This article appeared initially in educational Horizons Winter 2007.
Leave No Teacher Candidate Behind:
the practical irrelevance of rigorous teacher education
by Wade A. Carpenter
Author's note: This column originated as a follow-up presentation to the Georgia Association of Colleges of Teacher Education advocating preparation of broadly informed, thoughtful teachers. Since the trends in that state and others toward intellectually shallow requirements appear to have worsened since the first presentation, this time the author decided to try satire. Enjoy -- but also bear in mind that many of our fellow citizens would see nothing wrong with it.
A few years ago my presentation before a state conference of teacher educators gave a number of reasons to begin a teacher-education program with a strong educational foundations course.1 While the presentation was well received, for which I am grateful, our vision of schooling has evolved, and if teacher-education programs wish to remain viable, we must change with the times. Therefore, I find I must reverse myself and argue for the course's elimination. In fact I must argue for more than that.
The first point of my original presentation is the easiest to refute, and that will provide the basis of all else to follow. I argued that a good educational foundations course should indeed serve a gate keeping function, encouraging those young people likely to flourish in school teaching, discouraging those who would be unlikely, and providing specific direction to those possibly attracted but uncertain about which levels, settings, or subject fields to pursue.
I absolutely stand by this principle . . . in principle, but I am forced to admit its practical irrelevance. In view of the alarming teacher shortage facing the nation in general and our state in particular, maintaining such a requirement is counterproductive. More important, it is also expensive. And finally, keeping a gatekeeper course on the books may render one's institution vulnerable to charges of bias.
My earlier suggestions were, I'm afraid, based on the naïve assumption that longevity in teaching is normally a good thing. That view may no longer be sustainable in light of our current employment practices and curricular policies. Although skilled research methods and astute district reporting make it difficult to provide accurate numbers, one may safely estimate that roughly 40 percent of teachers will leave within the first five years on the job, and, of course, the entire "baby-boom" generation is retiring.2 Surely a high teacher-attrition rate allows for a continuously improving teaching force, with yearly drafts of "fresh fish" informed by the best current research and unwedded to outdated teaching practices or romantic notions of "education" beyond the transmission of entry-level information, skills, and dispositions and the testing of them.3
Of course, the attrition rate has the added benefit of limiting personnel costs. But I have to point out that this is, alas, only a mixed blessing. Nothing at present guarantees those reinforcements.
Although personnel losses enhance job availability for our graduates and therefore encourage undergraduates to stay in our programs, nothing ensures this stream of candidates. Therefore, we should bear in mind that an introductory course can seriously undermine one's program, especially if the course has a reputation for intellectual rigor or undue realism. Moreover, although it is true that the course can eliminate clearly unsuitable candidates, that function can easily be accomplished at much less expense by standardized tests, the criminal records check already in force, and any university's career placement office. Consequently, a professor-driven course is rendered redundant, unscientific, and potentially discriminatory.
Regarding marginal cases, such as criminals not yet apprehended, deviants not yet convicted, or psychopaths not yet committed, we must earnestly search our consciences and ask if we can afford to be too picky or presumptuous. (Indeed, one may wonder if the pathetic, self-deluded "murderer" of JonBenet Ramsey might not have been apprehended if intrusive and elitist meddling had not forced him to teach in a distant Third World country. A plainly unwell individual was thereby denied mental health services that could have easily been diagnosed and prescribed had he not been prejudicially denied access to the living laboratory that our schools have become thanks to enlightened political and judicial direction.)
Given American education's sad history of white flight and our region's current struggle with what may be called "bright flight," our state cannot afford "blight flight." Given our state's unmatched generosity in accepting the world's outcasts and our fondness for electing them, surely we should never become a producer of persecuted refugees. We must hold fast to the sacred judicial principle of presumed innocence, whatever the cost may be; a person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. And finally, given the overriding need for diversity in our teaching force, profiling must be eliminated from our programs, our classrooms, and our hearts.
