Published Online: February 5, 1997

Departments

Producing Teachers Who Understand, Believe, and Care

Research clearly reveals the inequitable distribution of teachers across the United States, adding seriously to our landscape of inequities.

Teaching lacks a career line that keeps alive the dedicated service orientation that so many would-be teachers express. This orientation came through strongly in interviews of thousands of young people about to enter teaching conducted by colleagues and me in the late 1980s. Absent a well-paid career line of advancement, the alternative attraction for many of those who remain in teaching is to seek out the most supportive teaching circumstances. The principle at work is no different from that in other occupations. It simply is easier to sustain test-score levels year after year in some schools than in others--and thus not have to live with the threat of being fired. If possible, why not teach where only the slowest group, rather than all three reading groups, is below state or national norms? And so, children in advantaged communities enjoy the advantages of a stable teaching force; many of the disadvantaged experience only a succession of substitutes. Research (especially that of Linda Darling-Hammond) clearly reveals the inequitable distribution of teachers across the United States, adding seriously to our landscape of inequities. The pressure for charter schools for some must be converted into commitment and action to create schools that are commonly good for all--a condition that is unattainable in the absence of good teachers.

We carry in our collective heads a misguided set of images regarding what teaching in schools requires, many of them reflecting legacies from the beginnings of schooling. When the teachings of religious orders in the 17th century transmitted to many parents a moral ethic to the effect that family apprenticeship was not sufficient preparation for adulthood, the school proposed was to be "an instrument of strict discipline protected by the law-courts and the police-courts," according to Philippe Aries in Centuries of Childhood (1962). Subsequently, the military became and remains a teacher source pool of such validity that the necessity for other credentials often is waived.

In the early 1840s, the rapid rise in school enrollments stimulated a call for men to give up their business enterprises for a month or more each year to offset the shortage of teachers. Few responded. But the concept of a masculine presence in the orderly classroom and school remained. The consequences of this image for the emerging system of schooling are too obvious and many to recount here. The gates into teaching always have been loosely latched for recruits from business management, as have been the gates into the principalship for men.

Absent the hoped-for recruitment response, the Massachusetts legislature authorized the opening of four normal schools for the preparation of teachers. Again, few men showed up. Most of the women who did were modestly schooled. The curriculum presented to them was primarily of the subjects (and at the level) of the content they were expected to teach in the schools; there was little in the art and science of teaching. In the context of a society that little valued the intelligence of women but saw in them a role of nurturing the young, the female-driven pedagogy of the 19th century warranted little scholarly attention. In the rapid expansion of higher education in the 20th century, particularly after World War II, pedagogy and teacher education were awarded third-rate status. As a consequence, the education of teachers and, therefore, the well-being of children and this nation have been sorely neglected.

Into this vacuum of neglect come, reform era after reform era, all the long-standing images referred to earlier regarding the disciplining of the young and the accompanying stereotypes of the caring females of modest educational credentials who will nurture the young, the military men who will maintain discipline, and the subject-oriented male graduates of the universities who will teach the older students--or so goes the conventional wisdom. Which of these "most wanted" are to fall victim to the Philadelphia purge?

The various elements of this historical context, still alive and powerfully influential today, are well documented in the educational literature. Might one expect them to promote robust programs of teacher education in our universities, enjoying resources equivalent to those of the other genres of professional education? Of course not.

The top-ranked schools prepare only a handful of teachers; some prepare none.

In the transition of normal schools to teachers' colleges, to state colleges, and then state universities, teacher education slipped steadily from the center to the periphery of institutional mission. In most research-oriented universities, the education of teachers has near-orphan status even in their schools of education. The top-ranked schools prepare only a handful of teachers; some prepare none. Even though the subject matter on which teachers draw in their work is (unlike that of the other professions) in the arts and sciences, the general education curriculum of universities is considerably influenced by the schools of the other professions and scarcely at all by considerations of teachers' education. Unlike the other professional education programs, the curriculum of teacher education is heavily influenced by the state--to the point of specifying most of the content and maximum course hours. With state requirements subject to political fancy and unpredictable change, there is little to encourage the expenditure of faculty time and energy that robust program renewal requires.

In our comprehensive study of the six major types of teacher-preparing institutions scattered across the United States, colleagues and I found plenty to account for the conclusion that "a significant percentage of the nation's newly hired teachers are undertrained and ill-prepared"--a long-standing, not new, condition. Contrary to conventional wisdom, future teachers are required to meet the general graduation requirements of all students in accredited colleges and universities. Unlike students heading for careers in other fields (such as engineering), future teachers rarely find a clearly defined, coherent route to their goal. Through careful planning and a good deal of luck, they often replace elective courses with the specified education courses, scattering the latter across the upper division of the college, commonly carrying maximum course loads and attending summer sessions. Not surprisingly, then, the transcripts of future teachers reveal credit hours substantially in excess of those specified for graduation.

With accountability dispersed, blame and villain theories run rampant: It's the students, it's the teachers, it's the state, it's the schools of education.

This course-hour overload will not, however, ensure for Philadelphia and other school districts the competent, caring, qualified teachers our children deserve. Nor will Philadelphia's proposed solution. Nor will unlatching the gates to admit retirees from business and the military. Nor will eliminating all credentials for teaching and admitting any college graduate with a subject major that matches a subject in the schools' curriculum, as is so frequently proposed.

The overwhelming majority of those hired each year to teach in our schools are the product of a misbegotten set of conditions that defy accurate pinpointing of accountability. With accountability dispersed, blame and villain theories run rampant: It's the students, it's the teachers, it's the state, it's the schools of education.

Most of the many hundreds of future teachers we interviewed were innocent victims--far more service-oriented and enthusiastic about teaching than their circumstances appeared to warrant. Yes, friends, relatives, and even some former teachers had tried to dissuade them from their goal of teaching; yes, many perceived themselves to be peripheral to campus priorities; yes, students with other career goals made deprecating remarks about schoolteaching ("Somebody has to do it"); and some professors were less than supportive (sometimes suggesting other alternatives, especially to academically talented students). Most would have welcomed a less crowded, less hurried program, particularly involving more time in field and practice situations accompanied by guided reflection. Few were put off by the suggestion of an additional year to facilitate this--so long as the requirements are made clear at the outset.

The National Commission on Teaching & America's Future has brought forward a set of recommendations that align with some contained in earlier reports as well as with recommendations surfaced by contemporary reform bodies. The agreements are sufficient to drive a national agenda of renewal. Precisely defining and implementing such an agenda is daunting--so daunting, in fact, as to invoke Eliza's prophecy still another time. Faced with only the logistics of the renewing process, however, I would be more than cautiously optimistic. What I fear above all else is the power of the legacies and images regarding what teaching in schools requires that so conveniently accommodate our continuing neglect of the education of our teachers and, therefore, of our children. How loud must the alarm be for America to wake up?



Web Only

Related Stories
Web Resources

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Recommended

Commented

Sponsored Advertiser Links