American colleges and universities hold dear their independence, not only from government but from each other. Each college and university, irrespective of its sources of support, perceives of itself as self-contained, free to define its mission and to control its own operations. Competition rather than cooperation among them is expected in the intense search for students, dollars and prestige. While common understandings on mutual obligations do exist, none rise to the level of a sense of shared national purpose.
There does exist an overriding purpose that all should openly share -- the care, feeding and reform of elementary and secondary education in America. A growing consensus among scholars and practitioners is that the most important element in student success is the teacher and the most important element in school success is the principal. Who prepares the teachers? Who prepares the principals?
Many, if not most, academics may plead innocence for the inadequacy of the public school system on the ground that their teaching and research obligations do not involve elementary and secondary school issues. But how many have lamented the inadequacy of their students’ academic skills and blamed the performance of elementary and secondary education for their deleterious impact upon higher education?
Who or what is responsible for the disappointing portrait of America’s system of public elementary and secondary education? Multiple answers are typically offered: Uncaring parents, uninspired teachers, unqualified principals, selfish teachers unions, corrupt politicians, partisan school boards, politically harassed superintendents and disgraceful school buildings. Social ills such as poverty, racism and drugs are in the mix as are the debilitating impact of television and twittering. We blame the lack of money but that collides with data showing that many poor performing schools and school districts spend more per student than good schools.
What is missing from this litany of the obvious? The free pass being given to higher education.
How did we get to this perverted assignment of blame to those at the end of the educational chain who are totally dependent upon the existence and products of the top of the chain? Who is preparing the teachers, principals, superintendents and most school board members who form the key ingredients for educating our children?
What you have heard, when we address it at all, is widespread condemnation of schools of education, treating them as weak spots while all the other departments and disciplines in the university, teaching the same students, share none of the blame. Incompetent or unsuitable teachers? Well that’s the fault of schools of education, right? Students in other programs or professional schools are considered products of the whole university’s efforts but, apparently, education students emerge as a tabula rasa who reflect no benefit from their relationship to the rest of the university.
You don’t have to dig too deeply into the literature on schools of education to find a pattern of criticism, much of it related to the perception that such schools emphasize teaching methodology instead of subject matter competence. Who is supposed to teach how to teach children to read, write or do arithmetic? And who is to teach what to teach if not the scholarly disciplines? How many liberal arts departments offer courses sensitive to what an elementary or secondary teacher would find useful? Instead, even introductory courses are usually geared to the production of majors with little if any idea about what is actually taught to children. A faculty member who espoused that his or her department make that part of its agenda would be viewed as a pariah, out of step with the department’s academic discipline.
Another favorite of critics is that education programs attract and accept students with lower qualifications than other liberal arts programs. This allegation is questionable and irrelevant, since the prospective teacher must pass all requirements of the academic disciplines to earn a degree. Debate rages about whether teachers need unique educational credentials to teach or, instead, if we should open the profession to people with other training who desire to enter the teaching profession. Still, it is expected that such people will take some traditional educational methods courses.
The history of the training of school teachers in this country is instructive. The early colleges and universities stressed classical education for the learned professions (clergy, law, medicine), but teacher education was not considered part of the mission. Public elementary education was sporadic and geared to the needs of an agrarian society.
Teachers were unlicensed and poorly compensated. Not until the late 1830s were public “normal schools” established to provide post-eighth grade education to prepare primary school teachers and to establish “norms” for schools. By the beginning of the 20th century, school systems grew and stabilized, secondary education expanded and many normal schools extended their curricula to agricultural and vocational training with some liberal studies. Only after World War II and the enormous population boom did the United States approach the idea of universal secondary school education, an idea that is not yet realized in graduation data.
With those developments, normal schools developed into the four-year “teacher colleges,” the earlier format of the “state normal colleges” which evolved into the “state colleges” and, during the 1950s and 1960s, to the numerous regional state universities, typically named according to location in the state -- “eastern, western, northern, southern and central.”
At each step of this astonishing growth of higher education in America, teacher training slipped in status as a lesser-regarded area of study. Though prospective teacher enrollments remained high, they served as the proverbial “cash cows” with lesser qualifications for entering the teacher education programs and education faculty salaries lower than for other growing disciplines.
It happens that I was twice part of the morphing of the normal school, teacher college, and state college into a regional state university, with a diminished role for teacher education within the growing university. I can recall the overall atmospherics of a community rooted in the training of school teachers. Whatever subject matter you taught, you knew that most of the students in your class were prospective teachers. Many departments were involved in curricular discussions with teacher education units to coordinate substantive subject matter with teaching methodology and to advise students on suitable courses to meet state and school district requirements.
