For years now we’ve been hearing from school reformers that traditional teacher preparation programs at colleges and universities are awful and that what we need is deregulation and market competition. In the following post, two academics evaluate the argument that these programs have failed as well as the value of the programs that school reformers embrace to replace them. This was written by Kenneth Zeichner and Hilary G. Conklin. Zeichner is a professor of teacher education at the University of Washington, Seattle, and professor emeritus in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A member of the National Academy of Education, he has done extensive research and teaching and teacher education. Conklin is a program leader and associate professor of secondary social studies at DePaul University whose research interests include teacher learning and the pedagogy of teacher education.

This post is an introduction to a paper on the subject by Zeichner and Conklin that is being published by Teachers College Record, titled “Beyond Knowledge Ventriloquism and Echo Chambers: Raising the Quality of the Debate on Teacher Education.”

By Kenneth Zeichner and Hilary G. Conklin

Though there is ample room for debate on how much and what kind of education is best for preparing effective teachers, inferring that one type of preparation does or does not yield better outcomes for students is not warranted by the evidence (National Research Council 2010).
The body of research leads one to expect students in the classrooms of corps members—recruited, trained, and supported by Teach For America—to learn as much or more than they would if assigned a more experienced teacher in the same school (Teach For America, 2014).

Critics of college and university-based teacher preparation have made many damaging claims about the programs that prepare most U.S. teachers–branding these programs as an “industry of mediocrity”–while touting the new privately-financed and- run entrepreneurial programs that are designed to replace them. These critics have constructed a narrative of failure about college and university Ed schools and a narrative of success about the entrepreneurial programs, in many cases using research evidence to support their claims.

Yet in a recent independently peer-reviewed study that will be published in Teachers College Record, we show how research has been misused in debates about the future of teacher education in the United States. Critics have labeled university teacher education programs failures and decreed their replacements successes by selectively citing research to support a particular point of view (knowledge ventriloquism), and by repeating claims based on non-existent or unvetted research, or repeatedly citing a small or unrepresentative sample of research (echo chambers).

We also discuss the role of philanthropy, the U.S. Education Department, and the media in uncritically reproducing these narratives, and the ways in which the narratives have helped to shape teacher education policy and practice. Our research indicates that the news media has given disproportionate attention to allegedly innovative non-college and non-university programs developed by educational entrepreneurs and to organizations like the National Council on Teacher Quality- attention has inflated the public perception of these organizations and programs beyond what is warranted by the evidence. The news media has also uncritically reproduced some of the claims about the poor quality of college and university teacher preparation and about the research on alternative pathways into teaching—claims that have been made based on blatant misrepresentations of research including in hearings held in the U.S. Congress.

Our study focuses on several cases of the misrepresentation of research: (1) the misuse of former Teachers College president Arthur Levine’s highly publicized 2006 study of teacher education in order to denigrate university teacher education; (2) the National Council on Teacher Quality’s misrepresentation of research to position university teacher education as “an industry of mediocrity” and to elevate its own role as a judge of the quality of teacher preparation programs; (3) the false assertion of a research warrant coupled with a media branding campaign to promote a new, rapidly expanding, non-university teacher education provider, the Relay Graduate School of Education; and (4) the selective interpretation of research on the effects of different pathways into teaching generally, particularly an American Educational Research Association-commissioned and peer-reviewed research synthesis that we authored.

Here is a brief summary of what we argue for each of these four examples:

One of the many findings reported by Levine in his national study of teacher education was that 66 percent of teachers and former teachers agreed with the statement “schools of education do not prepare graduates to cope with classroom reality.” This finding has been cited repeatedly by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, members of Congress, and others, and has appeared on numerous occasions in media reports and documents including the proposed U.S. Department of Education rules for teacher education programs in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Other more positive findings and nuanced analyses in Levine’s report have mostly been ignored. Also, other prominent surveys of teachers that show more favorable teacher perceptions of their teacher education programs such as the 2012 American Federation of Teachers survey have either been ignored or selectively quoted in ways that ignore their more positive findings.

We demonstrate the weak basis for the standards that NCTQ uses to rate—very critically—the quality of teacher education programs by closely examining the evidence that supports one of its standards, the equity standard. This standard is based on the assertion that: “there are no findings from solid, large-scale and non-anecdotal research that coursework related to eliminating gender and racial biases has any impact.” In making this claim, NCTQ dismisses an entire field of research where evidence does exist, and instead justifies its standard on one study conducted in 2012. We show how NCTQ has misinterpreted the major findings in this study, provide evidence that there is solid research related to reducing gender and racial bias in teachers, and cite research that refutes NCTQ’s assertion that merely spending time as a student teacher in a high poverty school that is at least “relatively high-performing” will result in teacher candidates learning what they need to learn to be successful.

