Teacher education

Higher Ed and the Schools

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
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Milton Greenberg is professor of government emeritus at American University, where he served as provost and interim president.

Back to Elementary School

All around the country, it’s already or nearly back-to-school time. Lists are being made and checked off. And as back-to-school time arrives, earlier, it seems, each year, I realize that my entire life has been structured by the school year. With 13 years of K-12 schooling, four years of college, two years for my master’s, four years of elementary teaching, four years of doctoral study, and one year as an assistant professor of elementary education, I’ve never experienced any other timeline. Summers to me have always meant closure, cooling down, some boredom sprinkled with part-time work (or is it vice versa?), and the rush of readiness throughout August.

Why bring this up? Well, as is also customary during summer transitions, one year drawing to a close ushers in a period of reflection. What went right, what went wrong? As an elementary teacher, it meant erasing the names of the prior class and spreading butcher paper over the furniture. I noticed throughout my first year as a professor and teacher educator that the actual public school experience from which I needed to draw was fading. I could no longer recall the names of students from my final year class photo. When I supervised pre-service teachers as a graduate student, my time in the classroom felt fresh, invigorating the wisdom I could offer my undergraduates. Now it’s getting harder and harder to find a relevant example from my own teaching. This can cause a teacher educator to defer to the cooperating teacher’s wisdom rather than my own vision.

On worse days, it feels like my doctoral training went to waste. The valued currency in academe is knowledge, more theoretical and conceptual than practical, although not in all cases. As a teacher educator, I have one foot in higher education and the other in elementary schools, so my situation feels a bit different. My intellectual identity is divided between the realms of the academic or conceptual and the practical. We always seek that moment of praxis like an addict chases that initial high. Often it’s never realized.

As summer approached, I felt a strong desire to reconnect to my practical roots, so to speak. I needed to legitimize myself as an actual teacher rather than someone taking notes and barking advice from a calm, comfortable place in the back of the room. I also thought my expertise could actually help, you know, students. But I had nowhere to turn. School systems are largely closed to people like me. My certification was long expired and it didn’t seem worthwhile to go through any process of renewal. As I’ve become more familiar with the education blogosphere over the last year or so, there has been considerable traffic devoted to new kinds of schools. What do you call them? Yes, charter schools.

I write that with a hint of sarcasm, but public school teachers, and administrators alike, are slightly suspicious of charter institutions. Some of which is justified because the charter movement is not turning out to be the panacea that reformers had hoped. Yet, the more successful models do offer public K-12 schooling and institutions of higher education examples of how to do things a bit differently, which is great. Traditions can be stifling. Charter schools also do not necessarily adhere to the strict certification requirements of most school systems, for better or for worse. One Washington D.C. charter school was willing to give me a shot for its four-week summer program. I could not have been happier, but could have used something to calm my nerves.

My return to the classroom consisted of 20 days teaching a combined fourth- and fifth-grade class for roughly four hours, split between language arts and math. I was given daily objectives for both subjects, but also had absolute control of how I addressed them. Most of my teacher resources from my days as an elementary teacher are in several 20-gallon tubs in my parents’ garage back in Pittsburgh. I did possess numerous picture and trade books in my office that could be used, as well as resource books for multiple subjects.

The week prior to the start date, I was out purchasing notebooks and pencils for the students. It was not that the school would not provide those, but teachers certainly have their own ways of doing things, and I preferr hard-backed composition books. I defaulted to my previous methods, acquiring a wealth of odds and ends from a dollar store to stock my own repository. Objects of desire — jump ropes, lollipops, bouncy balls, playing cards, snacks — could be purchased with “sheqels,” my denomination of choice because of its alliteration with the name of the summer school program. Other privileges, like lunch bunches or wearing a fedora hat for the day, were available. Over time, I got a kick out of these kids asking me for “sheqels,” something that was unlikely to ever be a part of their vocabulary.

I will spare readers with the details of my day-to-day teaching — the spontaneous outburst of a Michael Jackson dance party when I played a video of his on the Promethean board or unusually harsh tongue lashing a gifted third-grader doled out when she was teaching the class how to add fractions. Rather, I should get to the point: What can a professor learn from a return to a public school classroom? In particular to teacher educators, does our responsibility to public education extend beyond where we supervise to the larger profession as a whole? First, and this will be my strongest opinion of all: Teacher educators and education professors are not worth their salt if they do not return to the classroom with some regularity during their tenure. I plan to do so every summer that I can.

