Producing Teachers Who Understand, Believe, and Care

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The release in September of "What Matters Most: Teaching for America's Future," the 151-page report of the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, stimulated for too brief an interlude serious discussion of the country's prospects for preparing a teaching corps equal to the challenges that confront it. Because better teaching lies at the heart of all efforts to improve the schools, expanding such a discussion should be a top priority for all those engaged in reform efforts. With that in mind, Education Week begins this week an occasional series of Commentaries dealing with issues of teacher quality and teacher preparation raised in the commission's report. The essay below is the first of a two-part examination of current problems in teacher education by one of that field's leading scholars, John I. Goodlad. The second installment will appear in our next issue.

"The overwhelming majority of those hired each year to teach in our schools are the product of a misbegotten set of conditions that defy accurate pinpointing of accountability."

The juxtaposition of two stories in the Oct. 30, 1996, issue of Education Week reveals a monumental irony. The first reports on the "teacher accountability" plan approved by the Philadelphia school board. Under this "so-called professional-responsibility program," the article tells us, "high-achieving schools ... could receive bonuses of up to $1,500 per teacher." On the other hand, this not-exactly-innovative scheme, we learn, "allows a teacher with chronically low-performing students to be fired." According to the report, "schools that fail to meet performance targets could be forced to replace up to three-quarters of their staffs." ("Phila. Plan Links Student Achievement, Teacher Pay," Oct. 30, 1996.)

In the Commentary section of that same issue, Dennis L. Evans cites the findings in the report by the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future that "a significant percentage of the nation's newly hired teachers are undertrained and ill-prepared to meet their responsibilities." Presumably, some of these have found their way into Philadelphia's classrooms. What, now, do these teachers do to meet their professional responsibilities? The cheerfully frustrating answer, in the therapeutic pop culture of our time, is simply, "Just do it." ("Unqualified Teachers: A Predictable Finding," Oct. 30, 1996.)

Mr. Evans goes on to analyze--accurately, in my judgment--the conditions of economic and political expediency that have not merely allowed but encouraged tens of thousands of such undertrained and ill-prepared teachers to occupy the classrooms of cities such as Philadelphia and of townships and rural areas across the United States. This situation pertains not just to the newly hired; it has been and remains chronic.

"The reform rhetoric targets the economically disadvantaged. The reform initiatives benefit the more advantaged, even when otherwise proclaimed."

The gates for admission to teaching in the nation's public schools always are loosely latched. They swing wide open in times of shortage. The price we pay is that the schools are almost always in a reform mode, with attention riveted particularly on our major cities. The reform rhetoric targets the economically disadvantaged. The reform initiatives benefit the more advantaged, even when otherwise proclaimed. Should Philadelphia find the resources (private philanthropy already has been kind to its needs) to warrant the promised bonuses for most of its schools, will those teachers displaced become so sensitive to the inadequacies charged that they will withdraw from teaching? In the memorable words of Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady," "not bloody likely." The chances are good that they will move to school settings already deprived of well-prepared teachers--perhaps some of the many where children know only substitutes year after year.

Will the teachers fired in Philadelphia (should the legal processes ultimately grind to a halt) be replaced with a fresh crop of competent, caring, qualified teachers who soon will qualify their schools for those promised bonuses? Again in Eliza's words, not bloody likely. Will all the replacements recruited in the year 2006 be such teachers--the goal set by the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future? Probably not, but if we were to begin right now to address attainment of this goal seriously, many would be. Given our sorry history of neglect with respect to teacher education, however, the prospects for such a beginning probably warrant Eliza's sober prognosis one more time.

Although one can empathize with the frustration of school boards in Philadelphia and elsewhere, depression quickly sets in on contemplating the blame and villain theories we conjure up in order to postpone (perhaps to the next generation) the steps we must take to prevent the causes of this frustration. Students always have been prime targets: Frighten them with outcome measures, flunk them for not measuring up. Whatever happened to those competencies and proficiencies to be attained for high school graduation? Or the test for 16-year-olds that would determine continuation in academic learning or vocational training for a job? Now teachers have shifted once again into the spotlight of blame. Threaten them, bribe them, fire them if they do not measure up. This, too, shall pass.

Why not massive re-education to bring teachers up to snuff for the perennial demands and into the qualifications required for the new? To be fair to the Philadelphia school district, major efforts and sums continue to be allocated to this purpose even as the board takes the drastic step of authorizing the teacher-accountability plan referred to above. Most research concludes that on-the-job efforts to upgrade the teaching force rarely live up to the expectations set for them. Inquiry into the nature and duration of these efforts reveals that they usually were too little. The comprehensive effort in Philadelphia suggests that they usually are too late. Efforts to improve performance are likely to be cumulatively effective when built on the sound professional base beginning teachers bring with them. The far-too-common absence of this base provokes the stick-and-carrot incentive routine in spite of its remarkably consistent record of failure.

