School & District Management

Review Panel Turns Up Little Evidence to Back Teacher Ed. Practices

By Debra Viadero — June 21, 2005 6 min read
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After spending four years sifting through hundreds of studies on teacher education, a national panel has concluded that there’s little empirical evidence to show that many of the most common practices in the field produce effective teachers.

That conclusion comes from a 766-page study that was slated for release June 20. The massive volume was produced by a panel of experts from the American Educational Research Association, a Washington-based group that represents 22,000 scholars.

The report comes at a time when policymakers and researchers are increasingly recognizing the critical role that teachers play in student learning. That awareness is embedded in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which calls for schools to ensure that classrooms are staffed with “highly qualified” teachers.

Yet policymakers and researchers are bitterly divided over what “highly qualified” means and how best to produce teachers who meet that standard. Experts said the AERA panel’s report, coming in the thick of those debates, is notable both for the “evenhanded and critical” research analysis it attempts to undertake and the fact that it was finished at all.

Order “Studying Teacher Education: The Report of the AERA Panel on Research and Teacher Education” from the American Educational Research Association.

Leading researchers in the venture said they originally envisioned the project would take two years to complete.

“I think we were all disappointed in the quality of the research base,” said Susan H. Fuhrman, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education in Philadelphia and a member of the panel. “This is very important because it says we, as a field, are taking a hard look at ourselves, and we’re saying there’s a lot left to be learned.”

Lack of Evidence

The group found, for instance, that even though 42 states require some form of teacher test, evidence showing that teachers who score high on such tests are more successful in the classroom than their low-scoring colleagues is scarce. The panel found no studies at all on the effect of teacher-accreditation programs and very few that link teachers’ coursework in specific subject areas, such as social studies or language arts, to results in K-12 classrooms.

Likewise, the panel concluded, the research base on the effectiveness of alternative-certification programs, which most states use to provide quicker routes into the classroom than traditional teacher education programs do, is too mixed to resolve whether that strategy is effective.

The report’s characterization of the research differs from a report produced weeks earlier by another panel of education scholars. The document by the National Academy of Education, an invitation-only group made up of the field’s most distinguished academics, suggested that experts know enough now about teacher education to undertake bold steps to improve the practice, such as devising national teacher tests. (“Panel Urges New Testing for Teachers,” May 25, 2005.)

But architects behind both undertakings said their reports differed because the panels were seeking to answer different questions.

“The NAE panel focuses on research for teacher education,” noted Linda Darling-Hammond, a co-chairwoman of that effort. Toward that end, the group drew from a broad swath of research, such as studies in cognitive science and child development, to draft its recommendations.

An Agenda For Research

The American Educational Research Association’s Panel on Research and Teacher Education makes 11 recommendations for improving the knowledge base for preparing effective teachers. Its report calls for more studies that:

• Use common definitions of terms such as “alternative education.”

• Fully describe how researchers collected their data and the contexts in which the research was conducted.

• Are based on theory.

• Focus on how teacher education affects teachers’ learning and their educational practices.

• Connect teacher education to students’ learning in K-12 classrooms.

• Use a range of methods and expertise from different disciplines.

• Employ better, more consistent measures of teacher knowledge and performance.

• Look at teacher preparation in academic subjects besides mathematics and science.

• Use experimental approaches to systematically analyze clearly identifiable, alternative approaches to teacher education.

• Utilize large-scale case studies that give an in-depth view of teacher education programs at different colleges and universities.

SOURCE: American Educational Research Association

The 23-member AERA panel, in comparison, set its sights on studies specifically looking at teacher education. The group narrowed the pool even further by sifting out only those studies that gauged the impact of teacher education programs, whether the outcomes were measured in terms of K-12 students’ test scores, better teacher- retention rates, measurements of children’s social and emotional learning, or administrators’ perceptions of the jobs teacher education graduates were doing in their schools.

“There’s actually a lot of research on teacher education,” said Marilyn Cochran-Smith, a co-chairwoman of the AERA panel and an education professor at Boston College. “What there has not been as much of in research on teacher education is research that has really tried to get at the impact. This is sort of a new era in accountability when people are saying, ‘How do you know that how you’re preparing teachers really makes a difference in classrooms?’ ”

The panel also reviewed only peer-reviewed studies. Unlike some other analyses in the field, the group did not limit its focus to particular research designs, such as comparison studies or randomized experiments. The latter, favored by the Bush administration, refers to studies in which participants are randomly assigned to either a status quo or an experimental group.

The group debated at one point, for example, whether to include self-studies, a form of research that educators use to reflect on their own practice. In the end, the group decided to include them if they were of high quality.

“It would be a mistake not to include it, because in certain areas, this is the dominant mode of research,” said Kenneth M. Zeichner, the group’s other co-chairman.

Mr. Zeichner, a professor of teacher education and the associate dean of the school of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said he was surprised by the lack of definitive proof to support alternate routes to certification, given its prominence in policy debates. Besides offering mixed conclusions, though, that body of work was flawed because disparate studies defined “alternative certification” differently.

Inside the Black Box

Few studies looked inside either alternative or traditional programs to get a handle on the degree to which the coursework or field experiences actually differed for candidates.

“They make the point that you’ve got to look inside the black box of what’s going on in these programs,” said Daniel Humphrey, a researcher for SRI International, a think tank based in Menlo Park, Calif., who reviewed a chapter of the report. “This is a great service, because they’re able to point out the weaknesses of the research. They’re not just saying it’s not a rigorous enough design, but they’re also raising questions about some of the research questions themselves.”

To craft a stronger knowledge base for the field, the panel outlined a detailed research agenda.

The group calls for more studies that attempt to measure program impacts and that do so in a variety of ways—not just with standardized tests of K-12 pupils. Members advocate in-depth case studies of teacher education programs in different colleges, universities, and school districts, as well as studies that incorporate the expertise and research methods of researchers from a variety of disciplines.

The report also calls for setting up national databases on teacher education students, teacher-educators, curriculum, and instruction, and for partnerships that can foster more coherent programs of study that allow researchers to build on one another’s knowledge over a period of years.

Accomplishing those goals, however, would require private foundations, education schools, and the federal government to target many more dollars toward research in the field than they do now, panel members said.

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