Smack in the middle of the fiery debates about teacher education is the troublesome fact that we lack a fitting and consensual definition of teaching itself. In his blistering 2005 report on teacher education programs, former president of Teachers College, Arthur Levine, noted the “schism [in] teacher education between those who believe teaching is a profession like law or medicine, requiring a substantial amount of education before an individual can become a practitioner, and those who think teaching is a craft like journalism, which is learned principally on the job.” Levine may well be capturing a significant ideological or rhetorical distinction in the current debates about how to educate teachers, but the distinction illustrates our problem, for teaching has elements of both profession and craft, as Levine defines them—and even that fusion of the two terms doesn’t fully capture a teacher’s work.
Teaching done well is complex intellectual work, and this is so in the primary grades as well as Advanced Placement physics. Teaching begins with knowledge: of subject matter, of instructional materials and technologies, of cognitive and social development. But it’s not just that teachers know things. Teaching is using knowledge to foster the growth of others. This takes us to the heart of what teaching is, and why defining it primarily as a craft, or a knowledge profession, or any other stock category is inadequate. I’m not sure there is any other work quite like it.
The teacher sets out to explain what a protein or metaphor is, or how to balance the terms in an algebraic equation, or the sociological dynamics of prejudice, but to do so needs to be thinking about how to explain these things: what illustrations, what analogies, what alternative explanations when the first one fails? This instruction is done not only to convey particular knowledge about metaphors or algebraic equations, but also to get students to understand and think about these topics. This involves hefty cognitive activity, as any parent knows from his or her experiences of explaining things to kids, but the teacher is doing it with a room full of young people—which brings a significant performative dimension to the task.
Thus teaching is a deeply social and emotional activity. You have to know your students and be able to read them quickly, and from that reading make decisions to slow down or speed up, stay with a point or return to it later, connect one student’s comment to another’s. Simultaneously, you are assessing on the fly Susie’s silence, Pedro’s slump, Janelle’s uncharacteristic aggressiveness. Students are, to varying degrees, also learning from each other, learning all kinds of things, from how to carry oneself to how to multiply mixed numbers. How teachers draw on this dynamic interaction varies depending on their personal style, the way they organize their rooms, and so on—but it is an ever-present part of the work they do.
As is the case with any of the helping professions, teaching is value-laden work. Society has a host of expectations about what education should be. And, though prospective teachers may be attracted to the work for lifestyle reasons (schedule, benefits), many want to teach because they are drawn to helping young people grow, or are passionate about a subject, or want to contribute to the creation of a just world. They commit to do this work in institutions, so they have to figure out how to navigate the institution’s demands, balancing their beliefs with institutional strictures. And either in their day-to-day-encounters with students or in their role as institutional beings they will face difficult decisions, ethical conundra, be, at times, pushed to the limit of their psychological and spiritual resources.
So teaching Hamlet or The Bluest Eye, the internal combustion engine, photosynthesis, or the League of Nations involves knowing these topics and bringing them into play in one of the more complex cognitive and social spaces in our culture. I don’t see this representation of teaching in any of the major reports or national debates on teacher education. That is one big reason, I think, why our discussions of teacher quality and teacher evaluation tend to be reductive, and why the assault on teacher education programs—even for those of us who desire big improvements—feels rigid and one-dimensional.
There are a number of ideas in the air about teacher education: what’s wrong with college and university programs, what alternative programs should do, and the qualifications of those entering the teaching force. These ideas come from federal and local governments, from reports and advocacy groups, and from the opinion pages of our major newspapers. Some of these ideas, though they may be well-intentioned, run the risk of reducing teaching to knowledge delivery or technical craft. I want to consider these ideas in this and subsequent posts.
Balancing Course Work and Practice
Preparing people to teach, as I just described it, is a tall order, for at its best it requires an effective blend of acquiring knowledge, opportunities to practice what’s learned, and reflection on that practice. Most kinds of complex work in our society—from law enforcement to surgery to fashion design—require this blend and typically begin with some form of classroom-based instruction, though the length of that instruction can vary considerably.
A major source of the criticism education programs have drawn over the years—both from within and outside of its ranks—has to do with the sequencing of the elements of this blend and the emphasis given to each. To be sure, faculty vested interests, institutional inertia, and plain old ineptitude can affect the curriculum—and recent critical reports have focused on these sins—but there are also intellectually legitimate differences of opinion about sequencing and emphasis. (A classic educational question is how much preliminary instruction you provide before setting someone loose on a task, from using a power tool to writing a poem.) There are ethical considerations as well—when is the right time to move a novice out into a real setting, even with supervision? These questions can be found not only in ed schools but also in police academies, medical schools, and fashion programs across the country. The current criticism makes it sound like teacher ed programs are one big static mess, but the fact is that a number of them have been working and reworking their curriculum, trying to get the right balance for their students and their region. I saw this experimenting going on 20 years ago in several small, semi-rural colleges I visited, and I see it today in large universities such as UCLA, where I teach.
