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Essay calls for more rigor in teacher education programs

Teachers make a tremendous difference, both in the lives of our children and the competitiveness and success of our country.

That’s why it’s so essential to get more effective teachers into U.S. classrooms. Every thoughtful strategy for this moral and economic imperative ultimately comes back to colleges and universities doing a better job of preparing teacher candidates. Contrary to movies and folklore, successful teachers are not born. They are trained and taught.

Going as far back as the 1950s, critics have bemoaned that rigor and relevance get short shrift in teacher education. Teachers themselves frequently make this complaint. Many vividly and painfully recount how they spent the early years of their careers guessing about how to manage their classrooms, plan engaging lessons, assess student performance and reach students of all achievement levels simultaneously. “Why did I have to learn so much on the job?” they fairly ask of us.

With a reasonable amount of compelling evidence, the National Council on Teacher Quality recently pointed to this problem in "Easy A’s and What’s Behind Them." Looking at information from more than 500 institutions, NCTQ found that teacher candidates are graduating with honors almost 50 percent more often than all undergraduate students.

Clearly, the assertion is that teacher candidates are not being held to the same high standards expected of other academic programs and that course work in teacher-prep programs is not being graded and evaluated rigorously.

Where this is true, shame on us. We’re misleading people in consequential ways. If new graduates aren’t as prepared to succeed in the classroom, as their grades and honors suggest, then we have done a disservice to them, to their employers and, most important, to their students.

We know this complaint is real. We’ve all heard that too few of the teachers we train have the practical knowledge and deep grounding in their content areas to teach to 21st-century standards.

We must hear critics’ legitimate complaints. I have often said that we are not differentiating the achievements of our graduates with the precision and honesty that, for example, law schools and other professional schools do. That’s a failure we, as institutions of higher learning, have to confront, own and fix.

Many in the teacher education establishment will say "Easy A’s" is a cheap shot or that it looks at incomplete information. Others have asserted that the methods that NCTQ uses to evaluate teacher education programs are inappropriate, if not flawed. Though we have our criticisms of NCTQ’s work, the message, not the messenger, is what we care about.

The reality is that far too many institutions do fail to adequately define what constitutes research-driven preparation practices. Because of that lack of definition, many education graduates have a false sense of their preparedness. Their college credentials don’t translate to results in the classroom.

Imagine the shock of new teachers, and especially our most celebrated grads, if they go into the classroom and their students objectively and consistently perform poorly.

Just as K-12 schools are being asked to differentiate teachers based on value-added metrics, teacher education institutions need to differentiate teacher candidates during their academic and clinical preparation. 

True, our goal is for all candidates to do well. But if we have demanding rubrics for effective practice, not all teacher candidates will be rated equally or even highly. Quite simply, whether through rubrics or a limit on A’s or some other performance differentiator, teacher education programs also need to do a much better job of assessing the performance of candidates.

We have been critics of NCTQ and will continue to be when we disagree. Its rhetoric is often too strident, its perspective too jaundiced about teacher education programs. But the organization and we agree on two essential points: 

  • Teacher education programs are vital to ensuring teacher quality and creating the necessary pipeline of talent for our nation’s schools.
  • Improving teacher quality will only be accomplished with more rigorous teacher preparation.

Even well-meaning programs such as Teach for America could benefit from better grounding in university partnerships. Our schools need highly trained and skilled teachers who are effective the day they start their careers. If we really are committed to providing a world-class education system, we must have a comprehensive system for turning out the professionals to drive it.

The way to ensure teachers will be successful is to provide and demand more rigorous clinically based teacher education. In that system, there will be no easy A’s.

Nancy L. Zimpher is chancellor of the State University of New York and holds a Ph.D. in teacher education and higher education administration. Thomas J. Lasley II is executive director of the Learn to Earn Dayton program at the Dayton Foundation and a professor in the School of Education and Health Sciences at the University of Dayton.

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Defining 'Evidence of Learning'

An investment banking and consulting firm focused on education, Tyton Partners, is issuing a report today that attempts to create a framework for measuring "evidence of learning." The research, which the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded, seeks to take a holistic approach to defining the "body of knowledge, skills and experience" people achieve in both formal and informal activities throughout their lifetime. Tyton, which until this month was Education Growth Advisors, also released a second report on the "supplier ecosystem" that surrounds related markets, such as accreditation services, portfolio platforms and assessment services.

U.S. Spends $1.1 Trillion on College and Job Training

Colleges spent $407 billion in 2013 on formal education programs, while employers spent $177 billion, according to a new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The report found that employers also spent $413 billion on informal, on-the-job training. That means the workforce side of the total $1.1 trillion in expenditures on training outpaced that of higher education.

However, the rate of increase for spending on formal training has been faster in higher education -- an 82 percent increase since 1994 compared to a 26 percent increase by employers. Federally funded job training was the smallest piece of the pie, with $18 billion. College graduates receive the most formal training from employers, with 58 percent of the total expenditure by that sector compared to the 17 percent received by workers with a high school education or less.

