How Teachers Would Change Teacher Education

A Survey's Results Lend Support--and a Voice--To the National Commission's Findings

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When teachers talk about teacher education, their opinions are grounded in practice. They value ideas that translate directly into a better lesson and reforms that make it more likely for children to learn. Research-based theory, the preoccupation of many schools of education, is largely irrelevant to teachers, who must deal with 20 to 35 students, five or six hours a day. As a 1994 teacher education graduate explained in a recent survey, "The professional courses exposed me to many philosophies, which were valuable, but I was totally unprepared for the impact of teaching itself."

Teacher education practices and policies are in great flux as reformers seek to establish high standards for teacher preparation and eliminate what the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future described as major flaws in teacher education: 1) the inadequate length of undergraduate programs, 2) fragmentation, 3) uninspired teaching methods, 4) superficial curriculum, and 5) traditional views of schooling. In often blunt language, the teachers who responded to a survey from the Council for Basic Education put flesh on the bones of the commission's report. Asked for their advice on how to improve the quality of teacher preparation programs, some 600 teachers, including 320 who teach in high school, 141 in middle school, and 129 in elementary school, described their experiences and observations and offered recommendations for change. The great majority taught in public schools, and five out of six had taught for more than 10 years. Even so, a substantial number had earned a graduate degree in the 1990s, making their experiences quite up to date.

The frustrations expressed by these teachers arise to a great degree from their belief that schools of education should be committed to preparing teacher candidates for the practice of teaching. Teacher-educators, on the other hand, see their purpose as the study of pedagogy: developing theories of teaching and learning in a rarefied world remote from the day-to-day realities of a K-12 classroom. From the teachers' perspective, this emphasis on theory over practice is not only inappropriate, it is damaging and has resulted in ineffective preparation for the classroom.

Although the teachers surveyed by the CBE offered their recommendations for change in stronger language than reform advocates generally use, the recommendations themselves are consistent with those proposed by the national commission and other teacher education reform initiatives. While many teachers acknowledged significant changes taking place in some teacher preparation programs, their responses spotlight how unevenly these reforms are being undertaken. From their responses, teachers advocate three changes to teacher preparation:

  • Require all teachers to know the content of the subjects they teach.
  • Teach pedagogy in the context of academic content.
  • Offer prospective teachers many and varied school-based experiences.

To make these changes happen, schools of education must shift the balance from theory to practice and emphasize school-based experiences. In short, university practices and responsibilities must be redefined and partnerships between schools of education and local school districts strengthened. The standards of accreditation for schools of education and the standards for teacher licensure should reflect these changes.

The teachers' comments suggest that schools of education must accept responsibility for teachers knowing the subjects they teach. University faculty members must establish a rigorous course of study for teacher candidates and require a B average or higher in their academic major. The university should require an exit exam that measures breadth and depth of subject-area knowledge (consistent with grade level) before graduating candidates.

Pedagogy must be taught together with academic content, but as one teacher commented, "Universities are without a clue as to how to relate content with cognitive strategies." Accomplished teachers, however, do "have a clue" as to what works in teaching. Pedagogy courses in a school of education should be developed by a team made up of discipline-based faculty members, educators, and classroom teachers. The courses should be taught during a candidate's experiences in a school, so he can see how the ideas might apply in the classroom. The team should assess at least two demonstrations of content-based teaching by each would-be teacher.

Teacher candidates can be offered rich school-based experiences only if a school of education and a local school district create a genuine partnership. Courses in learning theory and child development should be taught with school-based observation and analysis incorporated. Candidates must be in schools early and frequently. Education faculty must have clear-cut school-based responsibilities. Teachers of proven excellence should mentor student-teachers and join education faculty on their oversight committee. They should manage candidates' internships, advise education faculty members on the candidate's progress, and help design pedagogy courses. These responsibilities entitle cooperating teachers to become adjunct university faculty, a step that would make the faculty member-teacher partnership approximate one between equals.

These recommendations are based on the teachers' graduate and undergraduate experiences in teacher education and their observations of student-teachers in their classrooms. Here is what they told us:

  • Knowledge of Content. The National Commission on Teaching & America's Future presented evidence that many teachers are teaching subjects outside their field. ("Teaching Focus Called the Key in Reform Push," Sept. 18, 1996.) It found that 56 percent of high school students taking physical science, 27 percent of those taking math, and 21 percent of those taking English have teachers not licensed in the subject. In schools with the highest minority enrollment, the report said, "students have less than a 50 percent chance of getting a science or mathematics teacher who holds a license and a degree in the field he or she teaches."

Several teachers responding to the CBE survey commented on their lack of content knowledge. "None of my undergraduate methods courses helped me to know the content of my subject areas," said one. Another teacher pointed out that being licensed in a field does not guarantee knowing the content of that subject in any depth: "My classes touched very little on detailed content in the various subject areas I was certified to teach in."

