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Published in Print: March 3, 2004, as Congress Orders Thorough Study Of Teacher Education Programs

Congress Orders Thorough Study Of Teacher Education Programs

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For the first time since 1933, Congress has mandated a wholesale cataloging of the work done by the nation's teacher-preparation programs, to understand better the academic content and field experiences provided to prospective teachers.

"It is intended to be an advisory report on the quality of preparation," said Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, the director of the Institute of Education Sciences, the arm of the U.S. Department of Education charged with conducting the data collection. "People will read it at the state and federal levels and figure out what we're doing well, and what needs to be changed."

The study, tucked into a fiscal 2004 appropriations bill, will seek to answer several questions, Mr. Whitehurst said. Congress intends for existing data to be synthesized on the consistency of required coursework, how reading and math are taught, and the degree to which programs are aligned with scientific evidence on the subjects, he said.

If information does not exist, the institute has been directed to gather it.

"Are there common ways of thinking? Knowing that, we can develop standards and norms," and professionalize the field, said G. Reid Lyon, the chief of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Mr. Lyon, who has become an influential and controversial figure in reading research, helped spearhead the concept of the teacher-preparation report along with those who work in the field.

The institute has allocated $1.5 million for the venture, which will take several years to complete, Mr. Whitehurst said. The project will more than likely be undertaken by the National Research Council.

'Very, Very Ambitious'

The study comes as traditional teacher-training programs have come under new fire. Critics, including the Bush administration, contend they do not provide aspiring teachers with rigorous academic-content knowledge or practical skills, yet generally take four years to produce teachers.

Meanwhile, new, faster models of certification are proliferating that take only a short time to complete. Only last month, Georgia adopted a rule allowing teachers to bypass any pedagogical training whatsoever. ("Georgia Panel Eases Path to Becoming a Teacher," Feb. 25, 2004.)

"The value-added of teacher education is going to be demonstrated if the study is set up in a way that looks at outcomes and ... the impact on student learning," said David G. Imig, the president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, a Washington-based group that represents campus-based programs.

Many experts welcome the study, saying it will provide objective information about a field that has been inadequately documented.

Although teacher-preparation programs and the states that license their graduates must report some information about their work as part of both the federal Higher Education Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, there is no requirement that they compile and make public data about many aspects of their efforts.

"One of the reasons there is seemingly so much controversy is that teacher education has not been well studied," said Arthur E. Wise, the president of the Washington-based National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, which evaluates colleges of education. "We do have a lot of small-scale studies, but the big policy questions have not been well studied. This is very, very ambitious."

Political Purposes?

Some wonder if the data will be used for political purposes.

For example, Congress has asked teacher-preparation programs to tie their work to "scientific evidence," an increasingly politicized term, said Karen Zumwaldt, a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University. "That's a hornet's nest," she said. "What is 'scientific evidence' and how is it applied? Should that be the sole basis for educational decisions?"

Some, in fact, point to Mr. Lyon's role in shaping the study as an indication that the information gathered will be used to quash colleges of education.

Those critics, who do not wish to be identified for fear of political retaliation, go so far as to contend that Mr. Lyon used his influence to place the study in the catchall spending bill enacted in January, rather than make it part of the Higher Education Act. The HEA is up for renewal this year and will likely be the subject of public hearings.

Mr. Lyon, an outspoken critic of traditional teacher preparation, said such theories "sound pretty Machiavellian" and hold no truth.

"This should be a productive process," he said, "done by very objective, well-meaning bodies."

Vol. 23, Issue 25, Page 13

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Correction: 
In the story, G. Reid Lyon was misidentified. He is the chief of the child-development and -behavior branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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