Monday, October 23, 2006

Three Arguments for the Value of Educational Foundations

What we need is not an explicit argument for why Foundations skills are unique; rather, we need an argument as to why they are relevant to the training of teachers

Craig Cunningham made this nice point in the comments thread of my original posting. So I thought this deserved its own post and thread. I want to argue (this argument is based on my introductory essay for a theme issue I edited) that the foundations field can be defended in educator preparation in three distinctive ways: the “liberal arts answer,” the “cultural competence answer,” and the “teacher retention answer.”

The “Liberal Arts” answer is that teaching is a complex practice, part science and part art, that requires our students to think carefully and critically about socially consequential, culturally saturated, politically volatile, and existentially defining issues within the sphere of education. The goal, here using Dewey’s terminology on freedom, is to enlarge our range of actions and thoughts. The “Liberal Arts” answer, much like the liberal arts themselves in higher education, is about fostering productive habits of mind—rigorous attention to detail, critical questioning of assumptions, respect for good data, and logical arguments—through engaging specific educational issues. Eric Bredo has nicely articulated this as avoiding errors of conceptualization. The “Cultural Competence” answer (and the one most referred to by educational policy documents) is that future educators must gain cultural competence. This answer references the “demographic imperative”: the ever growing diversity of the U.S. population; the racial and ethnic gap between youth and an overwhelmingly white teaching force; and the stark and persistent economic, social, and educational gaps between dominant and nondominant youth. The “Teacher Retention” answer indexes the “crisis” rhetoric in educational policy concerning forthcoming teacher shortages. Yet recent research by Richard Ingersoll and others has shown that teacher attrition, rather than teacher recruitment, is at the heart of contemporary teacher shortages. Over 200,000 teachers a year permanently leave the classroom. The attrition rate is much higher in poor schools than in wealthier ones and among new teachers compared to veteran teachers. In fact, almost 50% of new teachers leave within their first five years; recent data by ACORN has shown that in some urban schools the one-year attrition rate can be as high as 40%. While a host of reasons account for such turnover (retirement, job dissatisfaction, other career options, etc.), Ingersoll has argued that fundamentally, “school staffing problems are rooted in the way schools are organized and the way the teaching occupation is treated.” Teachers leave because they must deal with substantial paperwork, large teaching workloads, and sole responsibility for student misbehavior and discipline in return for average remuneration and with minimal decision-making influence. Such a structural setup of immense responsibility with little authority is prime fodder for teacher burnout. This is especially true in challenging work environments associated with poorer-resourced schools and populated by nondominant youth. Put otherwise, new teachers are not prepared for the bureaucratic and organizational features of an institution charged with the socialization and stratification of 90% of America’s youth. Such features include, among others, the isolation of teachers, the pervasiveness of a hidden curriculum of conformity, the loose coupling of decision making, the contradictory practices of conflicting goals, and the dominance of a calcified grammar of schooling. Because new teachers do not “get it” they invariably blame themselves or their students when things go awry. These are all issues that social foundations can and does address.

I do not claim that these three answers are unique or definitive. They have been articulated in a multitude of ways with myriad permutations. My goal here has simply been to develop a typology of these permutations that speak to and in the policy language games currently in play. It is to suggest that there are clear and concise arguments for why foundations has a role to play in educator preparation.

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