Subsequently I became the dean of a newly established college of arts and sciences at a former teacher’s college and there experienced the unraveling of longstanding faculty and curricular arrangements as general education programs overtook the focus usually allotted to the preparation of teachers. At both universities, the gradual separation of teacher education from the central mission of the institution reflected new directions for higher education in America.
There are now so many alternative routes to become a teacher without teacher education certification that the teacher education units are further diminished. For example, avenues are available for teaching positions in private schools, charter schools, through national programs such as Teach for America, and special accelerated courses for persons holding any undergraduate or professional degree who would like to try teaching. Elementary and secondary teaching was viewed largely as “women’s work” until opportunities for women opened in all realms of professional and business life, suggesting that more academically talented women populated schools of education than do so now.
What would it take to mobilize higher education to assume more responsibility for the preparation of teachers? Here are three suggestions:
- First, all major college and university associations should declare in concert with their membership that, in the national interest, the preparation of teachers will receive the priority treatment usually accorded to showcase programs or schools. This could mean, for example, that all would agree to raise the requirements for admission to education programs along the lines used for special undergraduate honors or other selective programs and at the graduate level to law, medicine or business. Such unprecedented action would be contrary to higher education’s penchant for institutional and programmatic independence, making it all the more dramatic and establish the preparation of elementary and secondary teachers and principals as a core value of higher education.
- Second, all academic departments should work in concert with education faculty to maximize the marriage of subject matter with methodology for teaching elementary and secondary students. Many universities have participated in both academic and social programs to assist local schools. Such programs are usually remedial in character, limited in scope and disconnected from higher education’s overall relationship to the plight of the schools. To connect would require acknowledgment that in the case of children and adolescents, subject matter competence of teachers is not sufficient. What counts is some standard for what should be taught and recognition that teaching methodology can and should be taught. Such alliances are beginning to make some headway in numerous colleges and universities, and their activities should be studied and publicized. Especially hopeful is the release in June 2010 of a set of national standards for elementary and secondary education by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to prepare students for college. Many college officials say that they will train teachers to meet the standards.
- Third, in order to maximize the use of limited resources, a return to the concept of the teacher colleges with their combined dedication of subject matter and methodology should be explored. Colleges and universities with small education programs could use existing consortium arrangements, or establish new alliances, to share a free-standing teachers college that joins their education and special subject matter faculty and to which they will send undergraduate and graduate students preparing for teaching and administrative posts. Properly executed, with serious attention to recruiting high quality students, faculty, and research scholars, the diminished prestige of teacher education programs could be raised to the essential place that they should have among the learned professions. It is likely that such experiments would be attractive to major private foundations, with eventual benefit to colleges and universities, and to local business groups eager to repair perceived weaknesses of elementary and secondary schools in their communities.
Henry Wyman Holmes, the inaugural dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, 1920-1940, stated some 80 years ago that "the training of teachers is a highly significant part of the making of the nation." He called for "a more serious conception of the place of the teacher in the life of the nation,” urging educational and political leaders to join him in "changing the systems that support poorly trained, paid and esteemed teachers." He found few supporters. To realize Holmes’s efforts to raise teacher education to higher professional levels, leaders in teacher education formed the Holmes Group, renamed the Holmes Partnership, to encourage linkages among education professionals and with liberal arts departments, still seeking the same goals.
Others, notably in the political world, are putting pressure on schools at all levels. Congress enacted the “No Child Left Behind” program emphasizing testing and assessment of learning. The U.S. Department of Education has put more rigorous requirements on teacher education accrediting bodies and is using “Race to the Top” funds to encourage both program and personnel changes for failing school systems. Another notable development is the aggressive initiative of private foundations, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation for Education, to promote improvements in the teaching profession. Increased action by political and private power centers should be expected.
To avoid further loss of treasured higher education independence, remediation of teacher education should begin with higher education’s role in the decline of the schools. This calls for shoring up their teacher education programs and awakening the traditional academic departments to their responsibilities for the education of teachers.
American colleges and universities are the envy of the world for their excellence in so many endeavors. As the population grows and diversifies and technology poses enormous challenges, we need to concentrate on the ingredient that makes continuing achievements possible -- the education of children. This is one obligation we should openly share that can provide that sense of shared national purpose so lacking in higher education.
Milton Greenberg is professor of government emeritus at American University, where he served as provost and interim president.