Skewed perspective: what we know about teacher preparation at elite education schools

Skewed perspective: what we know about teacher preparation at elite education schoolsThere are some 1,400 schools of education in the United States--schools that prepare the teachers who teach most of America's elementary and secondary students. By virtue of their numbers, and the fact that some 70 percent of our three million public school teachers have attended these institutions as undergraduates, education schools seem a likely subject of study for reformers. Do we know what our future teachers are learning in our schools of education?

Surprisingly, neither the defenders nor the critics of education schools have produced research that answers that central question--which is why my colleague Susan Rozen and I embarked on a project several years ago to evaluate the course syllabi at selected schools of education. Our results were first presented as part of a Washington conference, sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute and the Progressive Policy Institute, then published as a chapter in the 2004 book, A Qualified Teacher in Every Classroom. We intended our work to be a first step in responding to the need for useful data about schools of education. What we hadn't expected was the degree of interest--pro and con--and the passions that our conclusions would attract. In fact, I was invited back to the Progressive Policy Institute a year after our report came out to debate one of our critics. (See my discussion of Dan Butin below.) This piece addresses the responses to our work, and I hope it will continue to move the discussion about this important topic forward.


Some Background

Almost all the research to date about the quality of teacher preparation has been based on highly aggregated data that makes no distinctions between education schools or on interviews with teachers-college faculty members and their students (future teachers) about their personal experiences in college.

Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond and several colleagues, for instance, once surveyed 3,000 beginning teachers in New York City to examine the relationship between their accounts of their preparation program and their confidence in their readiness for teaching. The survey results suggested that "Teachers prepared in a single formal program of preparation feel better prepared than those who take a series of courses from different institutions, who in turn feel better prepared than those who enter through alternative programs ... and those who enter without prior experience or training." But the study did not correlate teachers' feelings of preparedness with measures of effectiveness, or, indeed, with any evaluation (other than self-evaluation) of their teaching ability. Much earlier (1989), Ken Howey and Nancy Zimpher, then at Ohio State, analyzed six exemplary--so they concluded--preservice teacher-education programs, all in the Mid-west, but did not correlate their interview findings with program effectiveness. The key assumption of the study was that claims of ownership and identification with a program could be linked to program effectiveness--but no external validation of such assumptions was offered in the study. Nor did Howey and Zimpher offer any detailed analysis of course syllabi at the programs they reviewed.

A rare exception to this trend was research conducted by University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky and Melissa Whiting of the University of Southern Mississippi nearly a decade ago. Smagorinsky and Whiting looked at syllabi for English methods courses from 81 universities for their book How English Teachers Get Taught: Methods of Teaching the Methods Class (1995) and, based on their findings, recommended learner- and activity-centered ("constructivist") rather than traditional teacher-led programs. Of all these researchers, only Smagorinsky and Whiting actually reviewed a collection of syllabi, all in the field of English, to understand what prospective teachers were learning.

What We Intended

Beginning our research in 2002, my coauthor, Susan Rozen (Director of Reading/Literacy at the Bedford Public Schools in Bedford, Massachusetts), and I proceeded in the direction suggested by Smagorinsky and Whiting and decided to assess the nature of our future teachers' schooling through an evaluation of the courses they were required to take. We expanded on that effort, however, and included a broader range of subjects and greater number of syllabi in our purview.

We reviewed a sample of syllabi in 16 schools of education, 14 of which were ranked in the top 30 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report (see Figure 1). We looked at schools like Harvard, Stanford, and UCLA (top ranked by U.S. News) as well as Eastern Michigan University and Sonoma State (not in the magazine's top 30). We focused on initial certification programs and, within those programs, on the professional sequence required for certification. As a result, we looked at undergraduate programs, with the exception of those universities in states that required certification programs to be completed at the postbaccalaureate level (such as California). In certain universities, the traditional four-year undergraduate certification program has been expanded to five years, and it was therefore the five-year program we reviewed (e.g. Michigan State University). Where a university offered both a graduate and an undergraduate certification program, we chose the undergraduate program. We chose courses that were part of the required professional sequence because these courses are designed to prepare prospective teachers for teaching. We did not include in our review courses that were part of the general education requirements or courses that were specific to majors.

The syllabi we analyzed were in the domains of educational foundations, reading, and general methods courses (which typically include a student-teaching experience). In our original conference paper, we also presented findings in mathematics, but we were persuaded that in this field the academic courses were so integral to the professional preparation programs that we should not publish those findings. These domains form the heart of the education mission. If schools of education are essential, as their defenders argue, it is here that we would find evidence of the fundamental pedagogical skills that such schools provide.

Analyzing the course catalog in each university, we determined which courses in the professional sequence were required within the domains that we were reviewing. Then we gathered the syllabi for those courses from various sources, including professors, education school administrators, and the Internet. In a few cases we could not acquire a full set of the course syllabi in the domain under analysis, and so did not include that domain in our formal findings. In total, we reviewed 165 course syllabi that fell within our research criteria. Of these, 45 were in the area of the foundations of education, 61 in reading, and 59 in general methods and/or student teaching.

A Crucial Decision

As researchers, we then faced an important choice. We could simply record which texts were used in these courses and how often they were used, or we could list the books most often required (with numbers) and indicate which books were included rarely (again with numbers) or not at all. Although identifying worthy books that were not included on syllabi would open us up to criticism (as we soon discovered), the first option would have resulted in a long inventory of no clear significance, except perhaps to those within the profession. Naming books not included enabled us to draw out the significance of the books that were included. By juxtaposing counts of the most frequently required readings with the absence or near-absence of others, we were able to provide a first portrait of what future teachers are--and are not--learning at leading schools of education.