'Different Drummers' And Teacher Training: A Disharmony That Impairs Schooling

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How can it be that we pile dollars upon dollars and launch reform after reform yet have so little impact on student learning?

Public Agenda's recent poll of education professors offers an answer to a question that has troubled citizens and policymakers for more than a decade. How can it be that we pile dollars upon dollars and launch reform after reform yet have so little impact on student learning in our public schools? Instead of results, we get fads and failures.

"Different Drummers: How Teachers of Teachers View Public Education" reveals what may be the heart of the problem: The public's aims are not achieved because teachers are taught that other educational aims should come first.

According to Public Agenda, there is a "staggering" disconnection between the educational aims of parents, teachers, and students and those of the professors who train teachers. The public wants schools with orderly classrooms that produce mastery of conventional knowledge and skills. Teacher-educators, by contrast, consider the public's expectations "outmoded and mistaken." They want classrooms in which the top priorities are positive attitudes toward learning and the presence of activities intended to encourage "learning how to learn." In their view, learning how to read, write, and do math is secondary to whether students find their classroom experience a satisfying one. Their ideal is schooling without schoolwork.

The discrepancy between professors' views and those of the public reflect an ideology that has dominated teacher education for over 80 years. In the World War I era, it was called "progressive education." Today it is called learner-centered education, and it encompasses all the latest fads, from "authentic assessment" to the "integrated thematic curriculum" to whole-language reading instruction. Within the world of teacher training, innovations and buzzwords emerge daily, but nearly all of them fit the learner-centered mold. As E.D. Hirsch Jr. has observed: Within the schools of education, there is no thinkable alternative.

The theories of teacher-educators would be only of academic interest if they did not have an impact on schools and teachers. But, given the working relationship between teacher training institutions and teacher licensing agencies, teacher-educators are effectively able to ensure that all teachers are indoctrinated in a "pedagogically correct" view of teaching. Technically, state agencies approve training programs and set teacher license requirements, but their standards are guided mainly by recommendations coming from the teacher education community.

The relationship between teacher education programs and state education agencies is a form of what economists call "regulatory capture." The licensing agencies that are supposed to be defending the public's interest are effectively controlled by the teacher-trainers and the schools they purport to regulate.

Teacher licensure is primarily a matter of successfully completing an "approved" program of study, and approved programs are built around the concepts and beliefs favored by a majority of program faculty. Thus, teacher-educators are able to impose their aims on public schooling by emphasizing methods that conform to their aims and by characterizing those that are suited to the public's aims as old-fashioned, ineffectual, and detrimental to full intellectual development. For example, the teaching of phonics and the memorization of math facts is called "drill and kill" and a "factory model of learning." Teachers are given to understand that such methods are contrary to good practice and strongly disapproved.

Favored methods are designed to produce what John Dewey called "intellectual growth." Instead of building proficiency in basic knowledge and literacy skills, their first priority is to promote "critical thinking" and "creativity." Theoretically, fundamentals are integrated later, on an as-needed basis. Unfortunately, they often achieve neither. Implemented fully, learner-centered methods discourage teacher direction and minimize orderly, result-oriented activity. Resources are wasted and precious learning opportunities are squandered. Despite inherent ineffectiveness and inefficiency, almost every graduate of an "approved" teacher training program is given to understand that such methods are grounded in the latest research, known to be practical and effective, and, indeed, are the only responsible approach to teaching.

Examined superficially, these reforms seem to reflect movement toward the public's vision of schooling.

Within the past year, a flurry of reforms has been proposed by organizations and agencies closely tied to the teacher training community. Examined superficially, these reforms seem to reflect movement toward the public's vision of schooling. For example, in the fall of 1996, the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future released a report saying that many teachers are unqualified and standards must be upgraded. The commission appeared to acknowledge that the system is broken, and in unusually blunt language it urged policymakers to "get serious" about standards for teachers and students. A companion set of licensure proposals was developed by the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium--a group linked to the Council of Chief State School Officers. Both organizations called for teachers to meet the standards set by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards--not incidentally, another group dominated by teacher-educators. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education added its support by requesting public funding for the $2,000-per-teacher NBPTS certification fee.

