Commentary

Teachers Who Understand, Believe, and Care: Part II

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Part I of this two-part essay addressed an irony: teachers ill-prepared and casually admitted into teaching and then subjected to harsh measures of accountability. ("Producing Teachers Who Understand, Believe, and Care," Feb. 5, 1997.) The author closed on a note of mixed pessimism and cautious optimism. The pessimism, Mr. Goodlad wrote, grows out of our long history of neglect and folly regarding the education that competent, caring teachers require. The cautious optimism, he said, stems from the fact that we know how to turn this situation around should America wake up.

The two most significant factors in the school-based learning of children and youths are the readiness to learn students bring with them and the readiness to teach of their teachers. The low and high readiness of both tend to cluster, creating inequities in the educational productivity of schools not tolerated in other developed countries. The demographics of these inequities parallel the demographics generally of the inequities that characterize this nation. These inequities have grown greater in the years since a former president of Harvard University, James B. Conant, warned of their potential for "social dynamite" (in Slums and Suburbs, 1961).

Strangely, the seemingly obvious connection between good schools and robust teacher education programs has gone almost unmentioned in school reform reports until quite recently. The relatively recent reports of various commissions (most of them broadly representative of the educational, business, and political sectors) not only emphasize this connection but also agree sufficiently on the needed changes in teacher education and the basic elements of redesigned programs to shape a nationwide policy agenda.

The most recent of these reports, "What Matters Most: Teaching for America's Future," advances a moral perspective: Every child is entitled to a caring, competent, and qualified teacher. It seeks to galvanize into action collaboration of policymakers, philanthropic foundations, and educational institutions necessary to ensuring such a teacher for every child by 2006. ("Teaching Focus Called the Key in Reform Push," Sept. 18, 1996.) David Imig, the chief executive officer of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, arguably our best-informed observer of the teacher education enterprise, praises the report and urges its implementation but is less than sanguine about this prospect. In noting the past shelving of recommendations put forward by informed, hard-working groups--this time the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future--he derives hope from the cumulative impact of a decade's attention to issues of teaching and teacher education by teacher leaders and educators.

However, their views of what must be done differ markedly from those of some needed partners in collaboration whose vision is clouded by shadowy legacies that foster policies of keeping the gates into teaching the young always loosely latched. The nation may be ready to accept the proposition that every child is entitled to a caring, qualified, competent teacher, but it neither agrees on nor is ready to commit to what ensuring such requires of us.

Nonetheless, should the unanticipated occur and there arise a sense of urgency regarding the commission's goal similar to the one that transformed medical education between 1910 (the year of the seminal Flexner Report) and 1930, we should apprise ourselves of whatever agreements regarding teacher education appear to have emerged. A fast track is essential since the date set for attainment is now less than a decade distant.

In moving toward its recommendations, the commission gave credit to an array of organizations such as the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, the Holmes Group, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, and the National Network for Educational Renewal. Given this credit to and representation of the teaching-standards board on the commission, one assumes agreement on the board's published statement regarding the best guarantee of professional competence:

"The combination of rigorous assessment, an extended course of professional study, and a well-supervised practicum provides the strongest warrant of competence. Such a requirement assures not only that certain studies have been completed, but that certificate holders have been socialized in college and university settings where there is extended time for interaction and reflection with peers and faculty on matters of professional practice, ethics, and tradition. Similarly, engagement in professional training on a full-time basis enhances the character of study, the quality of inquiry, and the commitment to scholarship of the entering novice."

The quality controls recommended by the national commission on teaching include program accreditation and individual teacher assessment, presumably by NCATE (represented on the commission) and the NBPTS, respectively. Here is where some sharp disagreement arises. The most fundamental issue pertains to the nature of the teaching profession and the relationship of teachers to the unique private and public purposes they serve. Are the certifying, licensing, and accrediting functions to parallel those of professions such as medicine and law, characterized more by a contractual expert-to-client relationship? Or does the risk-laden occupation of teaching the young require a yet-to-be-devised set of guiding criteria designed to foster collaboration among student, parent, and teacher while respecting the interests of all three?

The fear of standards for teachers and their preparation programs that are set by remote bureaucracies already has brought sharp criticism of the commission and its recommendations from those who want minimal credentials for teachers. But those people who agree that the best guarantee of competence on the part of any and all professionals is a sustained program of study, supervised practice, and socialization into the demands and expectations of a profession endorse processes of both program and practitioner review. The mission of schooling and the circumstances of teaching virtually prescribe certain necessary conditions of teachers' education programs while calling out for diversity among those who enter and graduate from them. We are not likely to work diligently on the establishment of these conditions without being acutely aware of their need and absence.

