Monday, April 28, 2008

Taking on Teacher Education III

I didn't want to cut off the lively discussion about NCLB -- whose ox is getting gored and who is complicit in its consequences, both intended and unintended. But that conversation is slowing some and I want to talk one last time during April about teacher education in particular. I'll focus on the third of the questions that I raised early on: Are the people responsible for teacher education doing the job?

There are numerous individuals (e.g. the Washington Post's Jay Mathews) and blue ribbon panels (e.g. the one headed by former Teachers College President Art Levine) who are inclined to say that "Ed Schools" are presently responsible and they are simply not doing the job. Art Levine goes so far as to call teacher education "unruly and chaotic." This will not be a defense of ed schools. Criticisms of teacher education are too often warranted. Still I want to think a bit about the question of who is currently responsible for teacher education.

Responsibility in its richest sense implies the prospective ability to respond to challenges. Accountability, on the other hand, is linked to the kind of retrospective judgment that assigns blame. In the case of teacher education, I think ed schools carry accountability without responsibility. Let me explain.

As I suggested in my last post, teacher knowing is dynamic and contextual. It involves different kinds of claims (logical, cultural, pedagogical and professional) on different bodies of knowledge (their subject field, the liberal arts generally, popular culture, the social science of teaching, learning and interaction) in the context of practice. And they make those claims out of their own understanding of (or way of being) social self and teacher. This means that the education of teachers cannot possibly occur solely in ed schools. Nor can it occur solely in colleges and universities. Some phases of teacher education (more now that we have easy access to web video and other technologies that make case study possible at a distance from P-12 schools) can well occur in ed schools. Some phases must (and do currently) occur in liberal arts colleges. But significant portions of the education of teachers can only occur in practice contexts, in practice contexts where the value commitments of all are transparent and open to discussion.

This means that responsibility for teacher education is already located in P-12 schools (with responsibility shared by teachers and their unions and administration) and in liberal arts colleges and in ed schools. It seems curious to me that we would only hold ed schools accountable.

So why are ed schools nominally in charge? There's a long history there, the story of normal schools and their development into/absorption into universities, a story that's still being told at my normal school turned university where the glee that we have risen above our teacher education roots to become a liberal arts school is palpable. Teacher education is low status, partly because there's still a tinge of "women's work" associated with it. Accountability has been dumped on ed schools without the economic resources and the authority to marshal intellectual resources and the resources of practice. Teacher unions and school administrators and liberal arts deans all say "not my job."

So folks in schools of ed fool themselves into thinking that 18 year old university students can become 22 year old mature teachers by sitting in classrooms first listening to us talk about Piaget or No Child Left Behind or reading in the content area and then going into the schools to "apply" what we've told them. Do we really think that can work?

There's been lots of talk about teacher "career ladders" over the past two decades, but that talk comes and goes without changing a reality – that a teacher's responsibility is as great the day he or she enters a classroom (at 22!) as it is the day he or she retires (post-55). The idea that we have truly "educated" a teacher by 22 seems ludicrous. Holding ed schools accountable for what's not happening also seems ludicrous.

There have been significant efforts to bring the domain of practice, the liberal arts and the ed researchers together with respect to teacher education. The move to create professional development schools is significant. The Project 30 initiative, funded and sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation in the late 80s was another. But these efforts – because they are limited to certain institutions, often research institutions with small, "boutique" teacher ed programs -- don't begin to address the deep and growing need for teachers. And rarely are teacher unions significant players in the effort.

Some have argued for a 4+1 approach to teacher education. That is, let future teachers earn a liberal arts bachelor degree before diving into professional study. I have never been a fan of this proposal because of the way I think about the knowledge of teachers. I will gain more from my academic study if I have a pedagogical intention – and at least minimal opportunity to ply the pedagogical trade – while I'm trying to make sense out of that subject matter. I can learn it – and learn it more effectively – if I'm thinking about how to teach this subject matter to some group of students. So I think it does make sense to integrate professional ideas and sensibilities with intellectual study.

I'm also not a big fan of five year undergraduate programs. Those programs insure that teachers will be 23 instead of 22 when they accept accountability in the classroom, but it's not enough. And we need people in classrooms now. And those novices need real formation in practice on site, formation guided by master teacher/mentors.

So "teacher education" isn't a four-year effort and it isn't an ed school responsibility.

Here's what I'd do if I were the Queen of the education universe: Those who want to be teachers – at any level – earn a bachelors degree in a discipline (about 1/3 of their study) with a strong general education component (about ¼ of their study), and take "pre-ed" studies (ed psych, social foundations and philosophy, assessment and inquiry, developmental psych, learning theory and student difference, pedagogy seminars linked to liberal arts courses that help them students of teaching and learning, linked to time in schools). They graduate with the option to go into or away from "ed school".

But "ed school" cannot be a university place though it can and should involve partnership with a university. Ed school has to be an institution unto itself, akin to a teaching hospital – run by teachers unions in collaboration with university-affiliated educator/researchers and permeated with reflection on teaching as intrinsically relational, as a moral craft. (I'm thinking about what happened to med schools after the Flexner Report when the AMA stepped up to take control – and exert quality control.) In my imagination, ed school is a three year program with increasing levels of responsibility and compensation. First years eke out a "Peace Corps" type existence as they learn practice through integrated work and case-based study. Second and third years earn a modest salary (say $20-25K) as they work under the direction of a master teacher who is responsible for collaborative planning. Only then are they ready to be sent out with primary responsibility for a classroom of students.

My proposal is "unrealistic," of course. I get that. It would require a restructuring of schools and their financing, a refocusing by teachers unions, the creation of a range of roles in some schools, the ones that devote themselves to being "teaching and learning schools." But isn't there something appealing about the idea? Until educators at all levels make common cause around the education of their peers, teacher education will remain "chaotic and unruly."

And by the way, that might be the answer to the fourth question that I posed originally but won't have time to answer this April: In what kinds of schools can talented, well-educated teachers be most successful? In schools where they and their students (including future teachers) are teaching and learning all the time.

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