A proposal for upgrading teacher training that parallels the INTASC licensure standards was recently announced by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education. NCATE 2000 includes more-stringent and performance-based evaluation of prospective teachers and is said to be a major revision of training standards. NCATE President Arthur Wise remarked that the overhaul will be as ambitious as the one the organization undertook in 1987. From the tenor of his statement, one might infer that NCATE 2000 heralds a new result-conscious age in teacher training.

Are teacher-educators really moving toward the public's view of education? Not if history is any indication.

In truth, the parties serving up these bold proposals represent the interests that have governed teacher training and licensure all along. If existing standards are woefully inadequate, it must be remembered who wrote them and who now claims to be launching a round of revolutionary improvements. NCATE, for example, is proposing a grand new set of standards, yet the ink is barely dry on its "refined" standards of 1995. Since publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, teacher training and licensure have undergone repeated rewrites, none of which has produced any noticeable improvements in schooling.

Is there any reason to believe that new standards from organizations like INTASC, NCATE, and the NBPTS will accomplish any more than those of the past? To the contrary, new standards from these groups can be expected to do exactly what past standards have done: legitimize learner-centered training and shield it from competition. If anything, the recent proposals are more congenial to learner-centered teaching and more antagonistic to result-oriented alternatives than their predecessors--and not surprisingly. Linda Darling-Hammond, the executive director of the national commission, and Mr. Wise of ncate are well known proponents of learner-centered instruction. Their book, Excellence in Teacher Education: Helping Teachers Develop Learner-Centered Schools, was published by the National Education Association in 1992.

Under the current teacher training and licensure standards, all manner of untested and unworkable educational practices--mostly learner-centered ones--have been foisted on the teaching profession and the schools. In truth, virtually all of the fads and faulty practices visited on the public schools have originated in the schools of education, virtually all have been disseminated under the auspices of state education agencies, and, of course, all have been in keeping with prevailing teacher training and licensure standards. If taxpayers want to know why spending more on education rarely produces more learning, they need only look at the "innovations" funded by past expenditures. Almost all come from an academic stronghold of failed ideas: the schools of education.

There seems a clear contradiction between the teacher training community's rhetoric about improving educational outcomes and its unquestioning allegiance to learner-centered principles. Teacher-educators, however, see no contradiction because they genuinely believe that the public's aims can be achieved through learner-centered methods. In their view, learner-centered schooling may be less direct and more costly, but with sufficient commitment of time and effort it can work--evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. The criticism that learner-centered schooling effectively places the teacher education community's aims ahead of those of the public is largely discounted because professors believe that, despite a slow start on fundamentals, students will eventually learn all they need to know. Moreover, by virtue of the learner-centered approach, the student's educational experience will not be unnecessarily transformed from pleasure to work. In other words, they believe that a kind of lifelong "don't worry, be happy" approach to learning is what the public really wants--time, expense, and defective outcomes all considered.

There seems a clear contradiction between the teacher training community's rhetoric about improving outcomes and its unquestioning allegiance to learner-centered principles.

Teacher-educators believe the public is appropriately patronized and ignored because the public does not fully appreciate the promise of learner-centered schooling. Their belief is an unspoken but institutionalized self-deception that effectively blocks meaningful discussion of educational alternatives. Anyone who seriously questions the learner-centered vision is considered foolish or indifferent to the needs of children, and thus their views are not deserving of serious consideration.

For example, when a state commissioner of education recently was asked about standardized achievement testing in the 2nd grade, she dismissively pronounced the practice "wicked." In reference to such dogmatism, Public Agenda commented: "It seems ironic that so many of those who profess to believe that 'the real [educational] endeavor' is about questioning and learning how to learn are seemingly entrapped in a mind-set that is unquestioning in its conviction of its own rightness."

