."

In her assessment of the situation, Mrs. James is at odds with most would-be education reformers. Everyone, it seems, wants better teachers. They may disagree on what kinds of programs will produce better teachers, they may disagree on what good teachers do, but everyone seems to want teacher-educators to "clean up their act." If those of us working with tomorrow's teachers would just be smarter, tougher, more demanding, more inspiring, more ... more everything, then K-12 student performance would improve on a level as miraculous, apparently, as the loaves-and-fishes transformation. If teacher-educators and their programs would just start working harder and smarter to do a better job, everyone could breathe a sigh of relief about the supposed catastrophic state of American education.

Whoa, Nelly!

Others have already lambasted that simplistic approach to reform as well as countless other Band-Aid solutions to current, complex problems. I'll let critique on a policy level rest in more knowledgeable hands than mine. But it's worth pausing, I think, to look at reform of teacher education from the other end of the lens: not on the outside looking in at programs and policies, but on the inside of a classroom from the perspective of education students and teacher-educators--and yes, even parents--who are now living through serious attempts to improve the education of tomorrow's teachers.

Many teacher-educators do, of course, accept the premises that programs have too often been weak and that too many poorly prepared teachers dilute the strength of the overall body of professional and talented teachers who staff America's schools and work small miracles every day. And many of us, without being whipped into shape by regulations or ridiculing reports, are already working hard to help educate creative, knowledgeable, skilled, dedicated, and compassionate teachers. A noble goal, surely, but its cost in human terms given current circumstances is one we should think more about: There's a lot of suffering in progress.

Students may suffer the most. They are, after all, graduates of the very schools that better teachers are supposed to fix in the future. That is to say, education majors--like majors in other fields, like the vast majority of graduates of American high schools--have received an education that required little of them in the way of original thinking. In the factory-like environment that's been described by countless researchers, students learn that school is about memorization, about repeating what they've been told is true or important. Teachers talk, students listen. Teachers think, students follow directions. The point of reading is to answer the questions at the end of the chapter--preferably, in the same words as the author of the text.

Surviving high school involves primarily remembering and regurgitating, plus mastering a few other polite behaviors. Showing up for class, not causing any trouble, and handing in something pretty much guarantees a passing grade. As Mrs. James argued in Julie's case, "Julie has never been in academic trouble before. Any of her high school teachers will tell you she is a lovely and honest girl." Neither I nor my dean could explain to Mrs. James' satisfaction why Julie didn't receive at least a C on the basis of these personal traits.

The idea that nice students are good students is a longstanding one in the American educational system, where "troublemakers" are routinely grouped in classes for "low achievers" (whatever their actual ability) and nicely behaved children are routinely grouped in advanced classes. Years ago, the late literary critic John Ciardi recorded his refusal to conflate personality with academic merit in a poem titled "On Flunking a Nice Boy Out of School." He insisted that "It's three months' work I want" rather than the boy's "sheepface" in class. This is not only an old problem but one that is particularly acute in education classes. After all, students are usually counseled to become teachers not because they're so "smart," but because they're so "good around children"--so "nice."

Because being nice is routinely rewarded academically, many students come to college expecting that if they behave themselves in class, they'll be fine. They arrive at college eager to fit in, to tell the professors whatever it is that they want to hear, to sit in class smiling and not causing any trouble. They expect that all will then be well. Unhappily, the truth is that such behaviors do serve them well in many college classes that offer more of precisely the same kind of schooling as their high schools--despite higher education's rarified talk about developing students' intellects. Few academicians will claim that teaching is valued and rewarded in higher education; few will deny that, because of the current reward system, faculty members often place their priorities far outside the classroom. Many professors continue to lecture dryly year after year from yellowed notes, giving the same multiple-choice tests. To pass such classes, students simply go through the same kind of empty motions they rehearsed in their high school years.

Nor do alternative methods and requirements receive much more than lip service and perhaps an occasional workshop on collaborative learning in most institutions. Increasing financial constraints keep pushing class size higher and higher, making it nearly impossible for faculty members to know students (or their thinking) in any depth, and even the physical structure of classrooms argues for the lecture format. In fact, I've been instructed to put classroom chairs back in rows if I have a discussion circle, since the "normal" arrangement for a classroom is rows--most efficient for large groups and for classes where the teacher mostly tells and the students mostly listen. If I want a different climate, then it's up to me to move chairs into a circle--and back out again. My colleagues, I've been told, should not be expected to accommodate my pedagogical idiosyncrasies.

