Considering Teacher Education: Critical Abandonment
Jack L. Nelson
Professor Burt Weltman,
Frustrating and Dull
Many professors of education consider teacher education to be among the most frustrating, and dull, of subjects. This essay is addressed to – or at – those professors. Work in teacher education programs may not carry the same academic dignity or status as work in the more specialized education topics. It is not an easy route to academic recognition, promotion, and reward. Preparing students for actual classroom teaching is perceived as the applied side of education, without the glamour of esoteric research or theory. It is also the messiest, with myth, opinion, and personal experience carrying weight equivalent to scholarship. Teaching traditions pull the practice in multiple directions irrespective of research or theory.
State regulation of teacher licensing and standardized testing add heavy weights of bureaucratic nightmare and robotic functioning to teacher education. These drive creative and thoughtful education faculty interest away from teacher education. Dealing with very traditional local schools, cultures that socialize our students to avoid controversy and critical judgment, and protective state and accreditation agencies and their regulations is often an unproductive use of faculty time and intellect. Further, programs of teacher education are commonly used by institutions as a relatively low-cost attraction to students in order to generate funds for other higher priority campus activities – so teacher education usually lacks adequate institutional resources. Some faculty members who teach in such programs recognize it as a necessary duty, useful in keeping a position but not a focus for long term careers. For these and other reasons, teacher education is conducted, but essentially abandoned, in many institutions. It is critical abandonment, not only because teacher preparation is a necessarily significant, thus critical, part of education, but also because the abandonment is by the very faculty who could contribute most to improvements – the most influential critical education scholars.
In the face of mind-numbing state regulation of teaching credential requirements and the heavy hand of teacher tradition in practical classroom teaching, professors can find more excitement, less frustration, and more rewards in examining educational questions which do not focus on the education of teachers. We usually prefer debates over social justice, progressive/traditional education, and radical critiques of schooling. Similarly, such topics as vouchers and charters, church-state issues, censorship, and standardized testing offer far more tantalizing venues for passionate declamation. But, as we know from those meetings we have all been through, few faculty members get intellectually interested in discussions of whether we should start professional programs at the sophomore or junior year, which old courses will meet new requirements for field-based methods or the few university-based foundations, or how to staff student teaching supervision. These discussions are less significant because they are usually mechanical questions about the implementation of decisions made elsewhere.
It may be easy to abandon teacher education, but that is not in the true interests of the good education school or faculty. Teacher education is an ideal place to raise and address the kinds of vibrant issues in theory, research, and practice that should and do excite professors. It contains the main elements for solid interchange over significant and pervasive social and educational issues, as well as the main opportunity to actually influence what goes on in schools over a period of time. How teachers think of their work, how they approach their roles in society and in schools, how they recognize and increase their influence, and how they engage the public debates on social and school progress are as consequential to teacher education and education schools as how those teachers learn to practice the day-to-day classroom planning, teaching, and evaluating.
teacher competence in grappling
with knowledge and critical thought, in extending teacher and student
to explore ideas, and in exhibiting and inspiring intellectual
far more important topics than lesson-planning and room arranging. Obviously, good planning and classroom
ambience are very suitable subjects for teachers to examine and
with, but these applied topics develop most appropriately out of a
context of the teacher’s serious consideration of the why and how of
state regulation, responding to anti-progressive attacks on education,
shifted the emphasis in teacher education away from intellectual
basic rationales for teacher methods to sterile teaching of the
practice to assure meeting standards. In
Professional Socialization into Tradition
The standard teacher education program provides highly traditional professional socialization. Students who have been successful as pupils in the schools for a long period are admitted to the university. They have assimilated the student role, performing as instructed and seldom challenging teachers or school. Their models for teaching are often those who were kind, well organized, and able to explain information well. These are certainly good, but insufficient, teacher characteristics; they do not speak to critical judgment, intellectual stimulation, or creativity. Exposure to some of the liberalizing ideas of college, from other students and good general education course work, can enhance the student’s interest in ideas and in learning. Liberal arts, properly taught, is supposed to liberate, and many good students develop strong liberating views of the values of inquiry and knowledge, and a willingness to challenge. When that happens we can thank a great teacher, and one who should be interested in teacher education.
