Scholars Square Off Over Bias in Teacher-Training Content

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Are education schools spoonfeeding the nation’s prospective teachers biased academic fare, as one scholar contends? Or do they just offer thin intellectual gruel?

Two researchers who have investigated those questions were scheduled to square off in a debate in Washington late last week sponsored by the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank linked to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

David M. Steiner, an associate professor of education at Boston University, and Dan W. Butin, an assistant education professor at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa., have reached different conclusions in their studies on the topic.

The academic content of the courses that would-be teachers take became a source of controversy last year, when Mr. Steiner presented a provocative study that found fault with the readings for required teacher education classes at 16 leading education schools. He concluded that the coursework at many of those schools was "intellectually barren" and often ideologically skewed to the left of center, leaving out texts, for instance, by education writers deemed more conservative such as Diane Ravitch and E.D. Hirsch, Jr. ("Education School Courses Faulted as Intellectually Thin," Nov. 12, 2003.)

But Mr. Butin challenges that view in a study he released this summer and was scheduled to elaborate on in the Sept. 10 debate. He restricted his study to examining syllabi found online only for courses covering the social foundations of education, which examine topics such as educational history and philosophy.

In contrast, Mr. Steiner’s study also looked at syllabi for three other areas: reading, mathematics, and general methods.

Still, Mr. Butin expanded his analysis to include 89 social foundations of education classes taught at 85 different education schools around the country—a group of institutions that he contends may be more nationally representative than the small number of prestigious schools Mr. Steiner examined. Mr. Butin’ study was published July 24 in Teachers College Record.

"It’s not that they’re liberal," Mr. Butin concluded of the courses he reviewed. In many cases, he found, the opposite was true: The course content could be characterized as having a conservative bent.

The larger problem, Mr. Butin said, is that the classes are largely driven by textbooks, rather than primary sources, supplemental readings, or some combination of all three.

"My sense is that the overreliance on textbooks in social foundations classes does not allow for the debates, discussion, and inquiry that I think are necessary for prospective teachers to understand the role of education in our society," he said.

Steiner Responds

Having reached a similar conclusion about the shortcomings of textbooks in his own study, Mr. Steiner said that he did not quarrel with Mr. Butin’s concerns about professors’ heavy dependence on such texts. Those books often offer briefer, more watered-down treatments of important topics and philosophies.

However, in an interview, Mr. Steiner questioned some of Mr. Butin’s methods. By relying solely on a Web search, rather than getting directly in touch with schools for information, he said, Mr. Butin might have missed teacher education programs that offered no education foundations courses at all.

Mr. Steiner also maintained in an interview that the leading education schools offer an important barometer for what teachers are taught because their scholars often influence the selection of the texts used in courses at teacher-training schools around the country.

Nonetheless, to satisfy the critics who question the representativeness of his study sample, Mr. Steiner and his co-author have begun a similar analysis of syllabi for a larger group of education schools, many of which are major pipelines for the nation’s teacher supply.

"Our study is still preliminary," Mr. Steiner said "but I see no reason to change the substantive critique we made of the leading schools of education."

Vol. 24, Issue 03, Page 14

Published in Print: September 15, 2004, as Scholars Square Off Over Bias in Teacher-Training Content
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