Editors Lament ‘Thin’ Teacher-Education Research

By Debra Viadero — April 04, 1990 3 min read

Although researchers have made notable progress in the field of teacher education in recent years, educators still possess little hard knowledge about how best to prepare the nation’s teachers, according to the editors of a new book on the subject.

The book, entitled Handbook of Research on Teacher Education, is thought to be the most comprehensive text to date aimed at developing a consensus on the fundamental issues involved in the training of teachers. Produced jointly by the Association of Teacher Educators and Macmillan Publishing Company, the 995-page textbook contains 48 articles by 75 of the top researchers in the field.

The editors’ views on the quantity and quality of teacher-education research are contained in a preface to the book.

‘Thin’ Knowledge

The idea that a body of scientific knowledge can exist that will help design programs for training teachers is one that has been widely discussed in the field for no more than a decade, according to W. Robert Houston, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Houston’s college of education.

Mr. Houston edited the book along with John Sikula, dean of the Graduate School of Education at California State University-Long Beach, and Martin Haberman, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Despite some recent improvement in the quality of teacher-education research, however, “the research basis for such important work as educating the nation’s teachers is still extremely thin,” the editors write.

Part of the problem, they say, has been that researchers working in the field have relied heavily on measuring perceptions drawn from questionnaires or surveys.

“Too many studies are based on what people believed they were doing rather than on any kind of a rigorous, baseline study on what was actually occurring,” Mr. Houston said in an interview. “Until we do the latter, we’re on shifting sands.”

Moreover, researchers’ “lack of vision” and lack of real classroom experience have led to a failure of research to take into account the complexity of teaching and teacher education. Rather than incorporating the many factors contributing to the teacher-training process, the editors said, studies typically focus on single variables, such as the amount of time a student spends on task or the effect of ethnicity or gender on student achievement.

The research literature is also clogged with too many glowing accounts of what might be, according to the book, and too little description of what is.

“A thousand articles talk about what we are going to do; there are very few that go back and critically analyze what actually happened,” Mr. Houston said.

In addition, the isolated, individualized nature of many of the studies makes it impossible to relate them to one another or to draw broader conclusions, according to the book.

The editors also note that few faculty members in the 1,400 programs across the country that prepare teachers ever conduct research beyond their doctoral dissertations.

Making Progress

Despite these weaknesses, however, the editors contend that the knowledge base for teacher education is expanding and improving. In fact, they assert, it “has never been as strong as it is today.”

The improvement stems in part, they say, from the greater attention to--and criticism of--teacher education that has resulted from the national education-reform movement of the 1980’s.

States and organizations that accredit teacher-education programs, such as the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, have also begun in recent years to require that the teaching in those programs reflect the knowledge base in the field.

“There’s also an increasing number of teacher educators nationally and they’re under more pressure to advance knowlege in the field--to publish or perish,” said Mr. Sikula.

The handbook, which is the product of three years of work by the editors, is the second volume in this area produced by Macmillan. The company undertook a similarly massive project several years ago in producing the Handbook of Research on Teaching together with the American Educational Research Association.

More volumes are planned on specific areas in teaching, such as mathematics and reading, according to Lloyd Chilton, executive editor for those projects.

The articles in the teacher-education book address a wide variety of issues in the field, including the governance, financing, and assessment of teacher-training programs. Each article was peer reviewed by two or more other experts in the field.

Copies of the Handbook of Research on Teacher Education are available for $65 each, prepaid, by writing Macmillan Inc., Distribution Center, Front and Brown Streets, Riverside, N.J. 08075.

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 1990 edition of Education Week as Editors Lament ‘Thin’ Teacher-Education Research