What’s Wrong with Teacher Education?

I belong to two communities that are central to my life—educators and cyclists.

So when a cyclist and friend sent me an article on the importance of how cyclists conduct themselves as groups on the roads, I was struck by the opening quote included by the writer, Richard Fries:

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”  —Walt Kelly, Pogo

Immediately, the spirit of the article—many times motorist antagonism toward cyclists can be traced to cyclist behavior—resonated with me as someone who has been cycling seriously for about 30 years, including a great deal of time and effort spent posting and leading group rides. But the sentiment of this piece on group cycling also spoke to me as a teacher and teacher educator because when I ponder what is wrong with teacher education, I notice that the enemy is often us—teachers and teacher educators.

Gerardo M. Gonzalez, dean of the school of education at Indiana University Bloomington, examines the current state as well as the political and public perception of teacher education in Defining Teacher-Prep Accountability:

Much has been written and discussed of late about the debate over the best method of assessing teacher-preparation programs. As the dean of the school of education at Indiana University Bloomington, I understand that meaningful assessment of teacher preparation requires a multifaceted approach based on a robust research methodology and focused on program outcomes. A sound study, as researchers know, begins with a viable research question. The design and method of data collection then flow from that question. Moreover, the scientific validity of conclusions reached on the basis of the data depends on the ethical application of research principles and, where appropriate, validation of results through peer review and replication.

Two important aspects of Gonzalez’s commentary occur in the opening: He acknowledges the impact and influence of National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) and then takes a firm stand against NCTQ’s reports and methodologies.

NCTQ’s reports have received essentially free passes by the mainstream press, but have been discredited in detail among researchers, educators, and bloggers. That dynamic is a powerful picture of the larger context of what is wrong with teacher education.

First, teacher education (like public schools and public school teachers) is not failing in the ways claimed by NCTQ—or other think tanks, political leaders and appointees, and the mainstream media.

Second, the noise created by NCTQ and others promoting misinformation masks the very real ways in which teacher education is failing (and, again, this parallels a similar pattern found in education reform more broadly; see An Alternative to Accountability-Based Education Reform).

While I applaud Gonzalez and Indiana University for taking a politically unpopular but credible and evidence-based stance against NCTQ (too few in teacher education did take that stand), the last part of Gonzalez’s commentary reveals just what is wrong with teacher education.

In the outline offered by Gonzalez, accountability based on standards and outcomes is, once again, reinforced:

If I were to design a study to hold preparation programs accountable for their graduates’ performance, as the group Teach Plus Indianapolis has challenged me to do, I would start with the question of whether a given teacher-preparation program produces graduates who can work effectively in school classrooms to increase student learning and achieve other valued educational outcomes. Then, I would select or create appropriate measures of student learning and related educational outcomes, as well as ways to assess teacher effectiveness on the impact of those measures.

And therein lies the problem.

What’s wrong with teacher education? In brief, the problem with teacher education is the maze of bureaucracy that constitutes certification and accreditation.

And that maze of standards (and the perpetual changing of those standards) feeds a misguided overarching paradigm: accountability linked to outcomes.

In both education reform and teacher education, accountability is misguided and it causes more harm than good—notably because the traditional accountability paradigm seeks to hold one agent accountable for the outcomes of other agents, whether that be teachers accountable for student test scores or colleges/departments of education accountable for the student test scores of their candidates.

That accountability fails because the focus is on outcomes, and those outcomes are outside the control of the agent being held accountable.

Additionally, since that accountability is flawed, those agents being held accountable are reduced to documenting meticulously that they have served the standards as a defense against their inability to control the outcomes.

The result is dysfunctional because too much of both teacher educator’s and educator’s time is spent correlating their lessons and assessments with standards (and not enough time preparing by studying the content of their field and the needs of their students), and then wasting a tremendous amount of time completing the external mandates related to certification and accreditation.

Gonzalez mentions the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP)—which ironically represents the fundamental flaw with the entire accreditation process since this organization is a new version of two earlier accreditation organizations. Accreditation (like certification) is a minefield of every-moving targets, a bureaucratic process for the sake of being bureaucratic. In fact, the only constant in the worlds of certification and accreditation is that both perpetually change—always in pursuit of the right (or next) standards.

CAEP will no better serve teacher education than Common Core will save K-12 public education. We have decades of evidence that these processes have never worked, and we have no evidence that anything different will happen this time around (except the new elements, such as VAM, are guaranteed to increase the harm).

Again, the failure of teacher education is in the bureaucracy of accountability, standards, and focusing on outcomes. The solution, then, would be for teacher education to embrace the foundational aspects of the disciplines.

I have stated this before, but it is worth repeating: Every moment I have spent achieving certification has been a waste of my time; every moment spent in rich and engaging education courses and programs has been infinitely valuable. For example, the road to certification as an undergraduate was disappointing (except for some excellent professors), and that contrasts strongly with my doctoral program (including no certification requirements), which was the single most important element in my path to being an educator.

As an undergraduate, I learn to be a bureaucrat; as a graduate student, I learned to be a scholar.

