Teacher Preparation Opinion

The Field-Placement Dilemma

By Connie Goddard — February 18, 2004 10 min read
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These days, being a training ground for teachers-to-be is not as easy for schools as some might think.

A dilemma presented by today’s overabundance of teacher-candidates illustrates a major disjunction in how they are prepared for certification—and suggests some opportunities as well. Colleges of education, facing scrutiny on several fronts, are under growing pressure from accrediting agencies to include more field experiences in their programs. This is a good idea, but the school districts essential to providing such clinical work often find doing so a real challenge. In the Chicago metropolitan area, where two dozen teacher- preparation programs compete for field-observation and student-teaching positions, many district offices report that student observers are tripping over one another in their schools. Though particularly acute in urban areas, the problem is felt nationwide. It is a problem of long standing, and when enrollment in teacher-preparation programs climbs—as has happened in Chicago— the competition for space in classrooms becomes more intense.

That’s the dilemma; here’s the disjunction. Despite their need for well-prepared teachers, school districts tend to regard providing field experiences as a favor they grant to colleges. But, at the same time, they are seldom consulted when state and national accreditors craft policies that affect them, such as the recent turn to more preservice work in schools as a cure-all for what ails teacher preparation. The same is true on a local level: Does it occur to colleges of education to poll the districts they work with when they decide to, for example, increase by 50 percent the length of student-teaching requirements? Or do the colleges consider capping enrollments in certain programs—secondary social studies is one—for which high schools say they simply do not have enough cooperating teachers to meet the demand?

Or, for that matter, have either colleges or school districts approached teachers’ associations to discuss reframing the cooperating teacher’s role? It ought to be regarded as a professional-development experience, rather than as an unwelcome obligation for which teachers receive little compensation or recognition.

An even greater anomaly, given the pervasiveness of this professional disjunction, is that the provision of field experiences merits scant attention from researchers. Despite its essential nature, the term and its equivalents—clinicals, practicums, preservice training—appear seldom in books or articles about teacher preparation. And except for current discussion of professional-development schools, advice on how colleges and school districts can work together to arrange these field hours appears hardly at all. Though handbooks of research on teacher education mention the paucity of investigations into the subject, few researchers have taken up the challenge.

Yet, as officials of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education have noted, field experiences provide fertile ground for rethinking relationships between colleges of education and school districts. There are even some programs that have begun this reconceptualization process—turning the placements problem into an opportunity for partnerships, and thus reversing the century-old split between producers and consumers of teacher education programs.

Given the lack of research attention, evidence of this dilemma is mostly anecdotal. But here are some facts and figures from my own experience. As a field-placement director for a college of education with both urban and suburban campuses, I am on the phone daily with school districts throughout the six-county metropolitan area. Most of the people I talk with are secretaries in district personnel departments. And although most endeavor with grace and good nature to meet the demands my staff and I, along with our peers at other colleges of education, place on them, they report that doing so is increasingly trying. Many of these women (almost all of them are female) have been arranging field placements for a decade or more, and they report that the inundation of requests has been particularly overwhelming this year and last.

School districts could learn to regard the current abundance of teacher-candidates as an untapped resource, rather than as an overabundant obligation.

At the high school level, we often work with assistant principals; and they report a similar glut. They also ask why we keep sending them students in English and social studies when what they need are science and Spanish teachers. One suburban high school official admitted this past fall that he simply returned requests for student-teaching positions unopened; by May 2003, he had already filled all available slots for the spring semester of 2004.

Beyond anecdotes, here are some figures: My office made 40 percent more placements in fall 2003 than in fall 2001. Two years ago, we made a total of 327 field placements (including 101 student-teachers); this past fall, the total was 549 (including 154 student-teachers). Most of the increase was due to enrollment growth rather than a change in field requirements, and my institution is not the only one experiencing this growth. An area-wide survey conducted a year ago found that several colleges were making 20 percent to 30 percent more placements than the previous year. Whereas, three years ago, the instances in which I had to go to more than one school to place a student occurred less than half of the time (this is an estimate; we are only beginning to develop the technology to keep reliable records), now well over half of our placements seem to require three or four requests.

The competition is not only stiff, it is getting stiffer. Some of my peers who are new to this endeavor have called to ask whether I have found the challenge as daunting as they do. Yes, I tell them, I have. But we’ve not motivated the rest of our peers to do anything about it. One of the few researchers who has conducted disciplined studies of student teaching observes that though colleges are prone to whine about the problem, there has been little attempt at addressing it in a systematic fashion.