Something changed in my mind when I became an actual assistant professor. I supervised pre-service teachers as a graduate student, which is part of my job now. However, I feel like the pressure to be an “expert” on teaching and learning is greater as my previous memories of being an actual public school teacher evaporate. The initials behind my name confer some kind of status that I take very seriously. As a teacher educator spending a good deal of my time in public schools, how can I profess if I no longer put my own abilities to the test? So, I stand by my new rule: if you’re going to tell young people how to teach, then do it yourself. The opportunities are out there. This all depends on how flexible both the universities and the local school systems are. In my case, I was only responsible for a six-week graduate course on campus, affording me great flexibility. However, the local school systems are not flexible with whom they allow to teach, which is understandable. Yet, my certification expired because my former county did not consider earning a Ph.D. in an educational discipline to be a method of maintaining credentials. There should be policies within local school systems to allow professors of education to do at least some teaching in local schools.

My second major epiphany: institutions of higher education, especially colleges of education, ignore charter schools at their own peril. Like it or not, these schools are here to stay and the Obama administration values them highly. Stores of private cash are moving into charters while the remainder of “traditional” public schools struggle with less each and every year. We ignore them at our peril; well, what is our peril? Relevancy, perhaps? Currency or legitimacy? I wonder if schools of education can be taken as seriously regarding efforts to reform education or improve student outcomes given that alternative kinds of schooling — independent, home, or charter — are rarely afforded a second thought. There are ideas out there worth considering. Being a professor of education in a major metropolitan area, both the ideas and the opportunities to practice them are there.

I can additionally take issue now with the myth that teaching at the college level somehow approximates instruction in the elementary classroom. It’s possible that the parallels in secondary education and leadership or administration are more visible. But I have been told at various points in my experiences that teaching undergraduates is a way to practice my chops. Furthermore, my instruction in the college classroom models for pre-service teachers what they should be doing for their elementary students. All right, I can see that, though it’s a stretch.

Part of my job in teaching social studies methods, for instance, is modeling innovative strategies. I perform them for students so they can see how they’re done; however, I am rarely under the impression that the connections to the elementary classroom are as explicit. In fact, some of the strategies I’ve relied upon in the past simply did not work so well when applied in the charter school. For instance, a four-week program does not allow much space for making tremendous progress with new students. But in teacher education, my mentors and I both encouraged undergraduates to use inquiry, cooperative learning, and other so-called “hands-on” strategies. Fine. But these students were having none of it. I had to strip the activities down to their essence. That is, rather than actually implementing centers or a Jigsaw, I spent the first few weeks simply rehearsing rotations, getting in and out of groups, and reading directions.

By the latter part of the third week and into the fourth, we were able to get through some simple group activities without students trying to switch groups or complain about their partners. Rotations went somewhat smoothly, without too many “management casualties.” But I remember telling my undergraduates, “You can’t always assume that students know how to work together; thus, you have to rehearse these strategies first.” This was usually a throwaway comment on my part, but now I am reminded of how difficult it can be to set up parameters for group work. It is ultimately struggles like these that will benefit my own pedagogy and the impression that I can make on my pre-service undergraduates. They need to see me as an actual teacher and not some kind of demagogue who seems out of touch with practical realities.

I’m sure more examples of my awakening abound. As I begin a semester anew with a fresh cohort of pre-service teachers, more evidence will emerge of my newfangled confidence and wisdom. In all seriousness: I think I’m a much better professor and a much better teacher as a result. All I needed was a little jolt to both my intellectual and professional identities to give me new purchase on the teaching of teachers. Beyond the effects on my academic efficacy, I’ve established a valuable new relationship with this school that I hope continues throughout the year and next summer. I feel for the hard work that these younger folks who are running the school have ahead of them. I appreciate the close commitment they have to the community and the personable relationships they have with parents. Also, who can deny that their students, even the most troubled ones, have a unique story to their lives, relevant to success in the classroom and respected by all in the school who care very much about all the students’ well-being?

As an aside, there was one student, the strict third-grader I referred to earlier, who became obsessed with these little energy cubes from a health food store that I snacked on throughout the day. She was such a great person and did such great work that I sneaked one to her from time to time. I wanted to give her a bag at the end of the program as a gift, but alas, the store was sold out. I’ve since bought her a bag and am off to the post office shortly to send it to her. At the moment I write this, I’m reminded of why I got into this profession. I’m reminded of what makes me good at what I do and it’s been a shame to be out for so long. Now that I had a brief return to elementary teaching this summer, I challenge both education professors and those in other disciplines to do the same.

Shaun Johnson
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Shaun Johnson is assistant professor of elementary education at Towson University. His blog is At the Chalk Face.

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