A statistic that you’ll hear in this discussion of coursework and practice is drawn from the Levine report I mentioned earlier. Fifty-eight percent of teacher ed alumni on average reported that their programs prepared them “very” or “moderately” well for the classroom; 40 percent of principals thought their teachers were prepared. These are not great numbers, though I do want to say more about such surveys in a later post. But for now, let’s agree that many young teachers could be getting better direct experience with students and the complexities of running a classroom—something alternative programs promise.
I think, though, we need to be clear-eyed about something: Even when programs provide substantial opportunity for pre-professional practice, the transition to autonomy and full responsibility is difficult, even daunting. Since the medical school is often held up as a model of educating for practice, consider the fact that there is a decent-sized research literature on how hard young physicians find the transition from medical school to their first year of residency. There are common reports of depression, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, and struggles to convert what one has learned into practice. And unlike teachers, the residents have on-call support from team members and supervising physicians. It is also the case—thinking back to those unsatisfied principals—that supervising physicians frequently express dissatisfaction about the preparation of their residents. My point here is not to discount the need for more hands-on classroom experience—not at all—but to urge a little humility about how difficult the transition from student to autonomous professional can be.
One thing that concerns me about the current debates is a tendency on the part of some advocates for alternative teacher education to downplay or dismiss teacher ed coursework. I certainly don’t want to defend this course work en mass. I went through a teacher education program—an early alternative one—and know how lightweight or irrelevant some courses can be. They certainly don’t reflect the richness of teaching. But we have to be careful to not strip away what the worthwhile courses contain: bodies of knowledge about everything from learning, to culture, to the very definition of what it means to be educated.
It’s not that prospective teachers should master, let’s say, texts by Piaget, Vygotsky, and Jerome Bruner, or commit to memory the results of a long history of experiments on the transfer of training from one domain to another. Rather it’s that studying and discussing and writing about all this, if done well, helps young teachers deepen their understanding of cognition and learning, provides a way to think about the lessons they’ll teach, the assignments they’ll give, the many, many moments when their students will say or do something that vexes them.
To be sure, prospective and practicing teachers can acquire knowledge about cognition and learning in settings other than formal teacher ed courses, settings closer to and integrated with their work in the classroom. (Though colleges and universities house people who have a command of the educational literature.) Whether in a standard program or an alternative setting, the challenge is to forge substantial connection between—to stick with our example—a tradition of research on learning and helping the young people before you learn. To separate the literature on learning from classrooms is to condemn it to irrelevance. But to minimize the importance of that literature is to minimize the conceptual content of teaching, and we have a troubling, century-old institutional case study in Vocational Education of what can happen when the conceptual and theoretical dimension of work is diminished. Education is reduced to narrow, entry-level job training.
Determining Effectiveness: Techniques, Best Practices, and Test Scores
Another criticism of teacher ed programs is that they do not demonstrate the effectiveness of their graduates in improving student achievement—with achievement typically defined as an increase in standardized test scores, currently in reading and math. Many alternative credentialing programs claim that they can or will be able to demonstrate effectiveness in this way.
There’s a legitimate and important question in this criticism: Is a training institution doing a good job of preparing students for their work and careers? One way teacher ed programs answer this question is through pass rates on licensing exams. Some programs also survey their graduates, and some have connections with their districts or target schools and receive formal or informal feedback from them. But overall, teacher ed programs could do a much better job of getting information on their graduates—and some people within teacher ed have long been calling for better data collection. In a mild defense of teacher ed, let me note that building better data systems and mechanisms for more detailed feedback is not easy and is expensive, especially for large metropolitan programs whose graduates might disperse far and wide. As a point of comparison, most medical schools don’t do any better: They tend to rely on pass rates on licensing exams and satisfaction surveys of their graduates.
The evaluation mechanism that many critics advocate—judging a program’s effectiveness by the test scores of the students taught by their graduates—seems like a fairly straightforward proposition, but, in fact, presents a host of conceptual and design problems. To be honest, I’m a little surprised that it’s being promoted with such gusto, given recent history. Recall the multiple problems that arose with No Child Left Behind’s use of standardized tests to define achievement and determine a school’s or district’s effectiveness, and there are the more recent debates about the technical complications in assessing teacher effectiveness through value-added measures.
It bespeaks of either social amnesia or technocratic enchantment that we would rush to a model driven by the standardized test score and, to boot, insert one more complex variable into the chain of efficacy: now we have a putative causal chain that goes from the student test score to the teacher to the teacher’s training institution. Imagine judging business schools by the amount of money their graduates generate for their employers.