Students enter teacher education and are placed in courses on teaching practice, often using very experienced teachers as faculty or resources. Traditional mainstream teacher education programs do not encourage students to consider divergent views, and radical ideas are not included in the texts or the classes. Even our foundational courses are often replicas of traditional, non-liberating, undergraduate history or social science classes, where students are seen as vessels to be filled with other people’s ideas. We provide extensive field-based observation and practice locations in local schools, where we offer very limited critique or influence. Our students are placed with good and experienced teachers in traditional school settings, where they see and learn that it is best to not rock the boat, deal with controversy, or raise critical issues. Our education school administration does not want to jeopardize our relations with local schools, so we do not offer critical assessment of the highly traditional setting in which students learn how to think and act like standard teachers. Passivity and acceptance of external authority are the expected condition of much teacher education. Students who began to emerge as critical thinkers during their early collegiate experience find that neither the local school nor the college-based education professors advocate much of that. These pre-teachers modify their views to fit in and in fear of not doing well. Data from five years of studies Stuart Palonsky and I conducted of all students completing student teaching showed that the modifications in their political view was always from more liberal to more conservative. They learn to teach as they were taught. They remain untouched by new ideas. This would be fine if the role of teacher in society did not expect more than replication of tradition. Existing authorities, the elites and their representatives, are content with this kind of teaching since it serves to keep them in power. It also serves to keep the schools as institutions for passing on an already refined and sterilized cultural heritage, without challenge to society or to student.
However, the core civilizing purpose of education is limited by teachers whose practice is to continue the traditions of practice. That purpose demands freedom of thought and exploration of controversial ideas in order to develop a continuing social progress, Progress requires change from the past and the current. Of course, not all change is progress – that concept is the fundamental reason for exercising critical thinking and reasoned decision-making. Teacher education should aim to develop this thinking and decision-making through consideration of diverse ideas. So long as the programs are rooted in continuing practice, without solid critique, this is very difficult.
My experience a
few years ago at
If the purpose of education is to enlighten and liberate people in the continuing quest for progress, we need a strong teacher corps prepared to lead that effort. Teacher education should engage the interests of the best of education professors as a dynamic nexus of theory and practice, not as a grab-bag of techniques and tricks or a prescriptive set of practical course learnings that ignore issues surrounding the social and individual purposes of schooling. Discussion of ways to accomplish this should be heady stuff for our professor pool but, alas, it seldom occurs.
The long and
debilitating period in
Much of the historic and current public argument about teachers and their preparation is a thinly disguised continuation of the broader long-term culture wars, the eight decades of efforts to disparage and defeat social progressivism and to neutralize critical thought, and an illustration of the important power struggle over social control through the politicization and standardization of education. Education faculty have been on the losing side of these and other topics, but they have not entirely lost interest in the topics or the battles – except, perhaps, in teacher education.
The periodic tide of nasty public and news media criticism of education schools and their teacher education programs should excite the faculty to action, scholarly and political. Ironically, large segments of the public, the schools, most parents, and the profession agree that we need excellent teachers, and they often share a sense of the intertwined art and science of educating and the need for increasing teacher freedom. When asked, they don’t want the kinds of teachers produced by rigid and mechanical standards. Most parents and much of the public are willing to consider thoughtful teacher education proposals based in progressive concepts because those interests focus on improvements for their children and the future of society.
For political and economic reasons, however, the more widely reported public arguments about teachers and teacher education are formulated by politicians, special interests, and much of the media. They suggest that major differences in how we define excellent teaching and what constitutes proper credentialing are easily resolved by more regulation, with less involvement by educationists, and more standardization. Without vociferous and substantial debate, the public is led to accept this approach. Counter arguments, when found, are most apparent in the professional literature – not in public debate. This must be addressed, not only because teacher education represents our stake in our profession’s improvement, but also because these unanswered attacks undermine the larger social context of education that requires a different form of teacher in classrooms. The progressive side of the argument seldom gets presented, and for that we can only blame ourselves for providing too much public silence.
Education faculties are chastised in public forums for the quality of teachers they are accused of producing, as though it occurred through immaculate conception without the necessary participation of the rest of the university. From university admissions and general education through major and minor subjects and graduation requirements, education faculty actually have less participation in the development of teachers than does the rest of the university. That point notwithstanding, we are not relieved from the obligation to protest inferior teacher education and support improvements in it.
The criticisms of schooling and teacher education are not entirely unwarranted, given the sad state of some education schools where admission to teacher education is frighteningly easy and is seen as the place to board the weakest students from other programs – and the sometimes non-intellectual and non-engaging course work produced in education schools where excessive interest in replicating the traditional teacher’s day-to-day classroom work overcomes an interest in leading the profession with good ideas and sound theory.
educational quality, in the
For the teacher educator as well as for education school colleagues who prefer to ignore teacher education, the arguments are reminiscent of long-standing debates which are likely to be resolved in bureaucratic and legislative regulation without participation by those most involved in the process or the use of bodies of knowledge about teaching. Thus, the frustration and dullness of dealing with teacher education arises.
Teacher education must be reconstituted as the legitimate focus for energies of any education school. Certainly, some excellent scholars have engaged the question of teacher education on solid grounds and produced substantial contributions to the development of a body of literature, but much of the work in teacher education is perceived by education school faculty as a low status activity useful for providing undergraduate teaching positions, but not directly linked to their personal and professional interests in specialties; they want separation from teacher education. Many faculty in educational psychology, curriculum studies, foundational areas, and school administration view teacher education as low-priority activity, best ignored. These faculty do not often address major issues in the preparation of teachers; their concerns usually relate to document analysis, surveys, and quasi-experimental studies of pre-collegiate student learning. For some of these faculty members, it is probably better for teacher education that they do avoid it personally; but they should still offer substantial support to a strong teacher education effort and be very concerned to see that the best minds in the faculty get their attention directed to teacher education Without teacher education, education schools serve little purpose in the university; few places will afford the luxury of an education think tank. A lack of recognition of teacher education as the key place to provide educational leadership through enlightened initial preparation and the rich source of potential research partners in practical settings and future scholars of the field does not serve education faculties well.
in the more critical arenas have touched on teachers and teacher
often with compelling argument and substantial thought, but there has
sustained and public expression of their views. I
applaud and convey my indebtedness for ideas such
thinkers as Michael
Apple (2000, 2001), Henry Giroux, (1983,
1988), and Bill Stanley (1991,
1992) and Tony
Whitson and Stanley (1988). Apple’s clear illumination of the dangers, unfortunately
happening, of the de-skilling of teachers
led to significant shifts in teacher education to address those serious
in Teacher as Intellectual posed a high road and justified answer to
of teacher we should be most proud of producing, but where are the
education programs which attempt this noble task? What
universities accept and advertise their
roles in developing teachers as intellectuals?
Despite my recognition of the dullness of the subject as normally pursued, I propose we make teacher education a more direct focus of energy and intellect. This proposal is because teacher education is the best location for addressing the larger issues that surround education in a society that intends to be democratic, just, and equitable. If we fail to exert pertinent and confident influence over teacher education, we lose the major part of the war, not just a battle. For those who have lofty positions in graduate and research programs, far above the lowly teacher education program, it is easy to ignore the problems of critics and quality. The attitude that we can let the credential programs suffer more significant budgetary and faculty resource limits leads to declines across the board – if teacher education becomes standardized into highly structured and often-tested sets of simplistic procedural skills and informational retrieval, the graduates will be the future teachers who enter graduate programs and undertake research programs in education. How can that be an improvement in the study of education?
Teacher education deserves full consideration and support from the best of our profession, and help in restoring institutional and intellectual integrity.
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