Teacher Preparation Opinion

Teacher Education’s ‘Black Hole’

By Mark Alter & Gordon M. Pradl — June 20, 2006 8 min read
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Whether ballyhooing alternative approaches to certification or bemoaning the shortage of adequately trained science and math teachers, articles in the popular press consistently indicate that established schools of education are somehow broken. What used to be taken for granted is, it now seems, very much contested: Nowhere apparently can one find any agreement on just how to prepare a teacher. The recent report that a study of 10,000 New York City teachers purportedly showed no relationship between their pathway to certification and their ability to raise student test scores only furthered the erosion of confidence in our current institutions. (“Path to Classroom Not Linked to Teachers’ Success,” March 22, 2006.) Traditionally certified teachers were not shown to perform any better than those who were alternatively certified, members of Teach For America, or uncertified.

—Laura Costas


Not a comforting result for those committed to current routines. But, not to despair, one of the authors of a companion study concluded, according to Education Week, that “the complications of the data could make a significant relationship hard to see.” Still, one way or the other, no side has been able to produce the kind of evidence the public surely has a right to demand when it comes to spending resources on teacher preparation. Indeed, it’s remarkable that so little discussion is devoted to the relationship between how teachers are prepared and the extent to which students end up learning in their classrooms, whether or not standardized tests are the measuring stick.

Thus the black hole in teacher education. Until schools of education can operationally and publicly define (a) what a teacher needs in terms of knowledge, skills, and attitudes to teach students successfully, and (b) how a teacher best acquires this set of competencies, the goal of systematically preparing highly qualified teachers will continue to be elusive. Given the lack of any agreed-upon criteria for connecting teacher education to student learning, it remains a mystery just how the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s legitimate quest to place a highly qualified teacher in every classroom can ever become reality.

In a report published by the Education Commission of the States in 2003 (“Eight Questions on Teacher Preparation: What Does the Research Say?”), 92 studies were used to frame eight challenges for our profession. These included the role of subject knowledge in teaching effectiveness, the role of pedagogical knowledge in teaching effectiveness, the role of field experience in preparing successful teachers, and the quality of approaches for preparing teachers to succeed in previously underachieving schools. In their summary of the findings, the report’s authors acknowledged the “relative thinness of the research” and that “the available evidence simply does not justify ... [an] absolute and exclusive” approach. In light of such uncertainty, three of their recommendations appear particularly salient for addressing our ignorance in the area of teacher preparation: (1) “Ensure the research on teacher preparation defines more precisely the questions that need to be addressed and the data that need to be gathered”; (2) “Make the connections to student achievement as explicit as possible”; and (3) “Strengthen research capacity by increasing overall investment and defining a strategic and coordinated research agenda.”

Both qualified and unqualified teachers can be found throughout public education. Yet we remain unable to establish what precisely led to the creation of teachers of either stripe.

With these three dimensions in mind, will those of us who prepare teachers commit to looking critically at the preparation practices currently in place? To do so requires gathering both internal and external evidence that bears directly on what is supposedly being done to create high-quality teachers. Yet, irony begets irony in the business of teacher education, for we too are wary of exposure and the change it might precipitate. The Teacher Education Accreditation Council and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, the two major organizations charged with determining the effectiveness of how universities are educating teachers, do not exactly display a culture that recognizes the knowledge-and-evidence vacuum within which these institutions work. Measuring rods are being employed, but ones that seemingly have only invisible criteria marks on each stick. Not only is what counts as data or evidence never established, but any position can be held as a belief, since seldom is it subject to scientific scrutiny.

So we are left with a conundrum in teacher education. Despite the criticisms in the press and the proliferation of alternative routes to certification, reasonable people agree that both qualified and unqualified teachers can be found throughout public education. Yet we remain unable to establish what precisely led to the creation of teachers of either stripe. In fact, were the research to be completed, policymakers might conclude that teacher effectiveness as measured by student learning, teacher retention, and teacher satisfaction is not primarily a function of preservice education, but is more the result of the kinds of schools we create—their climate, organization, and resources—and strongly influenced by the degree to which families are involved in their children’s education.

Unraveling the teacher education Gordian knot will require, in part, specifying a host of decisions and behaviors. Once laid out in concrete instances, the details of individual teacher education programs might be viewed in terms of the range of options or possibilities that exist at particular moments during the process of preparing a teacher. Aligning this information with subsequent teacher-performance data will begin to clarify which of the current teacher education practices should be supported and which revised. Without careful audits, the black box of teacher education only continues to be shrouded in mystery.

In our own department of teaching and learning, where the faculty prepares teachers across multiple levels and subject areas, we too must confess to living in an environment characterized by keeping peace within and among the various degree programs. At any given time, we were serving approximately 1,000 students. The best policy involved not disturbing those practices supposedly based on historical validity: “We’ve done it this way successfully for years,” or “We’ve always used this public school for student-teaching placement.” Naturally enough, fundamental questions about teaching and learning in the context of teacher education were not being answered beyond the level of personal testimony.

Moving to the next level logically involved unmasking the decisions and teaching behaviors that had helped enact the curricula we were offering our students. To this end, we began generating questions and categories, eventually assembling them into five areas of inquiry into teacher education: program content, student-teaching, pedagogical processes, instructional accountability, and program accountability. These questions ranged from “How is knowledge and mastery of pedagogy related to success as a content teacher?” to “What determines the balance of theory and application in any given course?”

We wanted to know such things as these: What qualities need to be matched in supervisor selection for a given student-teacher? What coursework best supports a student during student-teaching? How should class size in a methods course be determined? What are the advantages and disadvantages of holding a methods course in the field? What difference do grades make in teacher preparation? How do our programs address teacher retention? In the case of each question, some final link needed to be established with how competent our students ended up being when they were teaching on their own.

Unfortunately, listing appropriate questions got us no closer to gathering systematic evidence for answering them. But until the profession can validate its traditional procedures in a reliable and standards-driven way, administrators, parents, politicians, and policymakers will continue to view teacher education as a problem. For one thing, we desperately need longitudinal demonstration programs, which track students from entry, through their preparation in content and pedagogy, and then until they have taught for a while. If legitimate teacher education programs cannot produce hard evidence to convincingly support the claim that the proper preparation of a teacher practitioner is labor-intensive, while also demonstrating that their management of ever-limited resources is being properly carried out, then quick-fix approaches will be able to assert their own forms of evidence-free legitimacy.

In raising hard questions about “best practice” in teacher education, we hope to encourage an open dialogue among professionals in the field. Together, teacher-educators must begin laying the evidentiary groundwork for cleaning up our own domain—a domain where many of the unresolved issues that were prevalent 25 years ago remain unresolved today. Schools of education must recognize the importance of operationally building in the resources needed for methodically addressing questions such as those we propose. Otherwise, their claims of effectiveness will remain weak, without any demonstrable and independent way to determine how and why what they do actually works.

What teacher-educators face boils down to a textbook case of consumer economics. To continue to be ill-prepared to answer the hard questions about our practices leaves us vulnerable to declining enrollments and eventual irrelevance. The crisis in teacher education may have many sources and dimensions, but our own contribution needs to be openly addressed.

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2006 edition of Education Week as Teacher Education’s ‘Black Hole’


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