Teacher Preparation Opinion

Teacher Education’s Empty Suit

By Kevin Ryan & Karen Bohlin — March 08, 2000 9 min read
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People enter teaching not simply to dispense information and skills, but to help the young become good people.

Teaching is intrinsically and unavoidably a moral act. Schools and their classrooms and playgrounds are caldrons of moral matter, ethical issues, and the events that affect a young person’s character. Some children slip into the habit of cheating; some become champions of the underdogs; and everyone’s image of a good person, a good life, is profoundly affected by their long years in school. But while this may be a masterful grasp of the obvious, few in teacher education are acting upon it.

As Aristotle noted: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Since the time of the Greeks, we have known that teachers, consciously or unconsciously, play a critical role in a child’s habit or character formation. Fifteen years ago, Alan Tom reiterated this fact in his acclaimed book Teaching as a Moral Act (Longman, 1984). Ten years ago, John I. Goodlad, one of America’s most influential educators, and his colleagues called the teacher education community to action with their book The Moral Dimension of Teaching (Jossey-Bass, 1990). Nevertheless, the overwhelming percentage of our teacher-training institutions provide future teachers with neither the preparation nor the mandate they need to help a child toward moral maturity.

In the spring of last year, the Washington-based Character Education Partnership released a study dealing with what deans and directors of teacher education reported about their institutions’ efforts to prepare future teachers as educators of character. Conducted by the Boston University Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character, the study was based on an eight-page survey that was sent to a random selection of 600 of the 1,400-plus institutions preparing teachers.

The overwhelming percentage of our teacher-training institutions provide future teachers with neither the preparation nor the mandate they need to help a child toward moral maturity.

The respondents were informed that the term “character education” was to be understood in the broadest sense “to encompass the wide range of approaches used by educators to foster good values and character traits in young people.” Further, we offered a number of alternative terms that respondents might be more familiar with, terms such as values education, ethics, and moral development. The survey had a respectable 35 percent return rate.

The data from this survey suggest that our current mechanism for preparing future teachers is failing to respond to issues of character formation. Among the major findings are these:

  • More than 90 percent of the leadership in teacher education agreed that core values can and should be taught in schools. An even larger number—97 percent—disagreed when the issue was posed in the negative: “Schools should avoid teaching values or influencing moral development. Character education is not the responsibility of the schools.”
  • There is a large gap between interest or approval and their own programs. Only 13 percent said they were satisfied with their character education efforts.
The data from this survey suggest that our current mechanism for preparing future teachers is failing to respond to issues of character formation.

Only 24 percent reported that character education is highly emphasized in their programs. An overwhelming 81 percent said that their efforts to address character education were hindered by the difficulty of “finding room in a crowded curriculum.”

  • There is little consensus about what character education is and how it should be taught. Schools of education emphasize very different approaches in teaching character education to future teachers, ranging from experiential education to religious education, and from life skills to moral reasoning.
  • “Community” is a dominant framework and a powerful metaphor for teacher-educators in their character education efforts. The two most often checked approaches to character education were “caring community” and “service learning.” Service learning brings students into direct contact with a larger community through volunteer work, while a caring-community approach focuses on building cooperative, empathetic relationships within the classroom.
  • When it comes to character education, most schools of education emphasize applied, hands-on approaches over more directive, academic-centered, and philosophical approaches. The respondents cited the learning process rather than curricular content as the primary vehicle for character education.
  • Schools of education with religious ties are more strongly committed to character education than their secular counterparts. The commitment to character education is reflected in many aspects of schools with religious ties, from their mission statements to honor codes, professional oaths, and special rituals and ceremonies. The leadership of several of these schools and departments claimed that “character education is central to their philosophy of education.”
  • Teacher-educators generally, but cautiously, favor making character education a requirement for state certification. A clear majority—65 percent—support legislation that would require this new regulatory mandate. As one dean put it, “Because values are too important to be left to a hidden curriculum, character education should be a required component of a teacher-certification program.” Still, many expressed reservations about overregulating and homogenizing character education through such legislation.

