Teachers play a pivotal role in student learning. We know that excellent teaching depends not on a bag of tricks, but rather on the ability to draw effectively from the complex interplay among theory, practice, and the reality of one’s teaching situation. Sustaining this intellectual work in our nation’s classrooms requires a sense of urgency and an abundance of patience: urgency because there is no time to waste, and patience, because the habits of mind and habits of classroom behavior that make such academic work possible are not created overnight.
As teacher-educators grounded in the liberal-arts tradition, we seek to ensure that a liberal-arts education does not disappear from our nation’s K-12 schools or from the conversation about what constitutes excellent teacher education. Teachers educated in our liberal-arts institutions emphasize critical inquiry within a discipline, a commitment to participation in democratic and global communities, and the reflexivity that grounds a thoughtful exploration of theory and practice. They also gain an understanding of the structural and pedagogical contingencies that can constrain or contribute to equitable and effective practice. By building on a time-tested and honored tradition and combining it with a renewed commitment to social justice, we believe that teacher preparation grounded in the liberal arts offers a path through the reductionist thicket of testing in which we now find ourselves.
We have reached a moment in our educational history in which the relentless pressure to embrace standardized testing is closing the spaces where real teaching and learning can occur—and so there is an urgent need to respond. A positive and well-intentioned determination to improve our nation’s schools has become a devastating attack on good teaching. Instead of conversations grounded in inquiry, teachers and students are talking about how to successfully navigate multiple-choice questions. Instead of sharing for deeper learning, teachers and administrators are exchanging tips on how to motivate students to become more successful test-takers. Assessments that provide information for teachers that they can use to deepen student learning are entirely appropriate and important. Yet, all too often, data from standardized tests are being used to make inaccurate judgments of teacher and school performance that have long-lasting and often damaging results.
We believe we must move quickly to address the current state of affairs by imagining and working to achieve both a K-12 and teacher education curriculum that combines the intellectual tradition of the liberal arts with a renewed commitment to ensuring that all students have access to a world-class, intellectually challenging curriculum. The emphasis on critical inquiry, the ability to communicate, the development of in-depth knowledge in a particular field along with an awareness of a range of ways of knowing and thinking remain central attributes of a liberal-arts education and offer an important model of a high-quality education. By “high quality,” we mean an education that introduces our students and their teachers to our nation’s rich and diverse intellectual traditions so that they may each shape, sustain, and renew our vibrant, multicultural, democratic society. At its best, a liberal-arts education has always held in dynamic tension the need to preserve tradition while preparing individuals to meet the challenges of their particular time.
However, to respond effectively to what U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, echoing former President George W. Bush, has rightly called “the civil rights issue of our generation,” it is not enough for teachers to have experienced a liberal-arts education. They must also develop a critical consciousness and understanding of deep pedagogy that enables them to respond effectively to the inequities that are embodied in the very lives, hearts, and minds of our students. The false and time-wasting debate that pits content against pedagogy clouds the simple fact that every teacher must have both a firm grasp on content and be able to make learning meaningful to the next generation of children. There are multiple paths for preparing excellent teachers. As a profession, our task is not to limit the diversity of teacher education programs, but rather to more clearly articulate a common set of high expectations that would guide all programs.
Thus, we are calling for models of assessment for both teachers and teacher education programs that are dynamic, that don’t set narrow limits, and that capture, as much as any system can, the rich complexity of teaching and learning. A student’s test score fromone day’s performance simply is insufficient basis for making “data driven” decisions about a teacher’s, or a student’s, abilities. Teaching involves human beings. As a result, it is complex, messy, and difficult. Value-added models of evaluation must both honor and investigate the complexity of teaching. This may require that we rethink the current divide that separates preservice and in-service teacher education. How might these two elements of a teacher’s life, now so often disconnected, be better integrated to foster the kind of deep, ongoing intellectual work that is essential to good teaching and professional renewal?
We urge the U.S. Department of Education and private foundations to convene a national conference for the purpose of imagining how all of us involved in teacher preparation and support could coordinate our work to support the pedagogical and intellectual development of teachers overtheir careers. Teachers and teacher-educators grounded in the liberal arts have important contributions to make to this national conversation.
Through such gatherings, we seek to change not only how we talk about the challenge our nation faces in ensuring a world-class education for every student, but also the actual manner in which we respond to those challenges. We welcome the opportunity to work with policymakers, parents, teacher-educators, teachers, and administrators to develop a common definition of high-quality teacher education based on a commitment to equity that ensures all students will be ready to meet the challenges of our fast-paced, globalized world. We look forward to engaging, with all of you, in the great civil rights mission of our time—to ensure that every child in this country receives a high-quality education that ensures the ongoing renewal of this marvelous experiment in democracy.
A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2011 edition of Education Week as Toward Greater, More Equitable Access to an Excellent Education