Teacher Preparation

Panel Says Ed. Schools Overlook Developmental Science

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 05, 2010 4 min read
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Education programs should more explicitly train teacher candidates in the rudiments of developmental science, and need policy support from states and the federal government to do so, asserts a report released this morning by a panel convened by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

“There’s just been an explosion of knowledge in development science over the last 10 to 14 years,” said Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. “We know so much more about 4-year-olds’ capacity in math, or the skills progression that leads to confident literacy, or the way making material relevant engages an adolescent.”

Mr. Pianta co-chaired the panel, commissioned by the Washington-based NCATE, which accredits about half of the nation’s education schools. It included experts in teacher education, developmental science and early childhood. Developmental science consists of the science underpinning the biological, emotional, ethical, linguistic, psychological, and social development of children and adolescents, and how those fields interact. It also incorporates cognitive science—how children learn to think and process information.

The paper contends that a greater emphasis on developmental science in the course of teacher preparation is especially warranted given that research appears to point toward instruction rooted in that field as one way of boosting academic achievement.

A research synthesis of studies on 213 school programs, for example, found that such programs led, on average, to an 11 percentile-point gain in student achievement, the paper states. That study, by J.A. Durlak, a Loyola University Chicago clinical psychology professor, among others, is scheduled to appear in the January 2011 issue of Child Development.

But many preparation programs have yet to catch up to the research, according to James P. Comer, the founder of the Yale Child Study Center School Development Program in New Haven, Conn., which implements developmental science interventions, including the well-known Comer School Development Program.

Such programs, he said, “focus on curriculum, instruction, assessment with the assumption that the rest of it has been taken care of somewhere else in the family, in the community, wherever, that all kids come to school ready to learn,” said Dr. Comer, the panel’s other co-chair. “You often hear educators say, ‘That stuff’s not our job.’”

Avenues for Reform

The report outlines a number of avenues through which policymakers could strengthen the preservice focus on developmental science, including through individual programs’ requirements and assessments; the national-accreditation process; state licensing and accreditation regimes; and federal programs and policy governing teacher-preparation and school-turnaround initiatives.

The regular teacher-evaluation cycle in school systems, meanwhile, could serve as one way to encourage a stronger application of developmental science to instruction among the current teaching force. For instance, the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, designed by Mr. Pianta to measure the quality of K-3 student-teacher interactions, is rooted in developmental science.

The popular Framework for Teaching created in 1996 by consultant Charlotte Danielson includes a review of how teachers set and manage a positive classroom environment, a feature that the report’s authors list as an important application of developmental science. Both of those teacher-evaluation frameworks have received renewed attention of late and are included in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s $45 million study of effective teaching.

There’s evidence, in the meantime, that colleges of education already require some attention to the developmental sciences, but that those efforts may not be well focused.

In a 2008 NCATE survey of accredited institutions, 90 percent reported requiring candidates to take at least one course in child and adolescent development. But the survey found that such classes were too broad and did not emphasize practical application.

And a previous NCATE analysis also noted that popular textbooks do not always reflect the most up-to-date research on child development or don’t focus on how to apply such knowledge in classroom settings. (“Teacher Colleges Urged to Pay Heed to Child Development,” May 2, 2007).

The trick may hinge not on adding more course work in the field, but ensuring that the discipline is woven into all relevant course work and in student teaching, Dr. Comer said. But there are likely to be obstacles to that goal.

Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who has written extensively about the application of cognitive science to education, noted that the developmental sciences cover a broad range of areas. Effective integration of the field into teacher preparation will require researchers and teachers to home in on the most important topics and collaborate on the shape of curricula.

“The researchers really need to be collaborating with the people who are specialists, who know the classrooms,” Mr. Willingham said. “They can’t just figure out what the most important principles are and hand them off to teachers to implement.”

And as scholars point out, the content of teacher education is already highly variable.

“The teacher-education curriculum is a focus of many competing interests and demands, and it could easily be overwhelmed by any number of more demands,” Mr. Pianta acknowledged. “The biggest challenge is not to see this as one more thing to do but as a vehicle for reconceptualizing and redesigning.”

One push for that could be coming soon from the accreditation system.

In a release, NCATE president James G. Cibulka promised that the body will consider developmental science as it works on an upgrade of its own standards for accrediting teacher education programs.

A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2010 edition of Education Week


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