Consider the variables: There are the individual characteristics and behaviors of the graduates, not only personality traits, but also events that can affect their careers—marriage, family disruption, illness. Then there are all the variables related to the place of employment: the nature of the business, its economic status and organizational health, the relationships among co-workers. As well, social and economic conditions beyond the business affect it, and thus the performance of its employees. As is too often the case with contemporary school reform, what seems simple and straightforward is anything but. Teacher education programs, traditional or alternative, need to adopt models of evaluation that rely on multiple measures and that account for the complex nature of teaching and the varied institutions where teachers work. Otherwise we’ll put in place a strong incentive for teacher ed programs to reduce teaching to test prep.
There is another significant component to this call for demonstrating effectiveness: Do teacher ed programs instruct prospective teachers in “research-based” teaching techniques and “best practices.” These terms have become part of our reform vocabulary. And, again, who can disagree that we should be passing onto young teachers the best of what we know how to do? The problem is that “research-based” and “best practices” are often defined in narrow ways.
“Research-based” means the demonstration that a particular practice is shown to increase a standardized test score—the gold standard being a randomized control trial in which a treatment group of randomly selected students receives the best practice and a control group does not. Other models of research and study, in the eyes of the more technocratically oriented reformers, are of much less value. But there are other systematic ways that we come to know the truth or legitimacy of something, as is evidenced in pursuits as different as astronomy or moral philosophy. And even if we adopt the critics’ definition of research, we have to contend with the fact that a randomized control trial—or its second cousin, the quasi-experimental design that does not involve random assignment to treatment or control—are elaborate and expensive to conduct. And given the way they work, we might, if we’re lucky, get an effect, but it typically will be a small one (practice x results in a point or two advantage on a standardized test), and it gains statistical significance because of the large numbers of students involved in the study. The further wrinkle is that a second (expensive and elaborate) study might yield different results. So we end up spending a ton of money to get little yield, money that would be better spent helping teachers improve their knowledge of subject matter and various ways to teach it and assess whether students are learning it.
The other related problem is a tendency in policy and reform documents to present best practices as though they were factory-tested electronics components, applicable off the shelf to a wide range of settings and circumstances. There is a mechanistic and acontextual cast to all this that is at odds with the definition of teaching I offered earlier.
The best practices approach is also being promulgated in medicine, but with a telling difference. A particular practice is recommended for particular conditions (a certain drug and treatment regimen for type II diabetes, let’s say), but the physician is required to consider the context (the particulars of the patient’s case and his or her life circumstances) and make a judgment as to whether to use or modify the best practice. In education, the focus seems to be on training the teacher to implement the best practice exactly as the developer intended—so we have talk of “fidelity” of implementation. Context and judgment are downplayed.
It is probably the case that in particular alternative teacher certification programs, the work on the ground is more nuanced and creative than the sense one gets from documents and pronouncements from advocacy groups and talking heads. But I do worry about a policy nexus of test scores, a focus on technique, and a rigid notion of best practices that leads to a definition of teaching and teacher education that is thin on creativity and judgment, human relation and values.
Recently I visited two adjacent classrooms in a school serving a low-income population. Both teachers were in the middle of a math lesson, and while both teachers were excellent, they couldn’t have been more different, at least on that day. In the first room, the teacher had a series of related problems on the board and was guiding her students through them in systematic fashion. She would present one problem, put her index and middle finger to her lips indicating she wanted the class to say the technical term for an element of the problem, then had the students discuss the problem amongst themselves. After a minute or two, she rang a little bell, and the children looked forward, and she called on them. All the while, she was touching a child on the head or shoulder, checking in on another, connecting something said earlier to a comment made now. Then on to a new problem, a rhythmic flow of activities, the teacher moving like a choral conductor.
In the room next door, the teacher had his students sort themselves into groups by the answer they gave to a problem posed in the last class: “Which number is greater, +5 or -5?” He told them to take a few minutes to think of two reasons why they gave that answer. Once in groups, the teacher engaged the students in discussion, asking why they chose the answer they did, asking follow up questions, referring one student to another. At the break, some of the students went to recess still talking about the problem. If the first teacher reminds me of a conductor, this one brings to mind the facilitator of a seminar. Two different approaches, but masterfully executed, caring, thoughtful, intellectually rich. By every sign I could see, the students in both rooms seemed engaged. We need teacher education programs, wherever they are housed, that help people develop into these kinds of teachers.
This commentary will be followed by two more: the second on the issues of admissions standards and the diversity of teacher education programs, and the third on the language of the critical reports on teacher ed.