The professor interested in active and collaborative learning, in genuine reflection, in constructivist methodology, faces a combustible classroom. Enter herds of students (thanks to budget cutbacks) fresh from 12 years of being taught to ACT like sheep; immerse them primarily into college classrooms where rows and rote rule (thanks largely to the existing reward system); add a course which students cannot pass without thinking for themselves and accepting responsibility for their own performance (but which is a key hurdle in a rigorous teacher education program)--and hell is the inevitable result.

Most of my students don't know how to read textbooks, make sense of them, and form an opinion about what they've read. They don't take advantage of help even when would-be helpers follow them around trying to be helpful. They ignore my notes in their journals telling them that they need to improve their performance and giving them detailed instructions on how to do so. Of course, they have no reason to believe me, because being nice and showing up for class has always kept them from failing before. They have no reason to believe me because the regurgitation that's always worked for them before is still working for them in other classrooms down the hall. They just cannot understand that my class makes very different demands on them, no matter how many people (including former students who serve as tutors and study-group leaders--or who would serve in those capacities if anyone ever went for tutoring or to study groups) patiently explain that in this course, students have to think for themselves.

Hence Julie's grade of D, her mother's outrage, and my depression at the number of times I have lived through student failure and flight in the mere three years I have been teaching this course. It's a losing proposition all around. Julie, a first-generation college student, is discouraged from pursuing a career in teaching. Her mother is angry not only with me, but also with the university that allows me to "malpractice" there. I feel every student failure as my own, and so spend hours in endless soul-searching about what I might have done differently, what I might do in the future to help more students be more successful as they navigate the course.

Colleagues who try to cheer me up routinely depress me further by pointing out to me I'm doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing in the name of reform--making sure that teacher education is a rigorous intellectual enterprise. If many students can't survive? Why, then, all the better! However, I see this argument as an instance of blaming the victim, and I would argue that here a vicious cycle comes full circle:

We say that the answer to better schools is better teachers, who are supposed to come from more-rigorous teacher education programs. But students for those more-rigorous programs are prepared by the schools we are dissatisfied with for churning out smiling robotrons ill-prepared for the kinds of demands new programs are likely to make on them. If they behave like sheep, if they cannot read and think for themselves, it is because they have been taught in a way that produced those results and because much of their college experience argues for the same kind of behavior. It seems to me that simply failing hordes of today's undergraduate teacher education candidates and then smugly congratulating ourselves on our rigor is unethical, especially in a climate where we're talking about educating teachers prepared to "meet students where they are" and to "give every student the conditions he or she needs to perform successfully." Shouldn't we be practicing what we preach? But how do we do that, without retreating from newly implemented demands on students intended to make sure tomorrow's teachers are true intellectuals, genuine professionals?

Some will see my lament here as evidence in favor of a five-year configuration which schedules professional courses late in a student's academic career. But I've taught and supervised in a program where a one-year master's degree in education was grafted onto an undergraduate liberal-arts degree--and experience persuades me that it is impractical to try to prepare a teacher in this configuration. The demands of teaching are such that students need to be nurtured into the profession thoughtfully and over an extended period of time. And besides, if students encounter different expectations in only a very few courses on their way to a bachelor's degree, what difference does it make to postpone demands for original critical thinking? No educational program is an island; the overall climate students experience in their college careers will affect how they adapt to different kinds of demands no matter when they encounter them.

I don't have answers. But, like many of my colleagues, I have a lot of frustration and an inordinate amount of sympathy for all of the Julies who find themselves on the outside of a rigorous program looking in, either wistfully or furiously, literally before they had a chance to figure out where they were and what they were supposed to be doing. It costs them time, effort, money, grief, and pride. It costs us time, effort, money, grief, and a sense of fair play.

I'm not suggesting that we can't get there--to the point where schools have improved because teacher education has improved--from here--a place where our hopes lie in graduates of the schools we criticize. But it's going to be a longer and harder journey with more casualties than many may imagine.

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