Deans Seek Sweeping Reforms for Teaching Corps

By Lynn Olson — July 12, 2019 9 min read


The Holmes Group, a consortium of education deans from about 40 leading research universities, this week released a long-awaited report that calls for “radical” changes in teaching and the education of teachers, including abolition of the undergraduate education major.

The report, “Tomorrow’s Teachers,” was released at a press conference here Monday.

''We have decided that we must work for the changes that we believe to be right, rather than those that we know can succeed,” the deans write.

They propose that the teaching profession be entirely recast into a three-tier hierarchy that includes “career professionals” at the highest level and a pool of “instructors” with only liberal-arts degrees at the lowest. And they charge that undergraduate liberal-arts programs as well as teacher-training programs must be thoroughly re-examined because their inadequate standards and lack of coherence directly affect the quality of the teaching force.

The consortium also announced that it has invited 123 leading research universities from all 50 states to become “charter members” of the organization. By next winter, those interested in membership will have to submit a plan for how their institution will pursue the group’s sweeping reform agenda.

“Much is at stake in this reform effort,” said Judith E. Lanier, chair of the Holmes Group and dean of the college of education at Michigan State University. “American students’ performance will not improve much if the quality of teaching is not improved-and teaching will not improve if the training and rewards for teachers and working conditions in schools are not changed.”

The institutions that elect to become members of the Holmes Group will guide the process of refining the group’s standards and implementing its action plan.

“In time,” said Ms. Lanier, “it is expected that the emerging standards will serve as a basis for the accreditation of research universities that prepare individuals who will make teaching a professional career.”

The group’s report describes many of today’s teachers as “educational functionaries, faithfully but mindlessly following prescriptions about what and how to teach.”

While the report expresses concern about the low status and “demeaning” nature of today’s teaching jobs, it is highly critical of the educational system that produces teachers.

Teacher-education programs are “intellectually weak,” the report states. “Basically a ‘non-program’ at present, professional courses are not interrelated or coherent. The curriculum is seldom reviewed for its comprehensiveness, redundancy, or its responsiveness to research and analysis.”

The report attributes part of the problem to the existence of undergraduate education majors. For elementary-school teachers, in particular, it notes, “this degree has too often become a substitute for learning any academic subject deeply enough to teach it well. These teachers are certified to teach all things to all children. But few of them know much about anything, because they are required to know a little of everything.”

Undergraduate Education

Abolishing undergraduate education majors, however, will not solve the problem of poorly prepared teachers unless the content of liberal-arts education in general is improved, according to the report.

“Our own professional schools are part of the problem,” it notes. “But what of the many badly taught and often mindlessly required courses that our students, like all undergraduates, must take in the various departments of arts, sciences, and humanities?”

“Is the weak pedagogy, the preoccupation with ‘covering the material,’ the proliferation of multiple-choice tests, and the delegation of much teaching to graduate students—increasingly, students who I cannot speak English very well—not full of messages about the nature of knowledge and standards for acceptable teaching?” it asks. “Can we expect many good teachers to come from universities that teach their undergraduates in these ways? These problems are as real as those in our own schools and departments, and as influential for school-teaching.”

“While the higher-education community has recognized these problems for a long time, we have failed to develop appropriate solutions,” the report continues. “A major concerted effort is essential, therefore, to stimulate effective reform.”

Reform Agenda

All Holmes Group members will be expected to work with the chief academic officers and departmental faculty in their universities to reform undergraduate education, by developing “strong, intellectually defensible courses in the core subjects” and relating subject-matter knowledge to knowledge about teaching.

Member institutions also will be expected to phase out their undergraduate education majors and replace them with graduate professional programs in teacher education. Holmes Group institutions will collectively reassess the pedagogical curriculum in their schools of education and work to develop a “strong, coherent program” of professional training.

In addition, members will be expected to work with local school systems to create new “Professional Development Schools,” analogous to teaching hospitals in the medical profession. These sites would serve as settings for teaching professionals to test different instructional arrangements, for novice teachers and researchers to work under the guidance of gifted practitioners, and for the exchange of professional knowledge between university faculty and practitioners.

The report describes the current field experience of prospective teachers as “neither broad nor deep.”

