Teacher Preparation

Education School Courses Faulted As Intellectually Thin

By Bess Keller — November 12, 2003 7 min read
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Fourteen of the nation’s most prestigious education schools offer teacher preparation that is at best uneven and at worst intellectually thin and ineffectual. So says researcher David M. Steiner, an education professor at Boston University, after reviewing more than 200 course outlines from 16 schools.

Mr. Steiner unveiled his research here last month to the delight of those who have long criticized education schools for their low standards and tight hold on entry into teaching. But other experts walloped the study for its methodology and questioned whether it suggests very much about the way most teachers are prepared or what they do once in the classroom.

The draft paper was one of 10 presented at a conference on “A Qualified Teacher in Every Classroom: Appraising Old Answers and New Ideas,” sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, which favors market means to achieve public goals, and the Progressive Policy Institute, linked to centrist Democrats.

Mr. Steiner, working with Susan D. Rozen, analyzed a total of 206 syllabuses for four key courses in 16 education schools, along with the array of courses required in each of those schools’ teaching programs. Fourteen of the schools were drawn from U.S. News & World Report magazine’s ranking of the nation’s top 30 teacher-training institutions. The other two, Eastern Michigan University and Sonoma State University in California, were included as comparisons.

In examining the outlines for 45 “education foundations” courses in 18 programs, the researchers found that no course offered an introduction to the four central areas that they say ideally would make up the course: the philosophy, history, and psychology of education, along with public-policy debates in the field.

In general, philosophy, history, and policy got short shrift in teacher-preparation courses, the paper said. In seven schools, students were required to study only psychology and multiculturalism. Psychology showed up in all but three programs, and cultural diversity as a course was required in all but three education schools.

Dewey Ascendant

“The only major author [of philosophy] we found in more than one program was John Dewey,” whose name came up often, the authors wrote. Plato appeared on only one outline. The work of the prominent education historian Diane Ravitch also got a single mention, while E.D. Hirsch Jr., who has been at the center of debates on curriculum, was included in only two outlines.

Under the Microscope
A study that looked at the content of coursework offered in education schools included these institutions.
  • Eastern Michigan University
  • Harvard University
  • Indiana University Bloomington
  • Michigan State University
  • Pennsylvania State University
  • Sonoma State University
  • Stanford University
  • Teachers College, Columbia University
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of Georgia
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • University of Maryland College Park
  • University of Michigan
  • University of Texas at Austin
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison

“We would conclude that the great majority of prospective teachers [at the 16 schools] are being given little or no exposure to those texts that have informed and challenged our thinking about teaching and education for centuries,” the researchers wrote.

Of the 61 reading and reading-related courses in 14 schools that were reviewed, only three outlines from two schools covered the method of teaching phonics that relies most on direct instruction from the teacher, which Mr. Steiner and Ms. Rozen favor.

Twenty-eight of the 36 reading courses for prospective elementary teachers, however, included work on the “balanced” approach to reading instruction, which blends the explicit teaching of phonics with a focus on literature drawn from the “whole-language” approach.

Ten outlines from four schools “represented the whole-language ideology ... despite recent years of research pointing to [its] destructive effects” on a significant proportion of beginning readers, the authors said.

Courses in methods for teaching mathematics, the researchers wrote, showed the strong influence of standards set by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics: All but five of the 42 outlines studied made explicit reference to them. The investigators also found evidence that three-quarters of the schools were taking state math standards into account to various degrees. They applauded both those directions.

On the other hand, just one course outline referred to the research stemming from the Third International Math and Science Study, which has found that in comparison with math teachers in other countries, American math teachers cover material that is less demanding, with less attention to fundamental concepts.

The researchers also looked at general “teaching methods” courses, which they said are usually linked to or integrated with required student teaching. Of 59 courses examined, only 20 outlines from nine schools included instruction in planning lessons, with four incorporating demonstrations of teaching.

Mr. Steiner called “perhaps most shocking” the fact that just three schools used videotapes or audiotapes of student teaching in their methods courses.

“Only if [professors] take responsibility for looking at what [students] are doing in their practicums can we hold our heads up in the marketplace,” Mr. Steiner said after the conference.

A minority of any of the three methods courses required aspiring teachers to demonstrate their knowledge of either the materials or the techniques of instruction, the study found.

Taken together, Mr. Steiner argued, the outlines show that students at most of the 14 prestigious schools— and, by implication, many others—miss out on essential skills.

They also don’t get a broad or a deep understanding of education’s place in human affairs, he wrote. Instead, their professors “are too often trying to teach an ideology to teachers"—that traditional knowledge is repressive, and that meaningful knowledge must bubble up from each individual and ethnic group.

“There was a mind-set prominent here: that teachers should first and foremost respond to the diversity before them,” Mr. Steiner said in his presentation.

Varied Reactions

At the conference, his work met with wildly different reactions.

Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Education Trust, a Washington research and advocacy organization, dismissed the effort because it did not look directly at the links between individual classroom teachers and student achievement. Recent data from a very few states and districts allow researchers to study those links.

“Instead, we do this proxy stuff, rather than really learn what matters most in teaching,” Ms. Haycock lamented.

But Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington- based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which supports higher academic standards and school choice, greeted the paper from the audience with enthusiasm.

“It’s unlikely that hundreds of other schools are better,” he contended. “If this were any other field, people would be hitting their heads in alarm at what these findings suggest.”

But another audience member, Averil McClelland, an education professor at Kent State University in Ohio, strongly disagreed with that Mr. Finn’s premise.

“I don’t recognize this when I look at my own school,” she said. “Maybe the elite schools do it this way because they are elite and don’t have to try as hard.”

The president of the body that has accredited some 600 of the nation’s roughly 1,500 education programs also cast doubt on the sample.

“This is not necessarily a guide to what’s going on at the institutions that prepare most of the nation’s teachers,” said Arthur E. Wise, the president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

Although he shares Mr. Steiner’s concern that the intellectual foundations of education are too often shortchanged, Mr. Wise said, he looks elsewhere for the reason. The typical undergraduate program simply can’t make room for all that’s important, he said, especially given the now-common requirement for an academic major in addition to coursework in pedagogy.

Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University who has led the charge for tighter regulation and higher standards for teaching, blasted the paper as showing “very poor scholarship.”

Course outlines are inadequate to assess what is actually taught, she said, calling the standards Mr. Steiner used to evaluate each of the four types of courses either personal or politically motivated.

“We need systematic studies,” she complained, “rather than diatribes that come at the problems ideologically.”

David F. Labaree, an education professor at Stanford and author of the forthcoming book The Trouble With EdSchools, agreed that course outlines are not a good guide to what is actually taught. They are “more an ideological portrait of a course than actual substance,” he said.

Mr. Steiner was right in portraying many education schools as having “a strong ideological consensus around progressive, constructivist approaches to education,” Mr. Labaree said.

But he was wrong, Mr. Labaree added, in blaming education schools’ progressive and constructivist approaches for much of what ails American schools.

“Not only have [education schools] had almost no impact on turning schools in that direction,” he said, “those ideas don’t even affect the way we as educators carry out our own programs.”


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