Teacher Preparation

Developmental Science Seen Lacking in Education Schools

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 12, 2010 3 min read
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Education programs should more explicitly train teacher-candidates in the rudiments of developmental science, and need policy support from states and the federal government to do so, asserts a report released last week by a panel convened by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

“There’s just been an explosion of knowledge in development science over the last 10 to 14 years,” said Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. “We know so much more about 4-year-olds’ capacity in math, or the skills progression that leads to confident literacy, or the way making material relevant engages an adolescent.”

Mr. Pianta co-chaired the panel, commissioned by the Washington-based NCATE, which accredits about half of the nation’s education schools. It included experts in teacher education, developmental science, and early childhood. Developmental science consists of the science underpinning the biological, emotional, ethical, linguistic, psychological, and social development of children and adolescents, and how those fields interact. It also incorporates cognitive science—how children learn to think and process information.

The paper contends that a greater emphasis on developmental science in the course of teacher preparation is especially warranted given that research appears to point toward instruction rooted in that field as one way of boosting achievement.

A research synthesis of studies on 213 school programs, for example, found that such programs led, on average, to an 11 percentile-point gain in student achievement, the paper states. That study, by J.A. Durlak, a Loyola University Chicago clinical psychology professor, and others, is scheduled to appear in the January 2011 issue of Child Development.

But many preparation programs have yet to catch up to the research, said James P. Comer, the founder of the Yale Child Study Center School Development Program in New Haven, Conn., and the panel’s other co-chair. He said they “focus on curriculum, instruction, assessment with the assumption that the rest of it has been taken care of somewhere else in the family, in the community, wherever, that all kids come to school ready to learn.”

The report outlines some avenues through which policymakers could strengthen the preservice focus on developmental science, including through individual programs’ requirements and assessments; the national-accreditation process; state licensing and accreditation regimes; and federal programs and policy governing teacher-preparation and school-turnaround initiatives. School systems’ regular teacher-evaluation cycle, meanwhile, could help encourage a stronger application of developmental science to instruction among current teachers. For instance, the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, designed by Mr. Pianta to measure the quality of K-3 student-teacher interactions, is rooted in developmental science.

The popular Framework for Teaching created in 1996 by consultant Charlotte Danielson includes a review of how teachers create a positive classroom environment, a feature the report’s authors list as an important application of developmental science. Both teacher-evaluation frameworks are included in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s $45 million study of effective teaching.

Weaving in Courses?

There’s evidence, in the meantime, that colleges of education already require some study of the developmental sciences, but that those efforts may not be well focused.

In a 2008 NCATE survey of accredited institutions, 90 percent reported requiring candidates to take at least one course in child and adolescent development. But the survey found that such classes were broad and didn’t emphasize practical application.

The trick may hinge not on adding more course work, but ensuring that the discipline is woven into all relevant classes and in student teaching, Dr. Comer said.

Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who has written extensively about the application of cognitive science to education, noted, however, that the developmental sciences cover a broad range of areas. Effective integration of the field into teacher preparation will require researchers and teachers to home in on the most important topics and collaborate on the shape of curricula.

One push for that might come soon from the accreditation system. In a news release, NCATE President James G. Cibulka said the body will consider developmental science as it upgrades its own standards for accrediting teacher education programs.

A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2010 edition of Education Week as Developmental Science Seen Lacking in Education Schools


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