When teacher-educators speak of school reform, they mean improvement in the application of learner-centered principles. From their vantage point, poor results imply insufficient time, effort, and money, not faulty teaching principles. Teachers are told that all students can learn provided that teachers are creative and enthusiastic. If students fail, it suggests that teachers did not do enough. Parents are told that their children can learn provided that parents are patient and encouraging. If children fail, insufficient parent effort is suspected. Communities are told that attractive facilities and stimulating materials are vital to successful schooling because many students are bored or preoccupied with youthful distractions. If results are lacking despite the best that money can buy, other community shortcomings are found responsible. For example, failure by minorities may suggest that students, teachers, and community leaders are insufficiently accepting of economic, social, cultural, and linguistic differences.

In the view of its proponents, learner-centered schooling never fails. It is premised on the idea that learning is optimal when school, home, and community are well fitted to the student. Since the fit can always be improved there is never reason to doubt that learner-centered schooling could work under more-ideal conditions. In their view, failure occurs only because adults are unwilling to make the necessary effort.

Result-oriented reforms can be imposed, but they cannot be sustained if teachers continue to be indoctrinated with a conflicting vision of schooling. As has been the case throughout the history of school reform, changes that are not valued by teachers last only until the money runs out. In the absence of result-oriented teaching, programs that emphasize accountability--school-to-work, for example--will boost results only to the extent permitted by learner-centered methodology. Ultimately, expectations will have to be watered down to fit reality. By contrast, wider use of result-oriented methods would produce results and without the need for legislated intrusions and diminished local control of schools.

As "Different Drummers" makes clear, teacher-educators are at odds with the public. Despite talk of new and more-rigorous standards, training and licensure in the hands of the same interests will only yield more old wine in new bottles. So long as teacher-educators maintain a monopoly, they and their allies in the state education agencies have no reason to question their progressive vision. After all, it has served them very well for a very long time.

Alternative teacher training has been tried, but to this point has had little impact. Given the regulatory partnership between the teacher training programs and state licensing agencies, training that substantially disagrees with the learner-centered view has been pretty well bottled up in a hostile environment. For the most part, only alternatives that fit progressive strictures have been permitted to flourish. Until there is a greater public awareness of the degree to which state education agencies are the captives of the parties they purport to regulate, teacher training that breaks the learner-centered mold will continue to be stifled.

Other proposals that would permit teacher training to escape the learner-centered box are largely in their infancy. Two economists--Dale Ballou and Michael Podgursky--have argued that "the movement to deregulate the schools while holding them accountable for outcomes" suggests that similar reforms might work with teacher training. Their research shows that nonreligious private schools--the schools whose success depends most directly on consumer satisfaction--hire large numbers of well-educated but noncertified instructors. In essence, the economists ask why public schools of choice--charter schools, for example--should be required to hire certified teachers if the traditional schools of choice--private schools--find that parents place little importance on such credentials.

A recent proposal by Richard Wisniewski in these pages, calling for "charter colleges of education" may hold some promise. ("Charter Colleges of Education," Nov. 19, 1997.) But, given the aims of most teacher-educators, such colleges would have to be held to real-world standards of accountability--preferably ones set and enforced by the educational equivalent of a Dun & Bradstreet. Perhaps graduates of such institutions might be required both to pass objective subject-matter exams and to demonstrate an ability to produce student-achievement gains in a school setting.

Whatever the solution to this dilemma, it is clear that more "approved" teacher training is not the answer. Teacher training is a de facto monopoly, and there is no real incentive for it to change. Yet until its intellectual stranglehold is broken, no amount of planning or funding is going to substantially change the performance of public schools. Teacher training as traditionally constituted is not the cure, it is the problem.

Vol. 17, Issue 21, Pages 50-51, 72

Published in Print: February 4, 1998, as 'Different Drummers' And Teacher Training: A Disharmony That Impairs Schooling
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