The commission's list of programmatic shortcomings included many that colleagues and I documented in the comprehensive study of a representative sample of teacher-preparing settings we studied in the late 1980s. Although these settings varied considerably in the seriousness of their omissions and commissions, our findings were depressingly repetitive across the sample:

  • Common omission of teacher education in institutional priorities (from conversations with university presidents and provosts).
  • From three to six separate schools offering near-autonomous teacher education programs, with little in common, in large multipurpose universities.
  • Few of the tenure-line faculty recruited in nationwide searches engaged in teacher education in the schools of education housed in major research-oriented universities.
  • Heavy dependence on part-time, adjunct teacher education faculty in many schools of education, ensuring a low-cost enterprise.
  • Obvious institutional pride and satisfaction in having "progressed" from normal schools and teachers' colleges to become state universities.
  • Enormous tensions in these former teachers' colleges among faculty members not well prepared in research now withdrawing time and energy from teaching and supervision of student-teachers to comply with changing reward systems.
  • From three to four distinctively separate faculty groups conducting the several segments of teacher education curricula without benefit of a commonly shared mission.
  • General absence of socializing activities and both personal and career guidance for prospective teachers during the freshman and sophomore years, even though preparatory coursework commonly did not occur until the junior year.
  • An institutional ethos in most institutions that impacted negatively (without destroying, however) the feelings of self-worth and the service orientation of students soon to enter teaching.
  • A chronic problem, acute in high teacher-producing institutions, of finding enough teachers in schools willing to take on student-teachers. (In a few settings, we encountered students seeking such teachers--any teachers--on their own, sometimes days after their student-teaching quarter or semester had begun.)
  • Student-teachers experiencing unresolved and rarely discussed dissonance between some practices expected of them and those which they had been prepared to deliver.
  • A history of state regulation that discouraged faculty members from devoting time and energy to program renewal.
  • Widespread faculty perception of accreditation procedures as a chore to be carried out by the director of teacher education and as few colleagues as possible, after which matters returned to their normal stable state.
These and many other shortcomings surfaced so consistently during the first third of our visits to settings that we were led to expect and then to discuss them with groups and individuals in settings subsequently visited. University administrators, faculty members in an array of departments, students, cooperating teachers, and school administrators were ready--often eager--to discuss them with surprising candor. Indeed, in spite of our efforts to keep a low profile and the anonymity of settings visited, we increasingly found that individuals in a previously visited setting already had called to report their satisfaction regarding conversations with us, conversations rarely a part of their ongoing work. For most, a quite demanding workload of teaching, student advisement, committee meetings, and research filled their days. They were forthright in recognizing the need for change--fundamental change--but the context of their work provided few contingencies to encourage, let alone guide, them in the daunting challenges our conversations posed.

Many of the necessary changes and recommendations of the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future address these and other problems. Some of the proposals overlap with those of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy and the Holmes Group (in 1986 reports) and from our study (see Teachers for Our Nation's Schools, 1990). This meshing is what encourages David Imig to cautiously advance the proposition that the commission's report could be a vital document for change. As my mother was wont to say when considerable doubt of a proposition's viability lurked in her mind, "Maybe."

Like all reports of this kind, the commission's arguments for what is needed soar well above the exigencies that will distort, block, and sometimes advance its recommendations. The 10-year time period appears realistic, especially in light of the short time required to plan for and propel the first American astronauts into outer space. But it is not. It took 20 years for the reforms in medical education disseminated in 1910, based on studies of all medical schools, to spread through a much smaller arena. And the reform report, based largely on an existing model, presented a far more comprehensive and detailed agenda than has the national commission on teaching. Quite unlike their view of medical education, people in most walks of life believe their views on schools and schoolteaching to be about as sound as those of anybody else, including educators. This makes the route to the commission's goal a tortuous one, however sensible and appealing that goal may be.

This situation raises to a level of critical importance Mr. Imig's observation (providing his ray of hope) regarding "the concerted efforts of many teachers and teacher-educators" to keep teacher education on the national agenda. During this period, the philanthropic-foundation community has sustained several improvement initiatives--some of them for years beyond the usual time span for financial support. Surely we will now look to what has been learned while continuing to strengthen what is now under way and not assume, as we so often react to educational alarms, that the commission's report signals a blank slate.

