Published Online: September 15, 1999
Published in Print: September 15, 1999, as Educating the Educators

Educating the Educators

In 1857, the year the National Education Association was founded, teacher and lecturer William Russell made a bold proposal: Give teachers control over entry into their profession.

"Let a teachers' association receive a charter from the state and proceed, without further authorization, to examine and pass upon applicants for membership," wrote Russell, who made his home in Massachusetts. "The state and public will quickly, gladly, and appreciatively accept such an assumption of responsibility by the teaching profession."

But the system suggested by Russell, followed in fields such as law and medicine, was not to be. Instead, the 20th century has been marked by criticism and controversy over the quality and rigor of licensure standards and teacher education--subjects that continue to stir strong passions.

By the early 1900s, states had begun to assert significant control over teaching. The local practices of the 19th century--in which school districts issued teaching permits on the basis of examinations--gave way to a system that closely entwined licensure and teacher education.

Along the way, the normal schools that the 19th-century education reformer Horace Mann so optimistically called "a new instrumentality in the advancement of the race" were left by the wayside. Such schools provided their students, who were mostly young women, with academic courses beyond the elementary education most had received, along with pedagogical training.

But over the century, those institutions underwent what the teacher-educator John I. Goodlad calls "a rite of passage"--from normal school to teachers' college to state college to regional state university.

The transformation, he writes in his 1990 book Teachers for Our Nation's Schools, was accompanied by "a severe loss of identity for teacher education."

'Quantity Over Quality'

Teachers themselves were required to gain increasing amounts of formal education. In the past 35 years alone, according to the NEA, teachers' qualifications have increased dramatically. In 1961, 14.6 percent of teachers had less than a bachelor's degree, and 23.5 percent had earned advanced degrees. By 1996, just 0.3 percent of teachers lacked college degrees, and 56.2 percent held advanced degrees.

"The horizon has lifted almost with each generation," says Donald Warren, the dean of the education school at Indiana University. "But more formal preparation has not necessarily meant better."

Though normal schools were established to train teachers for the nation's burgeoning common schools, from the start they attracted people who had no intention of going into teaching. Instead, those students simply sought a convenient and inexpensive education beyond high school.

Normal schools also were under pressure to produce teachers quickly and cheaply, observes David F. Labaree, a professor of education at Michigan State University, or districts would hire teachers without any formal training at all.

"So normal schools adapted by stressing quantity over quality," he writes in a 1999 article in Academe magazine, "establishing a disturbing but durable pattern of weak professional preparation and low academic standards."

Eastern normal schools tended to attract modestly educated women and offered a course of study to bring them up to a 7th or 8th grade level, Goodlad notes, while those in the Midwest were geared to the secondary level. The Midwestern schools also began to prepare young men to enter school administration.

In large cities, high schools offered courses to prepare people to teach. "City normals" were established in Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, New York City, St. Louis, and other major urban areas.

Cities also continued to perform their own gatekeeping functions until well into the century; the New York City board of examiners, which administered its own licensing tests for prospective teachers, remained in place until 1990. The cumbersome system meant that applicants had to take examinations to earn both state and city licenses.

Rural teachers, in contrast, typically entered the classroom with little formal education and received their professional coursework at summer "teacher institutes."

After all, Edgar B. Wesley observed in the 1957 history Nea: The First 100 Years, people with the ability and ambition to succeed in normal schools weren't likely to take poorly paid, short-term jobs teaching in one-room schoolhouses.

As teacher-training programs were established, states began to license teachers on the basis of normal-school diplomas or some type of prescribed college curricula. By 1900, according to Education in the States: Development Since 1900, a 1969 report by the Council of Chief State School Officers, 41 states accepted such evidence in lieu of examinations.

Critics would come to deride such requirements as evidence of the education establishment's focus on "inputs" rather than results, but the rules represented an improvement over the previous examination system. The exams weren't always rigorous, and were open to patronage abuses because they were administered locally.

The professionally trained administrators who ran the state education departments, in fact, took great pride in the body of professional knowledge represented by the coursework.

Low Priority

In the 1930s, according to Education in the States, states formed advisory councils on teacher education and certification to involve members of the profession in setting standards and requirements. (Later, in the 1970s, the NEA pushed for the creation of teacher-majority "professional-standards boards" to regulate entry into the field.)

States also began to administer the National Teacher Examination in 1940, a time of a relative teacher surplus. But the shortages created by World War II put a damper on enthusiasm for teacher testing.