 

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Essay rejects idea of mourning the ideals of liberal arts

As Victor E. Ferrall Jr. offered a valediction for the liberal arts here, declaring them “over the brink,” colleagues at the recent Association of American Colleges and Universities conference in Washington, D.C., were abuzz designing its future: #libedunbound.

During a session entitled “Liberal Education Unbound: The Life of Signature Student Work in the Emerging Digital Learning Environment,” Rebecca Frost Davis of St. Edward’s University asked audience members to live tweet their reflections to the hashtag #libedunbound, to illustrate the productive potential of this networked back channel. The tweets posted during the session (including my own) were less than inspirational, perhaps because they were penned (thumbed?) on demand, in response to an assigned topic, “Where and from whom do you as a professional learn outside of the formal classroom or conference session?”

But the hashtag itself was inspired, as became evident during a later session, “The Future of Liberal Education in the New Learning Ecosystem,” led by Randy Bass of Georgetown University. Bass invited the panelists -- José Antonio Bowen, president of Goucher College; Gardner Campbell, vice provost for learning innovation and student success at Virginia Commonwealth University; and J. Elizabeth Clark, professor of English at LaGuardia Community College -- to move away from technology-driven questions about the future of higher education and instead pose a true design challenge: How would we reimagine and reconstruct the future (of) #libedunbound? As the speakers took on a series of probing questions about the possibilities as well as the threats “the new learning ecosystem” might represent, audience members’ -- and the panelists’! -- live tweets were projected onto a large screen. In this way, the panel’s official channel ran alongside its unofficial back channel.

The panel’s oral channel focused on a new vision of learning that will transform our conception of the liberal arts and higher education alike. Panelists spoke, for example, not just about students as content creators but about professors as “cognitive coaches.” They hypothesized that the role of faculty members might become to make their learning -- as process, not as an achieved state of being -- visible to students and to one another. How will we fulfill our responsibility to prepare students to “live fully in their time”? Are we preparing our graduate students to teach the future generations of networked learners?

As the panelists considered the conceptual parameters of the new learning ecosystem, the digital back-channel chatter -- a word that I find particularly suitable, as it captures the unscripted and unedited murmur of live tweeting -- both deepened and challenged the panel’s official argument.

Some tweets obliquely echoed the panelists, while others amounted to philosophical challenges and engaged fellow tweeters in a parallel conversation. One tweet asked, for example, if “it is possible to think deeply on [T]witter” (@noreen_o), while another (my own) mused that the concept of depth may have to shift in a networked environment. Particularly amusing was the banter about an imaginary gadget that a panelist described as the “academic [F]itbit,” which might provide future students and professors with a feedback loop on vital cognitive data. But even that jest quickly turned into a serious query: What questions would we ask about our learning and how would we measure it? How will we teach our students to read and monitor their own data?

We were, I admit, in a glorious echo chamber of like-minded liberal education enthusiasts, caught up in one of those electric moments of communal inquiry. We needed no convincing of the value of liberal education and we have not given up on its future. Ferrall is no doubt correct that we cherish liberal education because it helps students become “critical thinkers, able and eager to distinguish opinions from facts and prejudices from truths, alert to the lessons of history and unwilling blindly to accept unsupported claims and assertions.” But what the hundreds of tweets to #libedunbound also demonstrated is that we may benefit from the exercise of thinking about the future of liberal education away from the historically accurate but no longer productive dichotomy that juxtaposes it with vocational training.

In the knowledge economy, critical thinking and what we typically call skills are much more closely bound and more difficult to disentangle than they were at the inception of the liberal arts centuries ago or even in the relatively recent course of their 200-year history in U.S. higher education. As Gardner Campbell observed from the panel table, the new learning ecosystem offers innovative symbolic possibilities that liberal education has yet to explore. Our conception of the liberal arts will evolve with the learning ecosystem that it inhabits.

That is the key point Ferrall missed: liberal education has never been static. An argument that presents it as such has already given up on its key component: learning as a never finished process, always renewed and always contextual. #Libedunbound may be one way to capture this idea: the chatter to this hashtag indeed emphasized active liberal learners of the future over and above the nominalized form of liberal “education.”

Any valediction for the liberal arts should, like John Donne’s, at the very least “forbid[] mourning”: our historical moment can certainly be read as a “breach” of the venerable tradition, but it must equally be read as presenting an opportunity for its “expansion.” As Nicola Pitchford of Dominican University of California observed in a tweet from the session, “Instructional technology is for augmentation of what we do, not automation.” Any tradition worth preserving must live and breathe with the times, and we are responsible for its augmentation in the future.

Valete artes liberales.” Not yet. And hearty welcome to #libedunbound.

Eva Badowska is interim dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Fordham University.

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