How many school districts possess the vision, the fortitude, and the resources, now or potentially, to plan and conduct the massive in-service education of teachers necessary to declaring them professionally competent? Let us look at just one little, critically important part of the whole. Most teachers of the primary grades take one course in the teaching of reading. Some take two, so that the average is about 1.3 courses per teacher. This is about enough to enable teachers to accelerate a little the reading prowess of children who learn to read quite readily. It is enough to enable teachers to become quite facile in sorting the children into three groups--one of good, one of fair, and the other of poor readers whose learning attributes at this early stage of their school careers were determined largely in the context of home and family.

"How is it that we neglect our teachers and, therefore, our children?"

Diagnosis and remediation of the nonreaders lie largely outside the repertoire of teachers whose brief pedagogical preparation provided little more than an overview. Many are fortunate enough to secure the more advanced courses on returning to universities for graduate studies. But many 1st grade children are taught by successive waves of neophytes, large numbers of whom drop out after three or four years of teaching. For many children, their struggle with reading signals a self-fulfilling prophecy of assignment to the low tracks of the secondary school subjects and dropping out. The financial costs of remediation are enormous and the results are far from encouraging.

This scenario is well documented in the educational research literature. Its variations for the other curricular domains are many, but they all come down to hard-core neglect in our selection, education, and induction of those who teach our children. When one turns from the academic to the personal and social domains of schooling (in which, research shows, parents have a deep interest), the picture darkens even more. For example, high school teachers place dealing with behaviorally difficult students at the top of their problem list. By contrast, they tend to rank knowledge of the subject matter among the least of their problems. Put bluntly, teachers in both elementary and secondary schools require a reservoir of knowledge, beliefs, and caring attributes that derive from the breadth and depth of professional education that our society continues to deny them.

My words (and, I think, those of Dennis Evans) are not intended to put down teachers. They are our only hope for those "world-class schools" our political leaders extol while ignoring the necessary conditions. More important, they are our only hope for advancing the public purpose of schooling over the private one now so crassly advanced in the marketplace--in the words of Neil Postman (The End of Education, 1995), that of developing "a public imbued with confidence, a sense of purpose, a respect for learning, and tolerance," rather than "a conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers."

How is it that we neglect our teachers and, therefore, our children and the public purpose of schooling? Three major ways come immediately to mind: the relatively unchanging circumstances of teaching, our persisting images of what teaching in schools requires, and the ill-conceived routes to teaching these circumstances and images sustain.

"Research clearly reveals the inequitable distribution of teachers across the United States, adding seriously to our landscape of inequities."

Teaching lacks a career line that keeps alive the dedicated service orientation that so many would-be teachers express. This orientation came through strongly in interviews of thousands of young people about to enter teaching conducted by colleagues and me in the late 1980s. Absent a well-paid career line of advancement, the alternative attraction for many of those who remain in teaching is to seek out the most supportive teaching circumstances. The principle at work is no different from that in other occupations. It simply is easier to sustain test-score levels year after year in some schools than in others--and thus not have to live with the threat of being fired. If possible, why not teach where only the slowest group, rather than all three reading groups, is below state or national norms? And so, children in advantaged communities enjoy the advantages of a stable teaching force; many of the disadvantaged experience only a succession of substitutes. Research (especially that of Linda Darling-Hammond) clearly reveals the inequitable distribution of teachers across the United States, adding seriously to our landscape of inequities. The pressure for charter schools for some must be converted into commitment and action to create schools that are commonly good for all--a condition that is unattainable in the absence of good teachers.

We carry in our collective heads a misguided set of images regarding what teaching in schools requires, many of them reflecting legacies from the beginnings of schooling. When the teachings of religious orders in the 17th century transmitted to many parents a moral ethic to the effect that family apprenticeship was not sufficient preparation for adulthood, the school proposed was to be "an instrument of strict discipline protected by the law-courts and the police-courts," according to Philippe Aries in Centuries of Childhood (1962). Subsequently, the military became and remains a teacher source pool of such validity that the necessity for other credentials often is waived.

In the early 1840s, the rapid rise in school enrollments stimulated a call for men to give up their business enterprises for a month or more each year to offset the shortage of teachers. Few responded. But the concept of a masculine presence in the orderly classroom and school remained. The consequences of this image for the emerging system of schooling are too obvious and many to recount here. The gates into teaching always have been loosely latched for recruits from business management, as have been the gates into the principalship for men.

