Tuesday, June 21, 2005

On Teacher Education: Interesting, but nothing new here

Education Week for the week of 5/25/05 reports on the release of the National Academy of Education's report. Readers with access to Academic Search Premier can likely find the article ful-text, or they can check at their library for a print copy. The site of the Academy leads to a link for a chapter from the report; it may give readers a sense of the rest of the report. Readers can then decide if they wish to order the book. The article urges that there be more testing of teachers, and it says that "some observers have doubted that teaching has a solid body of professional knowledge on which to base training."

Among its findings, according to the article, "the panel stresses that teacher education must combine understanding of subject matter and teaching practices with knowledge of learners, so that teachers can tailor lessons to the needs of students of different backgrounds and strengths. It also insists that lengthy clinical practice and relevant coursework should be intertwined in the preparation of teachers." So far, I have to wonder just how much this report actually cost given that this is pretty much common knowledge for most good educators at any grade level. You have to be aware of multiple learning styles (there are various studies, reports, and a solid body of literature on theories of learning styles and multiple intelligences. I know because I had to learn it, and I still have to keep up with it as an educator), understand diversity in the classroom(again, another concept for which there is a good body of literature available to draw from), and you must know your subject matter (part of knowing the subject matter is knowing its body of knowledge. This is both what the course of study and being part of the respective professional organization does) as well as pedagogy (which is what the teacher preparation program is supposed to be teaching. Again, there are solid sets of knowledge available). Nothing new here, and I am not sure I see what those "observers" are seeing when they say that teaching lacks a solid body of professional knowledge. One thing they fail to see is that education draws from various fields of study. It is a very interdisciplinary field. Educators have to be versed in some psychology, child and adolescent development, the the knowledge base of their major (for example, a a high school English teacher would be versed in Composition and Rhetorical theories as well as literature and how to teach it), along with concepts from other areas like management. The body of knowledge is there. Maybe it needs to be made more consistent across the board to assure that all teachers have a core of knowledge. But saying it does not exist is not accurate. These "observers" are probably the same "observers" who like to tell teachers what to do and how to do it, but they have no pedagogical knowledge themselves, and they likely would not dare to step in a classroom. They are also usually the ones who like to impose mandates without the money to back them up, and then they have the audacity to complain when programs have difficulties complying with their "standards." While money is not everything in education, you do have to put your money where your mouth is. Teacher education is one of those crucial resources that should be well funded and administered. The report is not saying anything new; it is more like a presentation of evidence for people who may not really know the situation.

As for the "lengthy clinical practice" part, that is open to debate. While I agree that some kind of practice is needed, these "lengthy clinical practices" often turn into extensive and restrictive forms of indentured service for student teachers, with no pay, where the quality of the experience varies at best depending on luck of the draw. The luck of the draw element comes in which supervising teacher an apprentice gets. Get a good supervisor truly dedicated to educating and helping a new teacher learn the craft, and you will likely turn out a good teacher. Get a teacher more interested in letting the student teacher do most of the work so he or she can get time off, and the results will be less than desirable (during my student teaching, I saw both types. I was lucky to get the first type of teacher. A couple of my classmates were not so lucky). In this area, I definitely have very mixed feelings. The report argues for a 30 week clinical period, which seems both excessive and restrictive. A large part of the problem, which the report does address according to the article, is the difference between college programs (designed for new teachers coming to the profession as a first career, like I did) and programs designed for career switchers, often run by nonprofits (like Teach for America) or school districts. To an undergraduate, you tell them you have to spend 30 weeks in a classroom, that is just part of the curriculum (albeit a heck of a lot of time. A typical semester is about 20 weeks or so). For a career switcher, 30 weeks without pay is just not very practical, let alone appealing. I am not saying the bar should be lower for career switchers, but there definitely have to be some standards other than "they have a college degree and a desire to teach, so train them over a summer." Programs like Teach for America are actually designed for career switchers to work while they earn the certification, so pay may not be an issue (though I would have some issue with the claims they make about average salaries and costs of living in some areas, but that would be another post. Readers can take a look at the Teach for America website under "How it works," then "how do I get paid?"). Also to file under the "nothing new here" department are the reports recommendations for further state and institutional funding as well as funding from the federal government. I hate to be pessimistic, but given that states are slashing education budgets all over and that the Fed imposed NCLB without any funding, I don't see the current lack of commitment to fund education changing anytime soon. Again, how much did this report cost anyhow?

Update note: Another article, this one from InsideHigherEd.com, discusses that teacher preparation programs are not asking the right questions when it comes to research and self-reflection. This particular article discusses the release of the American Educational Research Association's report Studying Teacher Education. The book's table of contents and some information about it for purchasing can be found here. Some of the study's findings, and I am quoting from the article, include:

"And while the book repeatedly notes the need for more research, it also offers a sense of issues on which there is a research consensus about teacher education. Many of these findings concern demographics and specific characteristics of programs. Among the findings:

  • Most new teachers are prepared as undergraduates at public colleges.

  • An increasing number of teacher education graduates also major in non-education fields.

  • College graduates in secondary education programs have comparable SAT/ACT scores as other students.

  • Close collaboration between schools of education and local school districts appears to have a positive impact on teacher preparation, as evidenced by the performance of graduates.

  • In one field — mathematics — there is conclusive evidence that subject matter training and certification of future teachers has an impact on subsequent teacher performance."

I think this article provides a more balanced view. Unlike the report from the National Academy, it seems the AERA is making more of an effort to make teacher education programs more introspective as well as providing a road map for specific research issues instead of just stating the obvious.

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