Bridging the Curricula
In my earlier presentation I suggested that an Intro course could be a valuable bridge to help the student connect the general-education curriculum to the professional-pedagogical material, and for our middle- and secondary-education candidates, to their subject-field content. Again, while that perhaps remains a good idea, I find it no longer necessary, on several counts:
1. In No Child Left Behind and various states' alternative-certification provisions, preparation in teaching methods -- pedagogy -- seems to be regarded more or less as a burdensome affectation, the real function of which is to create jobs for professors. According to critics from Arthur Bestor, to James Koerner, to Charles Sykes, to Chester Finn, the education establishment is notorious for such featherbedding.4 Perhaps the most concise summary of such practices was offered when the redoubtable Russell Kirk set down his beloved Burke long enough to refer contemptuously to "the patronage network of Teachers College, Columbia University"5 While those critics' insights may have relatively weak evidentiary support and vulnerability to charges of overgeneralization, ad hominem, slippery-slope, and other logical fallacies, they nonetheless suggest that many practices in teacher education have dubious instructional merit. No doubt further research in this area will uncover whatever the researchers and their funding agencies want to uncover, and of course, self-study in our discipline has always produced continuous improvement, scholarly publications, and fruitful service to institutions and the profession. Thus, professors should pay no attention to anti-intellectual grumbling against "professorial navel-gazing" by the unenlightened and illiberal from other industries.
The quibbles of those outsiders would also call into question the vital functions of professional organizations, accrediting agencies, and certification departments. While ostensibly this skepticism has some merit, especially to those in competitive sectors, it is manifestly at odds with the entire raison d'être of the contemporary education world. Committee work is our friend: without it, the job of teaching could be reduced to the point at which teachers and even professors could undertake it almost unaided.
2. Oddly, though, it could also be argued that this reasoning does not go far enough. State budget makers might do well to ponder whether a teacher really needs all that much subject-area knowledge to begin with. For instance, this year my home state of Georgia will pump approximately thirteen billion dollars into its public schools, and under Governor Purdue's "65% Solution," much of that will, I'm afraid, be directed toward what may be considered "instructional spending."6 Allow me to submit that the money might be better spent on a solid, highly directive curriculum package designed by state authorities, relying on better textbooks, with uniform teaching methods crafted by picked committees of career teachers and closely aligned with the designated standardized tests.
We must abandon the old-fashioned, haphazard practices of leaving teachers to their own devices, measuring outcomes by teacher-designed tests, and assigning readings that don't get read and exercises that don't get submitted, all of which inevitably results in mediocre performance on the standardized end of course requirements. The state has an obligation to reduce the variability of instructional quality arising from differential teacher preparation, talent, and effort, and this means may be the only really scientific way to accomplish that end. But arguably, even this still does not go far enough, given our mandate to provide a merely adequate public education.
3. Do teachers really need any general education courses, either? For that matter, do they really need postsecondary preparation at all? The assumption that relatively expensive college-educated "professional" teachers are somehow superior to intelligently guided data managers has yet to be tested under modern conditions. This absence of research is indicative of the deplorable arrogance of the college and university elite. Indeed, it may be that submissive teaching personnel supported by rich print, electronic, laboratory, and shop-floor resources would prove far less troublesome at producing the Next-Generation Industrial Workforce than are overeducated snobs adrift in theory and troubled by broader concerns, an unease that has little demonstrable connection to such oft-repeated goals as "leading the nation in improving student achievement." (Note that this particular motto, prominently displayed atop the Georgia Department of Education's home page, is much more modest than is commonly assumed by casual readers, and does not require college-educated teachers.7) It inevitably follows that a special course bridging three instructional programs of dubious merit to begin with, each of which demonstrably originated in professorial self-interest arising from the regrettable "academic revolution" of long-dead generations, finds little support.
Intellectual and Practical
In my earlier presentation I argued that the course of study should offer a balance of intellectual and practical, liberal and technical.8 Although to some extent the paragraphs above address my previous assertions, we would do well at this point to deconstruct at least briefly the components traditionally ascribed to "educational foundations" material.
(a) History of Education. Long ago the great American industrialist and benefactor of my own institution, Henry Ford, perceptively described history as "bunk."9 Upon reflection, however, I must disagree: history is hardly bunk -- it is dangerous. Above all, a study of history unavoidably suggests to teachers that things need not be as they are, or more important, as administrators and statesmen wish them to be. The implications should be obvious. If you were an administrator running a school with 2,200 screaming barbarians and their children on your hands or an office holder running for reelection, which would you rather have running your classrooms: maverick geniuses informed by so-called "great men" from long ago and far away, or compliant mediocrities meeting preset standards? Damn right you would.