I think even the best among us in the field of education remain trapped in a low self-esteem mindset: we are afraid, because we know this is what other disciplines say about education, that we are in fact not a real field of study; therefore, we manufacture the most complex systems imaginable to make our field seem valuable, “rigorous,” professional. And thus:

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”  —Walt Kelly, Pogo

Certification and accreditation are mind-numbingly complicated, I fear, as a sort of low-self-esteem theater. The maze of standards, rubrics, data charts, and reports surely proves that we are a complex field, that we are working hard?

Two things about that are nonsense: (1) all the bureaucracy of certification and accreditation confirms the worst slurs against education as a field, and (2) the field of education is a rich and credible discipline, if only we’d trust that and embrace it.

So allow me to end with an anecdote.

As an 18-year teacher of high school English, I entered higher education and teacher education. Soon afterward, I asked if I could be spared to teach an occasional freshman composition course (my first love). Although the politics of an education professor (with an EdD, no less) teaching in the English department were more treacherous than I anticipated, I was finally allowed one section.

When I met with the English department chair to discuss the course, I asked to see a sample syllabus. The chair, at first, seemed puzzled, but he did shuffle through his desk and around his office until he found a couple.

One syllabus was the front of one page, and the other, the front and part of the back of one page.

My syllabus for the introductory education course I taught was 17 pages.

The field of education—including teacher education—I fear, is mired in bureaucracy because we do not trust ourselves; we do not trust ourselves in the way that the disciplines do in chemistry and English and history right on our campuses all across higher education.

We are our own worst enemies when we persist down the accountability road, demanding standards, rubrics, data charts, and the external review of bureaucratic agencies to whom we abdicate the responsibility of bestowing certification on candidates and accreditation on departments and colleges because we do not trust our field or ourselves.


“We Brought It Upon Ourselves”: University-Based Teacher Education and the Emergence of Boot-Camp-Style Routes to Teacher Certification, Daniel Friedrich

13 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Teacher Education?

  1. Case in point…I just paid $235 to ETS for two praxis tests and now I’m going to waste an inordinate amount of time studying. My school has this thing called Portrait of a Teacher, which is basically a philosophical document outlining the dispositions, skills, knowledge which they want their candidates to exemplify. One of them is “Have expert knowledge of the disciplines they will teach and can use various strategies, including media and technology, for creating learning experiences that make the subject matter accessible and meaningful to all students.” A few weeks ago we did an assignment in which we were supposed to put the 12 points of Portrait of a Teacher into more concrete terms and also give examples of each…for this “Have expert knowledge” one of the students cited the praxis as an example of how NJ makes its teacher candidates display expert knowledge, and my professor held this up as a good example. I both laughed and cried inside at the same time.

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  3. It seems ironically like the bureaucratic mess surrounding accreditation and certification actually support the cases for alternative certification, even TFA. So how can a strong institution, like Furman, build a program that builds a case against the TFAs of the world? Where does it start?

  4. Thanks Paul. I surely agree that the endless reports that feed the bureaucracy waste time that could be dedicated to things like teaching, engaging with students, writing, etc. It’s the worst part of our job: least productive, least satisfying, least informative. At the same time, I think that if we are constructed as being against being accountable for our teaching, we not only lose the PR battle, we are dodging responsibility for the end result of our teacher education. I hope that you, and we, and all of us can fight back not simply by critiquing the wastefulness of the bureaucratic approach to accountability, but by proposing authentic ways of demonstrating that we are doing our jobs effectively.

    While I admire Arthur Levine in many ways, I don’t think that his “shut down the losers” approach takes into account the fact that most weak programs are under-resourced, and that shutting them down punishes the faculty for having too little to do too big a job; further, he never explains how the “good” programs will continue to be good when they have to absorb all those students from the “weak” programs. How, then, do we fairly evaluate programs so that we take into account their circumstances? How do we make the case that, when budgets are shrinking, the most viable solution is often to fund programs better? So much to do, and such vexing challenges. Thanks for doing what you do to begin getting to the bottom of them.

    • Peter: “At the same time, I think that if we are constructed as being against being accountable for our teaching, we not only lose the PR battle, we are dodging responsibility for the end result of our teacher education.”

      This is the essential problem for K-12 teaching and teacher education. We cannot control outcomes that the political and public interests believe we can. Our job is to make that clear. And that this fact isn’t “dodging responsibility” or “accountability.”

      We must all be accountable for what and how we TEACH. As a K-12 teacher, if all the conditions are addressed, I can guarantee the OPPORTUNITY to learn, but not learning. As a teacher educator, I can guarantee to opportunity to learn how to teach, but not the outcome.

      That we have gone along with this flawed view of accountability has brought us VAM—the logical conclusion of claims that we can control things we cannot control.

      At the university level, biology departments can guarantee students the best opportunities to engage with biology, but they cannot insure that students will become great biologists. And at no point can we say any one agent causes the outcomes we want.

      I am a teacher as the result of 10s of 1000s of causes, my undergrad teacher certification being a tiny part of that.

      My original post is about how we feed a flawed paradigm, and the need for a better and more authentic one.

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