By the end of the war, normal schools had virtually vanished in favor of four-year teachers' colleges, which soon became state colleges that awarded degrees in a variety of fields. In the process, teacher training slipped further down higher education's agenda, in favor of preparing administrators, conducting research, and offering continued professional education to practitioners.

Consistent with that focus, most debates about teacher licensing and education were conducted by administrators, faculty members, and state education department employees.

But in 1946, the NEA formed its National Commission on Teacher Education and Professional Standards, known as TEPS. The establishment of the commission, strongly supported by the association's department of classroom teachers, marked the first attempt by teachers to gain a voice in professional training.

Participants at TEPS' many regional conferences agreed that licensure was intended to protect the public from incompetent teachers, according to David L. Angus, a late professor at the University of Michigan. But it was also meant to protect the members of the profession from unfair competition from untrained people.

At the time, Angus writes in a paper to be published posthumously by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, that concern was sensible: Approximately 109,000 people were teaching on emergency licenses following the war.

TEPS councils in the states pushed for more formal education for elementary teachers, the elimination of examinations, and five-year programs for high school teachers. They also sought to have classroom teachers represented on states' teacher education advisory councils.

During the 1950s, states moved to the "approved-programs approach" for licensing teachers. Instead of specifying courses and hours for teachers, a state approved teacher education programs and left the details to faculties to determine.

Under Attack

Various professional associations, including the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, joined together in 1954 to form the first national accrediting organization for education schools.

The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education was not met with enthusiasm by the colleges and universities whose programs it would scrutinize, however.

The debut of the accrediting body also failed to stave off public criticism of teacher education as an intellectually weak effort. Particularly after the 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik I, Angus points out, professional educators came under attack.

"The notion that the hegemony of professional educators over virtually all aspects of the American educational system had led to a loss of seriousness of purpose became far more plausible," he writes.

James B. Conant, a former president of Harvard University, criticized the academic and professional training offered to teachers in The Education of American Teachers, published in 1963.

Even harsher was James D. Koerner in The Miseducation of American Teachers, brought out the same year. He summed up "educationists" as a "sincere, humanitarian, well-intentioned, hard-working, poorly informed, badly educated, and ineffectual group of men and women."

Neither critic proposed any particular model for teacher education. Conant threw his support behind a lengthy period of practice-teaching, dismissing professional coursework and enraging educators in the process.

Conant's teacher education report didn't mention the quality of schools, Goodlad observes, and Conant's previous tome on high schools had failed to mention teachers.

It wasn't until the early 1980s, Goodlad says, that school reformers began to make the connection between good schools and well-prepared teachers. At that time, political leaders and the public became worried about the relatively low scores of prospective teachers on the SAT, and a perceived lack of rigor in their training drew renewed concern.

States had begun administering tests to prospective teachers in the mid-1960s. Still, only a handful of states, mostly in the South, tested teachers until the 1980s. Today, 44 states do so.

The 1980s saw the release of "Tomorrow's Teachers," a report of the Holmes Group, made up of education deans at leading research universities, who castigated themselves and their institutions for their relative neglect of teacher education.

The 1986 report was followed by two more calling for reforms, including the establishment of professional-development schools.

Often likened to teaching hospitals, those schools proliferated during the late 1980s and early 1990s, raising nagging questions among educators about their quality.

Meanwhile, NCATE, during the past decade, has overhauled its standards and gained more credibility. The accrediting organization has forged closer working relationships with the states, most of which now use the national accrediting body's standards for teacher preparation in evaluating programs.

The organization also has written standards for professional-development schools as a benchmark for districts and universities involved in such partnerships.

As it has increased its authority, however, NCATE has attracted some competition. The Teacher Education Accreditation Council, launched in 1998 with the support of college presidents upset about NCATE's requirements, is trying to create an alternative system--evidence that the teaching profession remains divided.

A multistate consortium is cooperating on new ways to license teachers, with a focus not just on subject-matter and professional knowledge, but also demonstrated skill in the classroom.

Together with the nascent efforts of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to identify and certify outstanding teachers, the profession has gained the "three-legged stool" of quality assurance--licensing, accreditation, and advanced certification--that characterizes more-mature professions.

Nonetheless, teacher education finds itself often on the defensive.

New accountability provisions in federal law, for instance, will require institutions to show how many of their students pass state basic-skills tests--evidence that the public still doesn't think much of the quality of professional preparation for teachers.

PHOTO: The responsibility of educating teachers has shifted from the normal school to the teachers' college to the full-fledged college or university over the course of the century. More than 3,000 students were enrolled in summer school at the North Texas State Teachers College in Denton in 1928.
—Library of Congress

Vol. 19, Issue 02, Pages 38-39

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