We argue that despite repeated claims in the media by policymakers, and others about the success of teacher education programs associated with the Relay Graduate School of Education, there is a lack of vetted evidence supporting these claims. We also challenge the assertion that the quality of any teacher education program should be based solely on an analysis of the test scores of pupils taught by a program’s teachers or graduates. We call for the inclusion of other criteria of program quality and for an assessment of both the costs and benefits that are associated with any particular approach to preparing teachers.

Research on the Impact of Different Pathways into Teaching

In a chapter published in 2005, commissioned and vetted by the American Educational Research Association, we analyzed 37 peer-reviewed research studies that examined the effectiveness of different kinds of teacher education programs in the United States, such as state sponsored alternative programs and traditional programs, and comparisons of Teach For America and other programs. Like other subsequent research reviews—such as the National Research Council’s report quoted earlier—we found that the research evidence on the effects of these various programs was inconclusive, illustrating, for example, that in some cases and contexts, Teach for America teachers outperformed other teachers, while in other cases Teach for America teachers were less effective than other teachers.

Despite cautioning readers that selectively citing evidence from our review to support particular policy directions would be a distortion of the research findings as a whole, there have been numerous instances in which our chapter has been misrepresented as part of federal policy debates.

For example, in a 2012 letter to Congress advocating for the definition of a highly qualified teacher to include alternatively certified teachers, a group of organizations—including 45 branches of Teach For America, the National Council for Teacher Quality, and the Relay Graduate School of Education—cited one out-of-context sentence from the middle of our 90- page review to build their case that, “participating in an alternative route to certification does not preclude a teacher from being highly effective, and thus should never prevent that teacher from being considered ‘highly qualified.’” The letter incorrectly portrays our review as concluding that “there were no differences in teacher efficacy or teaching competence as measured by classroom observations, between alternatively and traditionally certified teachers” without explaining that in this sentence they are citing refers to only four studies and by ignoring subsequent sentences in which we explained how flaws in the design of these four research studies make these findings less conclusive than they first appear. A similar misrepresentation of our findings was made several times in a July 24, 2012, House of Representatives hearing on Alternative Certification.

By using research in tactical and symbolic ways, advocates of deregulation and greater market competition in teacher education have shaped the current U.S. teacher education policy environment in ways that have undermined democracy and transparency in the making of teacher education policy.

To be sure, there is room for improvement in university-sponsored teacher education. Such programs need to change in significant ways, continuing and deepening efforts that many universities have undertaken, such as connecting coursework more deeply to the complexities of schools, placing more emphasis on teaching teachers how to enact research-based teaching practices, and preparing teachers to build in positive ways on the cultural and community resources that students bring to school. Philanthropists, states, and the federal government also need to make investments in supporting high quality teacher education for the teachers of everyone’s children. We are also not opposed to providers of teacher education other than universities or to the idea of multiple pathways into teaching, as long as all programs are held to the same high standards of quality and research and evidence about all programs are represented accurately and fairly.

In order to hold all programs — public and private — to common standards of quality and evidence, we believe that several things need to be done to minimize the misuse of educational research.

First, all researchers who conduct studies that purport to offer information on the efficacy of different program models, and those who produce syntheses of studies done by others, should reveal their sources of funding, their direct and indirect links to the programs, and they should subject their work to independent and blind peer review.

Second, given that much academic research on education is inaccessible to policymakers, practitioners, and the general public, researchers should take more responsibility for communicating their findings in clear ways to various stakeholders.

Third, the media should cover claims about issues in teacher education in proportion to the strength of the evidence that stands behind them and whether or not they are supported by research that has been independently vetted.

Fourth, we should assess the quality of programs based on an analysis of a variety of costs and benefits associated with particular programs, and not just look at whose graduates can raise test scores the most. Research suggests that an emphasis only on raising test scores deepens educational inequities and continues to create a second-class system of schooling for students living in poverty.

The selective and biased use of findings from studies, the consultation of limited and select research, and the repeated assertion that new, entrepreneurial programs are superior and that university teacher education is broken —assertions spread by mostly uncritical media coverage—have set us on a course to destroy the university-based teacher education system that has dominated the preparation of teachers in the United States since the 1960s.

To move forward more productively to improve teacher education will require a willingness to honestly examine the strengths and limitations of all current and proposed approaches, and to learn from research about the specific types of knowledge, preparation, and experiences needed for teachers to successfully educate all students to the same high standard of quality.

We need to carefully evaluate the multiple policy options available for improving the quality of teacher education in the United States, and everyone needs to recognize that the status quo is not acceptable. In our view, continuing down the current path of destroying and replacing the college and university system of teacher education in the United States will serve to widen, not narrow, the inequities in opportunities and outcomes that currently exist.