“Student teachers succeed,” it notes, “because they relinquish the norms of professional colleges of education without a struggle. The typical student-teaching experience is not a genuine laboratory experience because the possibilities of failure and risk are minimal. The emphasis is upon imitation of and subservience to the supervising teacher, not upon investigation, reflection, and solving novel problems.”

Restructured Profession

The aim of the Holmes Group’s vision of a revised teacher-education program is a more professional, hierarchical teaching structure, according to the report.

At the top of the hierarchy would be a group of teachers known as “career professionals,” with authority at both the classroom and school levels. These individuals—representing roughly one-fifth of the teaching force—would play a role in education “not unlike that of clinical professors in medicine,” the report states.

Directly below them would be the majority of the teaching force, known as “professional teachers.” These teachers would function with full autonomy within their own classrooms, and would most closely resemble today’s teachers, except for the stiffer requirements they would have to meet.

Career professionals would be expected to hold the equivalent of a doctoral degree and would have to demonstrate outstanding performance in their fields. Professional teachers would hold a master’s degree in teaching, and would have completed a full year of supervised teaching.

Both groups would have to pass a set of rigorous exams in reading and writing, their academic specialty, and pedagogy and human learning. And both groups would have to demonstrate their competence as teachers through multiple forms of evaluations that provided a “rigorous scrutiny” of their practice.

‘Temporary Personnel’

On the bottom rung of the hierarchy would be “instructors"—a rotating supply of temporary classroom teachers who do not intend to remain in the profession.

Instructors would be required to have a sound liberal-arts education and a strong undergraduate major or minor in the subjects they would teach. They would also have to pass written tests in each field they teach, in reading and writing, and in the rudiments of pedagogy.

However, they would not have to have a graduate degree, and they would not be allowed to remain in teaching for more than five years, unless they proceeded to become professional teachers, and met those higher standards.

The role of instructors, moreover, would be clearly differentiated from that of teachers. Instructors would have their lessons structured by and could work only under the supervision of professional teachers. They would not participate formally in setting school policy, evaluating personnel or programs, counseling students and parents, or setting curriculum.

‘Four-Year’ Debate

According to Ms. Lanier, the group created the “instructor” position in teaching in response to complaints that it was prematurely rejecting the possibility of individuals entering teaching after only four years of college education.

Some members of the Holmes Group have argued that the consortium lacks sufficient research to reject all four-year programs, and that the additional cost and time involved in graduate-level education could discourage capable people from entering teaching.

“It was an attempt to listen to the concerns expressed by several dissenting deans, who really were concerned that people who wanted to teach for a short period of time—and who might be very competent and good—or who could only make brief investments in their education, not be denied the opportunity to work with youngsters,” Ms. Lanier explained. But she added that “brief investments do not a professional make.”

Focus on Professionals

Although Holmes Group members could educate instructors, they would be expected to focus on the preparation of professional and career-professional teachers.

Moreover, the existence of the “instructor” position does not exempt Holmes Group members from abolishing undergraduate education majors, one of the most controversial recommendations in the report.

According to the report, those present at the November meeting of the group agreed that “baccalaureate graduates would not be recommended for certification as teachers without a professional master’s degree in education; and in particular one that included a year of rigorous academic and clinical study, as well as a year’s internship under the tutelage of career professional teachers. Most of the assembled leaders assumed that these stringent requirements would necessitate more than the four years of preparation ordinarily required of prospective teachers.”

Five-Year Mission

According to the Holmes Group’s report, “much remains to be done” before the higher standards for teaching and teacher-education described in teh report can be put into effect.

One of the highest priorities of Holmes Group members over the next five years will be to work on the development of the new examinations and assessments of professional competence described in the report.

In addition, Holmes Group members must commit themselves to significantly increase the number of minority students in their teacher-education programs.

‘Intimidating to Some’

“I think the issues are too important to be ignored,” said Cecil Miskel, dean of the graduate school of education at the University of Utah and a member of the Holmes Group’s executive board, about the group’s proposals. “But the charge is tough and complicated, and it may be intimidating to some.”

The proposed reforms would require many research universities to take the preparation of teachers and the improvement of public schools more seriously than they do now, said Ms. Lanier.

“Some may not want to make the investment,” she said, adding, “We desperately need their help in addressing the problems of this nation’s schools.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 09, 1986 edition of Education Week


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