Catching Up With Reform in Teacher Education

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Those opposed to alternative routes to teacher certification can stop the movement dead in its tracks. All they need do is start preparing teachers for all the children and youths of America.

Railing against the horrors of alternative routes will prove to be an ineffective strategy for two reasons. First, the American people and their accountable representatives know where the teachers we need are coming from--and not coming from. Second, the traditional system of preparing teachers for America's schools has already been pried open and transformed. What we are witnessing in these essays against alternative-certification routes is the suffering of spokespersons for traditional forms of teacher education who don't know or won't admit the game is over. Because they don't understand how this transformation occurred and the forces that made it happen, they cannot believe the changes are not reversible. (They perceive, as judged from an earlier Commentary, the issue as one of cleaning "the dandelions out of a suburban yard.")

It is indeed fortunate for American society that the ultimate voice in determining the nature of our teacher education is not limited to the special-interest groups that vie for power in the universities, the state departments of education, the professional associations, the foundations, or the federal government. There is, thank heaven, the American public. Indeed, of all the voices that continue to shape teacher education in America, this has always been the strongest voice and the one most neglected by "experts" on teacher education.

Unfortunately, traditional teacher educators remain unaware or incapable of dealing with this voice. The American people, in their own simple, common-sense way, keep looking at the facts, at the realities of keeping schools open every day for all youngsters, and at the need for good teachers for those schools. Americans will not accept a rhetoric of "can't do." God, these common people are dumb! Don't they understand the realities of accreditation, or the difference between licensure and certification, or the need for 60 or more education credits for late adolescents who will never teach? This simple, unwashed, ignorant mob keeps up their tribal chant, "More learning, better teachers." Don't they realize the difficulties we face! We can't simply grind out the teachers they need like sausages. We need more prestige in the university first. Then we need more control over our requirements. Then we need mare financial and other resources to implement our programs. Then we need to clean up the horrendous conditions in schools so that classes are smaller, there are fewer disruptions and sufficient resources. Then after we get more prestige, more control, more resources, and restructure the demands on teachers in schools, then maybe we can begin to discuss advising some of our graduates to go out there.

This clarion call to inaction, which took four decades to gel, doesn't fool the public. Unresponsive, self-serving systems don't collapse overnight, but, at some point, the public voice will be heard. There is an analogue here to the collapse of unaccountable political-economic systems. Through their elected and accountable representatives it has been this ungrateful public that has supported the development of other ways to educate and certify teachers in 39 states across America. In Connecticut, New Jersey, and Texas, the goal is to improve the quality of all teachers; and in Idaho, Colorado, and Ohio there are actually minimal teacher shortages. In many states, we have alternative-certification routes under other rubrics. Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana all have alternative programs sponsored by teachers' unions, school districts, or consortia of universities, unions, and school districts.

While I and other bogeymen are "credited" with instigating these programs, it has been the failure of traditional forms of teacher education that should be given full credit for convincing the American public that they have failed and something else must be done. In its infinite wisdom, the public has not been confused by consistent efforts to mystify the issues. It has kept its vision clear by dealing with two questions: How do we get the good teachers we need? What are the ultimate values to be preserved? Adhering to these questions has led the public to some of the following beliefs, commitments, and actions.

Children and youths need teachers who want to be with them and who believe they can learn. In the world of traditional teacher education, this is a trite generalization that can be simply lectured or written about. In the real world of schools, it is an operational criterion--a standard that the overwhelming number of graduates of traditional teacher-education programs cannot pass. In Wisconsin, 70 percent of the newly certified college graduates do not take jobs. In Minnesota, it is 68 percent. Even the very enlightened, forward-looking leadership in these state departments of education cannot force colleges of education or their students into becoming more responsive to schools and students in the 21st century. In states across America, the majority of regularly certified graduates seek positions where they are not needed (small towns and suburbs) and avoid teaching in the districts where they are needed (metropolitan districts and remote rural areas). Traditional teacher-education programs in urban universities are no different or better and even add to their irrelevance by ignoring the continuing needs of their cooperating school districts for teachers with particular specializations. (After all, 'We can't tell our students what to major in.") Universities cannot provide the teachers America needs because, in traditional programs, the clients are the tuition-paying students and not the children and youths of America.

In 1985-86, the state of Washington had an "oversupply" of approximately 2,000 teachers, while the Houston Independent School District in Texas needed about an equal number of new teachers. "Expert" analysts aggregated these data nationwide and concluded there was no teacher shortage since graduates roughly equaled vacancies. These are the sorts of minor details that can only be overlooked by those sufficiently insensitive to perceive of teacher education in America as a "suburban yard." All the obfuscation in the world will not persuade the American public to change what it knows: The graduates of traditional teacher-education programs do not want to and cannot teach all the children and youths of America. It might very well be that these graduates are smarter than those who have trained them, since half of the few who do take jobs where they are needed quit or fail in three years or less. The data that traditional programs are not providing teachers for all our children is clear and overwhelming. The fact that publicly supported universities can in no way be held accountable for staffing public schools is equally well known to the public.