Instead, school districts are responding to the inundation in predictable ways. Policies and procedures governing placements that may have been observed in the breach a few years ago are now rigidly enforced. Principals complain that their teachers are feeling swamped by observers in their classrooms. Others worry that parents will complain about too many outsiders in their children’s schools. To cope with the deluge of requests, some suburban districts require additional forms; others enforce stringent grade-point-average cutoffs even for 25-hour observation requests. Security concerns have persuaded many districts to insist that all student observers pass a background check before they are admitted.

Each of these forms and other requirements, however well intended, only complicates the placement process from the college’s point of view. They make an already time-consuming endeavor even more arduous.

Another disjunction in the field-placement process exemplifies the rule of “them that has gets": The most sought-after placements are in well-paying suburban schools. Particularly at the high school level, these principals and department chairs can be highly selective, choosing to interview only teacher- candidates with previous degrees and solid experience (which today is likely to mean M.B.A.s, lawyers, sales managers, or journalists with master’s degrees). Teacher-candidates with less sterling credentials, alas, wind up by default in schools that serve the neediest students. Though Illinois’ basic- skills and content-area tests bar some from teaching, we still occasionally have to place candidates whose undergraduate records suggest they were not exemplary students. As the wealthier districts are offered far more teacher- candidates than they can welcome, the less fortunate districts wind up taking these borderline candidates.

Other complications reduce the pool of cooperating teachers. Some highly selective high schools limit student- teachers to one per department; less bureaucratic schools can be far more generous. Usually, only tenured teachers can take on student-teachers, but that can eliminate potential mentors with solid experience in another state or district. Union regulations pose other complications. In one elementary district, teachers have to formally volunteer before they can even be asked to take a teacher-candidate, and the volunteering can only be done annually. Teachers exhausted in the spring may reject an opportunity they would gladly take on the following January, but they cannot be asked.

Turnover also complicates making field placements: If a third of a school’s teachers are recent hires, another third can be mentoring them, and some of the rest are on leave or about to retire and not interested in overseeing student teachers. Thus, a 15-member department may have only one person available to serve as a cooperating teacher.

So, dilemmas and disjunctions abound in this most essential component of the teacher-preparation process. But there are some prospects for change even beyond those urged by NCATE and other accreditors. Professional- development schools are one means, but less formal partnership arrangements can simplify the placement process without the cost and complexity of administering a professional-development school. Some colleges are developing inducements beyond a free course, such as hiring classroom teachers as adjuncts. They can work as school liaisons, take on instructional and supervisory activities, or host student-teaching seminars. One college has inaugurated a program that gives cooperating teachers academic credit for the experience so long as they sign up for a weekly workshop in which they hone their mentoring skills. The idea is to reward practicing teachers for their competence; it could have the added advantage of cutting down the amount of travel college supervisors have to do.

Field experiences provide fertile ground for rethinking relationships between colleges of education and school districts.

Schools that welcome college classes on a regular basis can work these teacher-candidates into their instructional programs. Rather than observers underfoot, they become an asset. Supervised by a college faculty member, they can be counted on as well-trained volunteer aides.

State certification boards might even regard the abundance of teacher-candidates with advanced degrees as an opportunity to rethink some certification requirements—and thus turn one of the deregulators’ arguments to the professionalizers’ advantage. Illinois, like most states, needs math teachers, particularly in city schools. The M.B.A.s and C.P.A.s aiming to get certified for a dwindling number of business education jobs could be prepared to be math teachers. Rather than taking methods courses originally designed for students half their age, they could take math courses at night while they spend their days as professionally mentored teaching assistants in ill-staffed schools.

Lemons into lemonade. Obstacles into opportunities. Old problems into new and novel solutions. School districts could learn to regard the current abundance of teacher- candidates as an untapped resource, rather than as an overabundant obligation. Cooperating teachers could be regarded as the mentors and models they usually are. Accrediting agencies and colleges of education, in turn, could begin consulting with school districts—and the national teachers’ organizations—when they consider changes that affect practitioners. And colleges could hire more practicing teachers as school-based supervisors for their teacher-candidates. Even researchers could have a field day, studying ways to enhance the field- placement experience and other junctions between schools and colleges.

Today’s dilemma could become a means of righting yesterday’s disjunction. And we could then join the isolated elements of teacher-preparation programs into a closer working relationship that benefits not only the programs, but also the students they serve.

Connie Goddard directs the field-placement program of a Chicago-area college of education and is a doctoral student in curriculum and instruction at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The opinions expressed are her own and do not represent those of the universities with which she is associated.


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