I can speak with informed authority for only one of these--the National Network for Educational Renewal--but parts of its agenda overlap with those of the Holmes Group, for example, some recommendations of the commission, and teacher-preparing settings not affiliated with any specific initiative. There is under way more than idle stirring of a complex stew.

In 1986, the Center for Educational Renewal of the University of Washington created the National Network for Educational Renewal (just a few months after its own beginnings), consisting of 10 school-university partnerships in as many states. The agenda to be advanced was that of simultaneously renewing schools and the education of educators.

With school reform the dominant educational theme of the time, attention turned primarily to the school side of the renewal equation. With release of the center's study of teacher education in 1990, attention swung so far toward the other side that the NNER has had difficulty establishing public identification for its simultaneous emphasis: better teachers, better schools; better schools, better teachers.

The center's documentation of serious shortcomings in the low-status, underfunded teacher education programs studied (a carefully derived representative sample) at first numbed their stewards, who are so conveniently blamed for our widespread neglect. Accustomed to a laundry list of possibly corrective measures, they were at first puzzled by 19 "affirmations," presented as postulates, that collectively embraced several dozen conditions necessary to the education programs of competent, caring, qualified teachers. Each of these conditions was presented as one to be substituted for each of those identified in the study's findings as not good enough.

Because these conditions were relatively concrete and identifiable--for example, the place of teacher education among institutional priorities as evidenced by budget allocations and targets for fund raising--this part of the agenda had a practical appeal. Initial numbness changed to curiosity about the implications embedded in the postulates and to some critical self-examination in more than a few teacher-preparing settings. Some of this was stimulated by conversations in more than two dozen states encouraged by small grants passed through the Education Commission of the States from a corporate foundation. Some of the rising interest focused on preparing applications for the pilot implementation announced by the center to be conducted through the NNER.

Another part of the agenda--indeed, its conceptual grounding--partly introduced by the book The Moral Dimensions of Teaching (1990) and more theoretical and chimeric, drew only passing attention at first. Increasingly, however, individuals and groups in and beyond the network settings began to realize that the four-part mission advanced for schooling and teacher education implied a role for teachers significantly beyond those of technician, disciplinarian, and day-care giver carried down from the past.

The mission offered guidance to the tough decisions involved in providing robust conditions for the teacher education enterprise. It stimulated debate over what is required to prepare teachers for their roles in developing responsible citizens, ensuring for all students the knowledge and skills required for maximum self- development, and providing caring pedagogy and the moral stewardship of schools.

Might not such a mission make teaching competitive with other professions in its attractiveness? And might not teachers and teacher-educators gain respectful regard in the culture of higher education and the community beyond? A conversation focused on this mission and its implications began to emerge and to spread.

Today, the network remains deliberately small (although large for educational improvement initiatives): 34 colleges and universities in 16 settings joined in the simultaneous renewal of schooling with over 100 school districts and more than 400 partner schools. The Center for Educational Renewal is tooling up for an inquiry, to be conducted during 1997-98, into the experiences of other settings engaged in the conversation and parallel work.

Perhaps, with encouragement and modest discretionary funds, many of these could sunset their existing teacher education programs and replace them with redesigned ones, as some of the NNER settings have done. Or, could shed off the old, piece by piece, and replace it with the new, as other network settings have done. Then, after the turn of the century, waves of competent, qualified teachers who have learned how to care by being carefully cared for might join in our schools the successive cohorts of such teachers nurtured year after year in the NNER settings.

For this scenario to play out, public money must be added to philanthropy that initially represented confidence in just a few people. The members of the national commission will not see a competent, caring, and qualified teacher in every child's classroom by 2006, but they could see enough to make omissions a matter for quick correction.

There are, unfortunately, alternative scenarios that require neither commitment nor effort. These are simply the scenarios of all is well, steady as she goes; surely our sons and daughters are entitled to teacher preparation programs near home, however weak and self-satisfied the local program may be; abolish all teaching credentials, anyone with a college degree is qualified and entitled to teach; clear the road for military and business retirees, a short apprenticeship is all that is needed; or, says Assemblyman Jones after lambasting the schools: "They won't let my wife teach until she's gone back to school!" Which of these scenarios will prevail?

Vol. 16, Issue 20, Page 46, 48-49

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