Absent the hoped-for recruitment response, the Massachusetts legislature authorized the opening of four normal schools for the preparation of teachers. Again, few men showed up. Most of the women who did were modestly schooled. The curriculum presented to them was primarily of the subjects (and at the level) of the content they were expected to teach in the schools; there was little in the art and science of teaching. In the context of a society that little valued the intelligence of women but saw in them a role of nurturing the young, the female-driven pedagogy of the 19th century warranted little scholarly attention. In the rapid expansion of higher education in the 20th century, particularly after World War II, pedagogy and teacher education were awarded third-rate status. As a consequence, the education of teachers and, therefore, the well-being of children and this nation have been sorely neglected.

Into this vacuum of neglect come, reform era after reform era, all the long-standing images referred to earlier regarding the disciplining of the young and the accompanying stereotypes of the caring females of modest educational credentials who will nurture the young, the military men who will maintain discipline, and the subject-oriented male graduates of the universities who will teach the older students--or so goes the conventional wisdom. Which of these "most wanted" are to fall victim to the Philadelphia purge?

The various elements of this historical context, still alive and powerfully influential today, are well documented in the educational literature. Might one expect them to promote robust programs of teacher education in our universities, enjoying resources equivalent to those of the other genres of professional education? Of course not.

"The top-ranked schools prepare only a handful of teachers; some prepare none."

In the transition of normal schools to teachers' colleges, to state colleges, and then state universities, teacher education slipped steadily from the center to the periphery of institutional mission. In most research-oriented universities, the education of teachers has near-orphan status even in their schools of education. The top-ranked schools prepare only a handful of teachers; some prepare none. Even though the subject matter on which teachers draw in their work is (unlike that of the other professions) in the arts and sciences, the general education curriculum of universities is considerably influenced by the schools of the other professions and scarcely at all by considerations of teachers' education. Unlike the other professional education programs, the curriculum of teacher education is heavily influenced by the state--to the point of specifying most of the content and maximum course hours. With state requirements subject to political fancy and unpredictable change, there is little to encourage the expenditure of faculty time and energy that robust program renewal requires.

In our comprehensive study of the six major types of teacher-preparing institutions scattered across the United States, colleagues and I found plenty to account for the conclusion that "a significant percentage of the nation's newly hired teachers are undertrained and ill-prepared"--a long-standing, not new, condition. Contrary to conventional wisdom, future teachers are required to meet the general graduation requirements of all students in accredited colleges and universities. Unlike students heading for careers in other fields (such as engineering), future teachers rarely find a clearly defined, coherent route to their goal. Through careful planning and a good deal of luck, they often replace elective courses with the specified education courses, scattering the latter across the upper division of the college, commonly carrying maximum course loads and attending summer sessions. Not surprisingly, then, the transcripts of future teachers reveal credit hours substantially in excess of those specified for graduation.

"With accountability dispersed, blame and villain theories run rampant: It's the students, it's the teachers, it's the state, it's the schools of education."

This course-hour overload will not, however, ensure for Philadelphia and other school districts the competent, caring, qualified teachers our children deserve. Nor will Philadelphia's proposed solution. Nor will unlatching the gates to admit retirees from business and the military. Nor will eliminating all credentials for teaching and admitting any college graduate with a subject major that matches a subject in the schools' curriculum, as is so frequently proposed.

The overwhelming majority of those hired each year to teach in our schools are the product of a misbegotten set of conditions that defy accurate pinpointing of accountability. With accountability dispersed, blame and villain theories run rampant: It's the students, it's the teachers, it's the state, it's the schools of education.

Most of the many hundreds of future teachers we interviewed were innocent victims--far more service-oriented and enthusiastic about teaching than their circumstances appeared to warrant. Yes, friends, relatives, and even some former teachers had tried to dissuade them from their goal of teaching; yes, many perceived themselves to be peripheral to campus priorities; yes, students with other career goals made deprecating remarks about schoolteaching ("Somebody has to do it"); and some professors were less than supportive (sometimes suggesting other alternatives, especially to academically talented students). Most would have welcomed a less crowded, less hurried program, particularly involving more time in field and practice situations accompanied by guided reflection. Few were put off by the suggestion of an additional year to facilitate this--so long as the requirements are made clear at the outset.

The National Commission on Teaching & America's Future has brought forward a set of recommendations that align with some contained in earlier reports as well as with recommendations surfaced by contemporary reform bodies. The agreements are sufficient to drive a national agenda of renewal. Precisely defining and implementing such an agenda is daunting--so daunting, in fact, as to invoke Eliza's prophecy still another time. Faced with only the logistics of the renewing process, however, I would be more than cautiously optimistic. What I fear above all else is the power of the legacies and images regarding what teaching in schools requires that so conveniently accommodate our continuing neglect of the education of our teachers and, therefore, of our children. How loud must the alarm be for America to wake up?

Vol. 16, Issue 19, Pages 36, 48

Published in Print: February 5, 1997, as Producing Teachers Who Understand, Believe, and Care
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