Who’s Teaching the Teachers?

From: Inside Higher Ed
by Allie Grasgreen

When it comes to teacher education, pragmatism beats idealism. But most education professors – save for a small minority – are complacent with antiquated teaching philosophies.

These conclusions, released today in a report by FDR Group and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute on the views of education professors, summarize the “sobering data” gathered from surveys distributed at colleges and universities across the country.

“Idealism, good intentions, and progressivist thinking suffuse what education professors strive to impart to prospective teachers, despite tension between these values and the policies pursued by school districts and states,” the report says. “Teacher educators show only modest concern for real-world challenges…. even though K-12 teachers often say these are among the most difficult elements of teaching.”

But there is hope yet, the researchers say. The report laments that most professors are stuck in old-world ways but touts the few who seek to improve K-12 teacher education and American schools.

“What’s clear is that education school campuses already contain some potential allies for reformers,” the report says. “There are cracks in the Ivory Tower – cracks that might be widened with a little encouragement from the outside.”

Some take issue with the survey’s validity, however. Sharon P. Robinson, president and C.E.O. of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, said that although the report calls attention to the important issue of preparing K-12 instructors, its results “cannot be deemed definitive” because only about 14 percent of the 5,500 teacher educators surveyed responded, and it was unclear whether all respondents were directly involved in teaching.

“While we are not confident in the results of this survey due to the low response rate, we and the majority of our members agree that educator preparation needs to change – and that it is changing,” Robinson wrote in an e-mail. She also noted that some organizations and institutions are working to develop a teacher performance assessment to improve the validity and reliability of teacher effectiveness.

The key finding of the study is the apparent divide among the professoriate, Fordham Institute Research Director Amber Winkler said. “Our hope is not to beat up on education schools,” she said. “It’s more to say, ‘OK, there is a group of professors that are advocating for change and are very vocal about it,’ ” and to encourage those professors they dubbed “reformers.”

Researchers determined that, based on the range of responses and lack of overwhelming agreement, teacher education is in flux.

“One segment – Reformers – is strongly dissatisfied with the status quo; they point to weaknesses in education programs and agitate for change,” the report said. “Another segment – Defenders – sees criticism as without merit and is mostly comfortable with the status quo. A close look at these two groups reveals opposing forces at work in teacher education.”

But Robinson said it’s not that simple. “Although they make for interesting discussion, it is difficult to make such black and white distinctions,” she said. For instance, AACTE member institutions teach students practical skills for managing and disciplining, but also how to be lifelong learners and change agents within the reality of today’s schools. “Good teachers who stay in the field should be both idealistic and realistic,” she said.

The reformers, who make up 12 percent of survey respondents, agreed that teacher education needs “fundamental overhaul or many changes,” and that the following statements come “very close to their view”: “Teacher education programs often fail to prepare teachers for the challenges of teaching in the real world” (a statement that defenders called “not too close” or “not close at all to their view”) and those programs “need to do a better job weeding out students who are unsuitable for the profession.”

Defenders, who constitute 13 percent of respondents, said teacher education works very well and needs only “minor tinkering,” and that the statement “teacher education programs are often unfairly blamed for the problems facing public education” comes very close to their view.

The report follows up on a 1997 study, which was also commissioned by the Fordham Institute, led by the same researchers and asked many of the same questions.

It found significant changes in few areas. Winkler pointed to 20 percent drops in the number of professors who say it’s more important for students to struggle with a question than come up with the answer, and who say the early use of calculators will not prevent kids from learning arithmetic.

Fewer professors believe teacher programs are unfairly blamed for the problems facing education (71 percent compared to 82 percent). Though a large majority still agreed with this statement, Winkler said the response supports a general conclusion that professors today are more open to being held accountable for their performance and the quality of graduates. “They’re willing to take more responsibility,” she said.

Professors’ “low priorities” include teaching effective classroom management, as well as teaching phonics and math, the report found. Additionally, professors are more likely to value teaching methods that focus on all students equally rather than raising the achievement of disadvantaged students who are struggling academically, such as students at high-need or urban schools.

Asked which statement comes closer to their personal philosophy of their role as teacher educator, 68 percent of professors said it’s to “be change agents who will reshape education by bringing new ideas and approaches to public schools,” while 26 percent said it’s to “work effectively within the realities of today’s public schools” – e.g., state mandates, limited budgets, and beleaguered administrators. (Six percent said they weren’t sure.)

Robinson pointed out that to address these issues, there are about 1,300 educator preparation programs in the United States, some of which attempt to prepare teachers by connecting them through residency with high-need K-12 programs. However, the funds to support these programs are limited.

“The ‘challenges of teaching in the real world,’ especially in the nation’s hard-to-staff urban and rural schools, are monumental,” she said. “There are known solutions, but not enough support to realize them in a systemic way.”

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