The deans and other leaders of teacher education who responded to this study had many reasons for giving no, or very minor, attention in their programs to character education. Prominent among their reasons were the limited time and space in their teacher education curricula. They reported that they were so busy meeting their states’ mandated content requirements that they had no opportunity to add new content. In the same vein, they reported that since their accrediting agencies, including the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education and others, placed no emphasis on this topic, they felt they had little leverage to introduce it within their institutions. Other respondents reported being so pressed meeting their states’ mandated teacher-education-certification requirements that there was little or no opportunity to add “something new” without the force behind it. Still others cited the continuing struggle within their institutions between general education and professional education that left them little room in a future teacher’s program to “add something new.”

Besides these related no-room, no-leverage reasons, other factors contribute to the near absence of targeted preparation for the work of character development and the teaching of core ethical values. High among these are the near disappearance of courses in the philosophy of education and the history of education in teacher-preparation programs. Whatever else might be said about the once-required courses, they did engage future teachers with the long tradition of moral education in our schools and in the ethical dimensions of their work with students.

Further, there is the institutional context of teacher education. Since the beginning of this century, we have prepared teachers on college and university campuses. Thus, teacher education has not been immune to the intellectual movements and fashions of higher education. In particular, amid the turmoil of the Vietnam War, schools and departments of education distanced themselves from charges that our public schools “indoctrinate” students with the materialistic values of a corrupt capitalistic power structure and America’s desire for world hegemony.

In the turbulent social climate of the late 1960s and 1970s, aggressively advocating America’s core ethical values on our campuses found few supporters and many energetic critics. And, as many have noted, rather than total abandonment of such a central responsibility of teachers and schools, schools and departments of education embraced a supposedly “value free” approach of helping students come to moral maturity, called “values clarification.” Although now widely recognized as an abandonment of the teacher’s role, this allegedly non-indoctrinative method still has a strong grip on American education. In the study, only the leadership of programs in private secular (nonreligious) institutions mentioned values clarification as one of the dominant approaches they teach. Still, however, the effects on teachers and teachers-to-be of three decades of dealing with the moral domain of teaching and learning in a relaxed, value-free way linger.

We are suggesting that [teachers] take seriously their responsibility to awaken and inspire their students to lead moral lives.

People enter teaching not simply to dispense information and skills. Many, probably the majority, want to help the young become good people, adults of intelligent substance and character. What they too often receive as preparation, however, are techniques, strategies, and methods, plus a picture of education as riddled with vexing controversies such as creationism, safe sex, and indoctrinative education vs. progressive education. The result of this preparation is to dull their natural tendency to assume their responsibility as adults to pass on our heritage of moral wisdom. Amid all their attention to the supposed “knowledge base for teaching,” the importance of shaping character and developing good habits is lost.

Even with what is clearly the growing support from our politicians and the public, restoring the traditional moral authority of teachers and schools will be a long, uphill struggle. The need is great, but it is not going to be easily or quickly remedied. We need more than a mandate—we need a serious examination of the actual content of moral education in teacher-preparation programs.

We are not suggesting that teachers learn to force-feed moral principles and precepts to their students. Rather, we are suggesting that they take seriously their responsibility to awaken and inspire their students to lead moral lives. Virtues such as integrity and perseverance find complex and practical expression in history, literature, film, science, and art, and teachers must know how to work these into our academic curricula and the everyday life of the classroom.

Little will be accomplished, however, if the over 2 million new teachers needed in the next 10 years are unprepared to take on their responsibilities as educators of character. As this study demonstrates, the leadership of teacher education (our deans and directors of teacher education) recognize the need, but are either unsure of what to do or unable to put a plan in action. Before any real changes are made, they will need strong help from state departments of education, accrediting agencies, and from within their own institutions. Without this, character education will remain teacher education’s empty suit.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2000 edition of Education Week as Teacher Education’s Empty Suit


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