(b) Sociology of Education. Do we really need a course to teach teachers how to teach children which social class they belong to? One would think the very structure of schools does that perfectly well.10
(c) School Law. That's what photocopiers are for.11 Leave the arguments to the lawyers and the judges. The same applies to ethics, which modern school practice has effectively relegated to easily comprehensible considerations of well-chosen, innocuous words of the week.
(d) Psychology. Certainly the great mass of professional opinion uniformly agrees on the primacy of this component of teacher education. Long gone are the days when either philosophy or theology could be regarded as "Queen of the Sciences." We have it on the authority of John Dewey that such superstitions are inappropriate in public schools guided by scientific evidence and the vox populi. Unfortunately, until psychologists come to a consensus on anything beyond the definitions listed in the DSM-IV-TR, teachers can be most effectively guided by in-service training in the best current practices, as determined annually by central office personnel, after extensive research and pricing negotiations, in consultation with public relations specialists and media consultants, with a keen eye focused on career-advancement opportunities for the central-office personnel.
(e) Philosophy of Education. Given the tenor of this presentation thus far, it may come as a surprise that I would still subscribe to the importance of educational philosophy, but I do. This field has been slandered by the assumptions and cautions of the ill-informed for far too long. Philosophy of education is essentially harmless and possibly beneficial if reconceptualized as "Philosophy of Education in Georgia [or insert state here]." That material does not take long to study, nor is it in any way challenging. Such a reductio to Philosophical Legalism makes charges of "irrelevance" foolish and eliminates the need for any purported expertise or even discussion.
As this suggests, one of the most gratifying aspects of public schooling in Georgia is that after all the tortured wrangling over abstruse points of doctrine and confusing ethical conundrums in the 2,400 years since Socrates, theory and practice have finally been successfully synthesized by forward-thinking state officials. To paraphrase George Orwell, philosophy is the law, the curriculum is the test, and "Theories" is "Praxis," or whatever next year's culminating instrument may be. Teacher preparation may therefore be streamlined into a straightforward class in techniques for test preparation, already conveniently packaged by Sylvan, Kaplan, and various other services. Faculty may pick and choose from them at their discretion, as long as they can document that their students' outcomes fulfill state requirements.
Although colleges and universities have perennially been tempted and occasionally seduced by the Protestant ethic, the demands for highly qualified teachers combine with innovative certification programs to make such allurements a thing of the past. The only things about teacher education that should be labor intensive are the design and documentation of reports by teachers and professors. Happily, the relevant state and national organizations are currently working to reduce even those to relatively simple matters of number crunching. The future is bright. And of course, since most of those requirements are focused on student outcomes, the early part of the teacher-preparation program (if there is one) becomes even less consequential, and it may be dispensed with entirely if one's institution is in compliance.
Five years ago my argument was that an introductory course would be an appropriate venue to expose students to the realities, positive and negative, of teaching. This, I now admit, was based on sincere but misguided notions that the classroom is not for everyone, and that those who are suitable for teaching should be made tough enough to handle it. The ethos of No Child Left Behind logically compels us to reassess leaving teacher candidates behind. Surely we should not be so quick to judge, nor should teacher-education candidates be pressured into making premature decisions that might negatively affect their futures or our departments' FTEs. And our success in promoting a healthy teacher attrition rate suggests that those who stay in teaching long enough will be toughened soon enough. To attempt that artificially or prematurely is unprofitable, unwise, and unkind.
My previous advocacy of organizing an introductory course around a social foundations core must also be reversed, in light of the inability of social foundations professional organizations to maintain a seat on the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). Although for decades social foundations advocates put up a touching fight for attention and approval, their ideology of a "critical, normative, and interpretive" preparation has not proved economically viable, politically desirable, or administratively tolerable.12 An institution that feels it must have an introductory course should focus it on the credentialing process for its students and programs, and professors should exercise control over their intellectual ambitions, so that our future teachers may have a clear and unequivocal understanding of what is expected of them.