The teachers surveyed stressed that teachers cannot teach what they do not know. "It is ludicrous to expect elementary teachers to teach science or math on one course in each of these disciplines," one remarked.

Judging from the student-teachers seen by those surveyed, many universities are careless about providing teacher candidates with strong content knowledge. "Most candidates know very little about the content of their subject," wrote one teacher. "Most are not academically serious." Another wrote, "My most recent student-teacher asked me what state Michigan was in." A third said that student-teachers in English "come with only minimum writing/reading coursework," and a fourth said that they "can't explain how to use a semicolon, don't recognize subject-verb disagreement."

  • Pedagogical Tools. "Teach students how to teach!" was a plea made by many of the survey respondents. More than anything else, teachers cited courses in how to teach as the weakest point of their training. They found such courses so enamored of theory as to be of little practical use. They described courses as "not academically rigorous," and "repetitive make-work." Too often, they said, content courses included no pedagogy, and methods courses were divorced from classroom realities. Said one teacher: "Never in my methods [course] did we talk about how to teach someone how to read!"

Many respondents found student-teachers and new teachers unprepared for the classroom. "As a supervising teacher for numerous student-teachers," one wrote, "I am alarmed by what I see as a lack of preparation for classroom experience. Most students are unable to prepare adequate lesson plans, unit plans, and are weak in the areas of discipline and classroom management."

"Baptism by fire," as one teacher put it, seems the prevailing approach. One teacher said he had no training in classroom management or discipline. Another saw the need for training in "areas where even veteran teachers still struggle: how to grade papers, how to engage students of varying ability levels in overcrowded classrooms, how to stay focused, how to determine what is most important to teach." A third said, "I didn't have any 'nuts and bolts' knowledge to carry into battle."

  • School-Based Experience. Whether educators admit it or not, teaching is best learned on the job. By far the greatest number of comments had to do with improving the school-based experience of teacher candidates. Most respondents believed that student teaching for a few weeks during the senior (or fifth) year (the norm) is a mistake. "Student teaching should not be the first experience teachers have with ... the classroom," wrote one teacher. "Would-be teachers need to get into the classroom earlier--not to observe but to assist, perhaps as instructional aides."

Several teachers were impressed by the amount of time prospective teachers now spend in the public school. One told how candidates at the local university now spend a year in the classroom under mentor teachers, with good results.

According to the national commission, about 300 schools of education are creating such programs. But what is teacher preparation like in the other 900 programs? Apparently, it still leaves much to be desired. Wrote one teacher in the CBE study, "Too many enthusiastic and idealistic new teachers are eaten alive ... during their first year. They need a yearlong intern program where they could really get the feel of the day-to-day routine while ... building up units [and learning] discipline tricks." Another urged more time for teacher candidates "with students of diverse backgrounds and skills." "Additionally," this respondent said, "they should observe teachers who use diverse methods and have different philosophies."

The commission called for "a coherent program of mentoring and instruction by school and university faculty" as part of teacher education. Many teachers the CBE surveyed talked of their own experiences with "lousy" cooperating teachers and called for placing candidates with highly skilled mentors--"the best, strongest, most professional teachers," as one respondent put it. Another explained, "It does only harm to place a student-teacher with a poor teacher."

One teacher wrote of her experiences with the teacher education institution, "My university supervisor rarely visited the school," a practice noted by many others. A supervising teacher said, "The college advisers are supposed to observe in the classroom every 10 days. In general, they show up about once a month for an hour each visit."

Too often cooperating teachers feel that their work with candidates is not valued or is even ignored. One recounted how "a student-teacher who was clearly unqualified was failed by his supervising teacher but passed by the teacher education program." The relationship between most universities and school districts clearly needs complete redesign.

At present, the teachers' perspective is missing from discussions of teacher education, and their limited involvement has been badly mismanaged. For teacher preparation programs to become effective avenues in the classroom, they must be redesigned to combine the strengths of the arts and sciences with education, and practicing teachers must be made full partners in training teachers.

The Council for Basic Education mailed surveys in the fall of 1995 to 1,650 teachers, most of them award winners. Participants had received fellowships, state and national teacher-of-the-year awards, the Sallie Mae First Class Teacher Award, and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching. Those certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards also were contacted. In this article, and the forthcoming Perspective article from which it is adapted, comments were included from returned surveys that reflected experiences in the 1990s, whether of a teacher's own education or his work with or observation of student-teachers and other prospective teachers. Copies of Perspective are available from the CBE for $5 each. For ordering information, call (202) 347-4171.

Vol. 16, Issue 15, Pages 48, 64

Published in Print: December 11, 1996, as How Teachers Would Change Teacher Education
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