On any list of problems in American education, the way we prepare teachers is invariably accorded a high place. That the weaknesses attributed to this enterprise are numerous and varied was demonstrated this year in a series of special reports in Education Week, “Teaching Our Teachers” (Dec. 12, 1990; Feb. 13, 1991; March 13, 1991; March 27, 1991). But while teacher education is in need of substantial improvement, teacher educators, on the whole, have been moving to respond to their critics and significant changes are taking place.
There is both good news and bad news in this largely untold story.
The good news is that, in the last few years: students admitted to and graduated from teacher-education programs score better on standardized tests and have higher grade-point averages than students who preceded them; the number of courses in liberal arts and traditional disciplines teacher candidates take has increased; the amount of time prospective teachers spend gaining practical experience in schools has increased and the quality of these experiences has improved; both the academic content and rigor of education courses have been enriched; and many special programs have been initiated that reduce the time and requirements for entry to the profession by persons who wish to change careers or who graduate from college without having been in a traditional teacher-preparation program.
To be sure, these and other changes are not universal, and there are some programs that are so weak that they (and the state agencies that have approved them) should be put out of business. The trends, however, are clear.
The bad news is that the changes being made, and others being proposed--such as extended teacher preparation--are both futile and counterproductive. They are futile because they do not address some of the fundamental reasons why teacher education is seen as ineffective. They are counterproductive because they sustain the myth that the professional development of teachers can be improved without fundamental changes in the roles and functions that both schools and universities play in the facilitation of teacher learning.
Even if the reforms now under way were implemented widely, at least four basic obstacles to significantly improving the education of teachers would persist. First, there is no market for high-quality approaches to educating teachers, either at the preservice level or for what is euphemistically called career development. Second, teacher education is not taken seriously and investments in the professional development of teachers are meager, in large part because teaching is not widely seen as a task requiring specialized pedagogical expertise that is importantly informed by theory and research.
A third obstacle is that the ways teachers learn to teach--from the experiences they have as students to the formal and informal lessons they learn throughout their careers--are incoherent and inconsistent. And, finally, most of the proposed and recently implemented improvements in the way teachers are taught continue to ask those in training to learn the wrong things, at the wrong times, in the wrong places.
The counterproductive nature of the current reform agenda stems from its reinforcement of the myth that preservice teacher preparation can and should “produce” beginning teachers with the levels of competence their students deserve. This myth is treasured by teacher educators because it justifies the roles they have played historically. It is admired by school administrators because it means they do not need to invest in teacher learning. And policymakers value the myth because it allows them to believe significant improvements in schools can be achieved at low economic and political costs.
While the myth serves many, however, it does not serve children or teachers and has several unhappy consequences. Teacher candidates gain from it false expectations about their competence that turn to criticisms of teacher education when the reality of teaching is confronted. Schools are lulled into investing little in the training of new teachers. Efforts to hold teacher education accountable, meanwhile, lead to teacher-performance measures that standardize and trivialize teaching. And teacher-education units within universities continue to have the low status attributed to vocational training, which not only leads to low investments in the teacher-training enterprise but undermines the status of teachers.
The myth of preservice sufficiency also leads teacher-preparation programs to seek to achieve goals they cannot, under most conditions, meet, while neglecting important functions that they could and should perform.
On top of all this, the belief that preservice teacher education should and can train teachers limits the role universities play in the career-long professional development of teachers because it encourages the belief that the only valuable knowledge is that which is practical and more or less immediately and directly relevant. Not only does this predisposition affect the contributions universities can make to educational improvement, it diminishes the likelihood that teaching will be accorded the status attributed to many other professions.
If the current agenda for reforming teacher education is futile and counterproductive, are there more hopeful ways of reinventing the way we educate teachers? There are. And these approaches derive from this general proposition: that the knowledge and capabilities teachers need to have should be learned from the sources best able and most committed to facilitate such learning at stages of the teacher’s cognitive and professional development during which he or she is most ready and capable of learning and applying particular lessons. This way of thinking about the education of teachers implies that learning opportunities for teachers should be very different from what they are now and should be integrated and sequenced throughout teachers’ careers in ways that take into account specific roles teachers perform, and are likely to perform, in particular contexts. This new picture would embody five basic changes in the education of teachers:
- The basic purpose of preservice teacher preparation should be changed from the development of teaching competence to the development of the capabilities and motivation to learn to teach. While this would relieve teacher educators of some responsibilities they now have, there would be plenty left for prospective teachers to learn. The content of the pre-professional preparation for teaching would include: cognition; social development; how families and communities influence student learning and the functioning of schools; diagnostic and analytical capabilities applicable to the facilitation of both student and personal learning; and strategies for effective teamwork and helping behavior. Moreover, because few teachers can effectively transfer much of what they learn in their liberal-arts and disciplinary courses to their teaching, teacher educators would be responsible for building the cognitive and strategic bridges that would increase the relevance of a college education to the facilitation of children’s learning.
This change in emphasis does not mean that teachers should be discouraged from pursuing advanced degrees, but such pursuit should not be driven by the monetary incentives and state regulations that now sustain both low expectations for and low quality of graduate degrees in education.
Continuing to seek improvements in teacher education by making incremental changes in current practices is unlikely to make a difference either in teacher effectiveness or in the professional status of teachers and teacher educators. Moreover, this piecemeal approach to reform sustains the beliefs and the institutional structures and policies that result in low investments in teacher learning.
The time has come to redefine and realign the responsibilities and roles of universities and schools in the education of the nation’s teachers. This reinvention of the ways we educate teachers should be reflected in comprehensive human-resource development plans in school systems that recognize that the capabilities of teachers are the most important determinant of student learning in schools.
If these fundamental changes are to be fully realized, it will be necessary for policymakers and teachers to really believe that teachers’ professional expertise and status derive fundamentally from mastery of knowledge, the control of sophisticated techniques, and the ability to use powerful ideas to improve current practice and move in new directions responsive to social and technological change. This “re-vision” of the sources of teacher effectiveness is the key not only to improvements in teacher education but to the door that leads from the schools we have to the schools we need.
A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 1991 edition of Education Week