This has already been addressed. The only significant element to add at this point is an enforcement mechanism, which is clearly not in the purview of an early-sequence course. Practicing teachers may be adequately informed of their rights, responsibilities, and procedures at the beginning of each school year, during time that would otherwise be frittered away in spurious "preplanning" activities.
Obviously, personalization is usually desirable. However, financial considerations render it impracticable for all but the most well-endowed institutions and the teacher attrition rate makes it irrelevant for all but the most well-endowed students.
I used to argue that an early course might wisely avoid too intensive a field experience, so that prospective teachers might gain an arms-length understanding of the breadth of the task, begin to process its depth intellectually, acclimatize to their institutions, and become well-known by experienced educators before we put the educatees into their hands. Without question, the needs of the state render any extensive classroom preliminaries superfluous, and as alternative certification routes flourish, schools would be well advised to take advantage of what will no doubt be a steadily decreasing opportunity to use pre-service teachers as free labor.
In sum, my previous arguments for a content-rich, emotionally intense, and academically rigorous introductory course in education are incompatible with the goals and standards of twenty-first century schooling, and however sincerely they may have once been held, they are no longer defensible. I stand corrected and look forward to living out the rest of my working days in the much-less-challenging new world of teacher training, in which we better fulfill our appropriate function of preparing scholars of every ability and inclination for one to five years of the standardized custodianship of our young people until they are old enough to be charged as adults.
1. W. A. Carpenter, "Fears, Fallacies, Frauds, and Foundations: The Role of the Early Courses in Teacher Education." Presentation to the fall 2001 meeting of the Georgia Association of Teacher Educators, Atlanta, Ga., October 19, 2001.
2. Estimates vary from 20 to 50 percent, as noted by Amy C. Colley, "What Can Principals Do about New Teacher Attrition? Principal -- Teaching the Teachers 81 (4) (2002): 22-24, available at <http://www.naesp.org/ContentLoad.do?contentId=765>; Kathy Chandler, Teacher Attrition and Mobility: Results from the Teacher Follow-up Survey, 2000-01, National Center for Education Statistics, available at <http://nces.ed.gov/ pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2004301>; and Richard Ingersoll, Who Controls Teachers' Work? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).
3. I am told that the charming "fresh fish" metaphor for people in schools originated in the film The Shawshank Redemption.
4. Arthur Bestor, Educational Wastelands: The Retreat from Learning in our Public Schools, 2nd ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1985); James D. Koerner, The Miseducation of America's Teachers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963); Charles Sykes, Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988); and Chester Finn, "High Hurdles," Education Next 3 (2) (2003): 62-67.
5. Quoted in George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945 (New York: Basic, 1979), 47; and Arthur Levine, Educating School Teachers (The Education Schools Project, 2006), available at <http://edschools.org/teacher_report.htm>. educational HORIZONS Winter 2007, 90
6. Holly Robinson and Benjamin Scafidi, "Spending in Classrooms Benefits Student Achievement," Georgia Public Policy Foundation, January 18, 2006, available at <http://www.gppf.org/article.asp?RT=5&p=pub/Education/Funding/ edu65percent060118.htm>.
7. The department's home page can be found at <http://public.doe.k12.ga.us>.
8. The genesis of this unfortunate synthesis is Merle L. Borrowman's The Liberal and the Technical in Teacher Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 1956).
9. According to K. Kris Hirst at www.about.com, the actual quote is "History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history that we make today." Chicago Tribune, 1916, available at <http://archaeology.about.com/mbiopage.htm>.
10. There is an enormous amount of sociology of education literature on this, with the classic probably being Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America (New York: Basic Books, 1976). Less scholarly but more recent and provocative is John Taylor Gatto's Underground History of American Education (New York: Oxford Village Press, 2003).
11. Subject, of course, to the fair use provisions of copyright law.
12. A decent history of the struggle is found in my unpublished 1992 dissertation, "A History of the Introductory Course in Education at Selected College and Universities in Georgia" (Georgia State University/University Microfilms).
Wade A. Carpenter, Ph.D., is an associate professor of education at Berry College, Mount Berry, Georgia.