A second minor fact that the public knows, but many experts apparently do not, is that schools "keep." Regardless of cutbacks, large classrooms, the lack of materials and equipment, and all the other debilitating conditions of work, poor schools stay open. While we all need to work on making more choices available, the reality that children and youths will continue to attend less-than-adequate facilities must be faced and dealt with. While this is not news to the public, it has become fashionable for traditional teacher educators to write (each other) papers with "research" evidence cataloging the horrendous conditions that prevent teachers from teaching, or even functioning as human beings let alone professionals. There are diverse motives for writing such papers. Some are laudable, albeit naive. They presume that, by documenting complaints, some great power, a deus ex machina, will descend from heaven and make the world right. Other papers, however, are not simply by nice people upset by reality. We need our powers of discernment to sniff out those who are unaccountable and would like to remain so by documenting "impossible" working conditions in order to justify and rationalize the failure of traditional teacher education and its graduates being held accountable. I've known education professors who were at least honest enough to tell me, "After they shape up those schools, we'll advise our students to go there. In the meanwhile I wouldn't want my daughter working there!" Typically, the rationalizations, fears, and hostility are more sophisticated than this. They focus on the unreasonableness of expecting new education graduates to function in these impossible situations. They never mention, let alone explain, why alternative teachers are successful in these same situations!

Part of the explanation for the success of alternative teachers lies in their careful screening with tests, interviews, and other criteria used in the hiring of actual teachers. Providing successful classroom teachers as coaches and offering some relevant university coursework is also helpful. In some Texas programs alternative teachers have outscored other new teachers and their mentors on the appraisal instruments. After six years, we now see alternative teachers as school leaders and change agents. Principals, parents, and pupils rate them highly because they speak the same cultural language as their students.

The bottom line is that schools will stay open and until more choices are available, many of these will be inadequate schools. No "explanations," "analyses," or "research" can justify not providing teachers for schools that our children and youths are required by law to attend.

While space does not permit the full menu of what the public knows that traditional teacher educators cannot admit, it is imperative to cite a few more of the obvious facts.

People learn to teach on the job. The teachers of America know this is how they learned, particularly the more effective, successful teachers. Since people learn to teach by teaching, providing first-year teachers with experienced classroom teachers as coaches and cutting back on most of the education courses seems sensible. This is the kind of dumb idea raised by an unthinking, stupid public that can understand simple things like "hands on" experience and coaching but can't appreciate the complexities of pre-service university courses.

Effective beginners might well be more mature individuals who have had a range of life experiences, including a knowledge base or occupation other than the study of teaching. Good teachers can come from all walks of life and areas of study. It is possible to identify these people through interviews and observing them interact with youngsters. God! What a dumb ideal How did the public ever fall for the notion that you can gain the predispositions and even some of the skills of teaching if you weren't an education major in Buffalo Nipple U?

A final fact that the unlettered public believes is that teacher educators need to have been successful teachers themselves, particularly of the populations of youngsters they would prepare others to teach. This belief is shared by practicing teachers and has become so threatening that a group of teacher educators I know has organized to once and for all debunk the "myth" that teacher educators should be practicing teachers who know what they are talking about. "After all, there's more to teaching than low-level craft knowledge. We learned an awful lot about teaching in the real world by doing research in our Ph.D. programs." In short, what an unfair, unknowing public believes is that traditional teacher education is essentially the ignorant teaching the fearful to do the irrelevant. And in response to their irrational need to keep schools open and staffed by effective teachers for all children, this ignorant public has turned to procedures that not only seem sensible but are actually doing the job.

While it appears bizarre to traditional teacher educators the crazy, uninformed public thinks it's making progress when it supports alternative-certification routes that produce real teachers who demonstrate they want to be with their children and can teach them effectively. This irrational mob persists in believing that the ultimate values to be preserved are neither the administrators and faculty of traditional programs of teacher education nor the great number of education majors who don't, won't, or can't teach. The ultimate value to be preserved and fostered is the educational health of the youngsters.

Other facts that the simpleminded public finds compelling are that while traditionally trained teachers are fewer than 5 percent black, 58 percent of the alternative teachers of Texas are members of minorities. The fact that the children in the rooms of alternative teachers score higher on achievement tests is also of interest. Is it any wonder that there is an attempt to mystify and obscure and to avoid dealing with the facts of the matter?

As we move into the 21st century, the nature of productive new forms of teacher education are already taking shape and being offered. Traditional teacher educators can learn from the programs sponsored by the Chicago Teachers Union and their consortium, by the Urban Teacher Education consortium in northwest Indiana, and by the Alternative Certification Programs of the Houston Independent School District and other Texas consortia. These programs all involve collaboration among school districts and teachers' unions, supported by universities and schools of education that are willing to contribute rather than control.

There is a minority of devoted, hardworking education professors who do cooperate and work in alternative programs. They work as equals with classroom teachers who serve as coaches and with other public-school personnel as on-site teacher educators. These university-based teacher educators become involved without personal gain and at considerable risk to their university careers. They will not be rewarded for helping children get good teachers but denigrated for consorting with the enemy.

My most conservative estimate is that by limiting ourselves to traditional programs we leave 12 million youngsters with unqualified substitutes and teachers in the process of failing--and this number will grow by at least 5 percent each year. It will take some fancy debating and clever arguments to convince the American public that schools of education are merely innocent bystanders and in no way responsible for this national catastrophe. The teacher educators America needs do not blame the victims or their schools; neither do they curse the university, the arts and sciences, the state departments, or hold evildoers responsible for their own failures. "The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves." .

Vol. 11, Issue 10, Pages 29, 36

Published in Print: November 6, 1991, as Catching Up With Reform in Teacher Education
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories