For almost as long as there have been institutions dedicated to the preparation of new teachers, the endeavor has come in for criticism. Teacher education has long struggled both to professionalize and to fully integrate itself into mainstream academia. At the core of this struggle was a perception that there was no body of specialized knowledge for teaching that justified specialized training. Over the last few decades, criticism of teacher preparation has shifted away from a largely academic debate to the troubling performance of American students. Shocked by teacher education’s refusal to train teachers to use scientifically based reading methods, Reid Lyon, who headed a 30-year study at the National Institutes of Health of how people best learn to read, once stated, “If there was any piece of legislation that I could pass it would be to blow up colleges of education.” The suggestion was repeated in a 2009 speech by Craig Barrett, the former chair of Intel Corporation, who had been working to improve math and science education. Arne Duncan, the Obama administration’s secretary of education, having previously served as schools superintendent in Chicago, one of the nation’s most troubled school districts, gave back-to-back speeches early in his tenure decrying the state of the field: “By almost any standard, many if not most of the nation’s 1,450 schools, colleges, and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st-century classroom,” and “America’s university-based teacher preparation programs need revolutionary change, not evolutionary thinking.”
An occasional insider has joined the fray. Arthur Levine, former dean of what many consider to be the preeminent teacher-preparation program, Teachers College, Columbia University, has been savage in his criticism: “Teacher education is the Dodge City of the education world. Like the fabled Wild West town, it is unruly and disordered,” he wrote in 2006. He then swiftly abandoned his involvement with traditional teacher preparation altogether, starting up his own alternative pathway to teaching, the Woodrow Wilson fellowships. At the time, his remarks were viewed as mutinous by many of his colleagues, particularly his view that the primary accrediting body for teacher education, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), ought to be scrapped. Several years later, insiders conceded that Levine had been right. Accreditation is now being revamped under a new name, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP).
The Perspective of Teacher Educators
Almost all teacher educators acknowledge that the field has deep problems, but their concern has seldom been about the issues raised by external critics such as lack of selectivity, an imbalance between content and pedagogy, or the lack of value delivered. These differences aren’t always recognized because the insider critiques often sound a lot like the external critiques. In reality, insiders are more concerned about the chaos in the field.
The core of insider complaints is not that the profession is marching in the wrong direction, as some believe, but that too many of its foot soldiers are out of step, inadequately provisioned, and carrying the wrong weapons. This disarray is not surprising, given that the training takes place at 1,450 higher-education institutions in the United States, each of which houses anywhere from three to seven teacher-preparation programs. Fewer than half of these institutions have earned national accreditation—an anomaly not found in other professions—leaving the rest answerable to no one.
The most revealing insight into what teacher educators believe to be wrong or right about the field is a lengthy 2006 volume published by the American Educational Research Association (AERA), Studying Teacher Education. It contains contributions from 15 prominent deans and education professors and was intended to provide “balanced, thorough, and unapologetically honest descriptions of the state of research on particular topics in teacher education.” It lives up to that billing. First, the volume demonstrates the paucity of credible research that would support the current practices of traditional teacher education, across all of its many functions, including foundations courses, arts and sciences courses, field experiences, and pedagogical approaches, as well as how current practice prepares candidates to teach diverse populations and special education students. More intriguing, however, is the contributors’ examination of the dramatic evolution of the mission of teacher education over the last 50 years, in ways that have certainly been poorly understood by anyone outside the profession.
Studying Teacher Education explains the disconnect between what teacher educators believe is the right way to prepare a new teacher and the unhappy K–12 schools on the receiving end of that effort. It happens that the job of teacher educators is not to train the next generation of teachers but to prepare them.
Far beyond Semantics
Though those two terms—train and prepare—appear to be interchangeable, they are not. This word choice is a deliberate one on the part of teacher education (“training” is never used) and signals a significant shift in the field over the last three or four decades. While few would disagree that new teachers generally get very little practical training before they enter the classroom, the reasons are profoundly misunderstood. It is not, as many have assumed, because of ideological resistance to various teaching methods. And it is not that teacher educators don’t understand the realities of the 21st-century classroom and need to come down from their ivory tower.
It is because training a teacher is viewed (if the AERA volume is accurate in its summation) as “an oversimplification of teaching and learning, ignoring its dynamic, social and moral aspects.” This evolution from a training purpose to a preparation purpose started in the 1970s and is described in detail by the AERA volume co-editor and Boston College education professor Marilyn Cochran-Smith, who dismisses training as a “technical transmission activity.”
In 2012, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute surveyed teacher educators, finding substantial evidence that most teacher educators do not see their role, at least not their primary role, to be a trainer of teachers. For example, just 37 percent responded that it was an “absolutely essential” feature of their job to develop “teachers who maintain discipline and order in the classroom.”
The Philosophy behind Teacher Formation
Harking back perhaps to teacher education’s 19th-century ecclesiastical origins, its mission has shifted away from the medical model of training doctors to professional formation. The function of teacher education is to launch the candidate on a lifelong path of learning, distinct from knowing, as actual knowledge is perceived as too fluid to be achievable. In the course of a teacher’s preparation, prejudices and errant assumptions must be confronted and expunged, with particular emphasis on those related to race, class, language, and culture. This improbable feat, not unlike the transformation of Pinocchio from puppet to real boy, is accomplished as candidates reveal their feelings and attitudes through abundant in-class dialogue and by keeping a journal. From these activities is born each teacher’s unique philosophy of teaching and learning.
There is also a strong social-justice component to teacher education, with teachers cast as “activists committed to diminishing the inequities of American society.” That vision of a teacher is seen by a considerable fraction of teacher educators (although not all) as more important than preparing a teacher to be an effective instructor. This view of a teacher’s role as transformational is not wrong, as teachers often serve as the means by which children overcome challenges inherent in their backgrounds. But it is one that is often taken to absurd extremes in practice. For example, a textbook used in a math course for elementary school teachers is entitled Social Justice through Mathematics, which explains why the view is so often disparaged.