Keep the Critique Coming: Why Teacher Preparation Deserves the Spotlight

Nicholas J. Shudak

Recent critiques gaining attention in higher education have their sights set on teacher preparation within university based schools of education. These criticisms are basically cycled instantiations of enduring concerns over the caliber of the teacher education student (as well as their professors) and the overall curriculum comprising such programs. And as the moral business of preparing those who teach other people’s children is quite serious, critique is necessary.

Almost nothing is quintessentially more American than focusing on the importance of schools and schooling, levying critiques, and demanding excellence through reform. Preeminent educational historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban refer to our zeal for education as “almost a secular religion.” It is through this systematic form of “religion” that our American ideals of a free, equal, humane, organized, and perhaps even more godly society might be realized. Such educational efforts are inseparable from our American story.

Evidence of this is found in our country’s earliest known school law. On April 16, 1642, Massachusetts enacted our nascent country’s first law pertaining to what we would consider the establishment of school. Its impetus came from a concern that there was a “great neglect of many parents and masters in training up their children in learning and labor and other employments which may be profitable to the common wealth;” a refrain familiarly ringing 370 years later. To redress this evil, every town was required to appoint chosen men for managing these duties.

Whatever the actual outcome of this law, something prompted colonial leaders to make a change. A mere five years later the “Ye Old Deluder Satan Act” was passed and thus reform enacted. The new law suggests that the townspeople were succumbing to Satan’s chief project to delude them from believing in the importance of law and scripture. (On these terms and in light of our economic woes, Satan seems comfortably employed.) The new law made more explicit the creation of a school, the provision of a teacher, the expected outcomes of instruction, and the procurement and allocation of resources to make it all possible.

What we see in those two laws and the five years between them nearly four centuries ago is a close facsimile of ourselves and just about all of our American ancestors between. What we see are the depths of our intense faith in systematic education coupled with the tensions of slow progress. It is our intense faith in education that impels us to the posture of reflection and the platform of reform. For these reasons we critique and take seriously the large enterprise of education, and for these reasons, the critique should keep coming.

Critiquing the Student Teaching Experience: A “Battle Royale” in the Making

Teacher education in America today is ripe for reasoned critique. The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), a DC-based advocacy group interested in policies pertaining to teacher effectiveness, recently took up the challenge and issued a report on student teaching. The report is a culmination of a comprehensive three-year study to review, understand, and rate the quality of student teaching in America’s teacher preparation programs. It has caused quite a stir within teacher education, and for a few good reasons.

The report exclusively focuses on the student teaching experience. That student teaching is one of the most important parts of a pre-service teacher’s development is largely accepted. Student teaching, or some form of protracted field-based “clinical” experience, has been the constant for nearly 150 years. As the demand for publicly funded schools – what were referred to as common schools – grew during the mid-nineteenth century, post-secondary teacher preparation institutions called normal schools also grew in demand. Normal schools focused efforts on “clinical” components to help teach teachers.

With such an impressive history, it would seem obvious that student teaching has been the subject of several and significant studies. According to the report’s authors, however, that’s just not the case, which is where and even why they enter into contested terrain.

The main disputants and detractors of this study occupying a large domain of the teacher preparation terrain is the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE). This group is also a DC-based advocacy group whose mission is “To promote the learning of all PK-12 students through high-quality, evidence-based preparation and continuing education for all school personnel.” As a group, and according to its website, AACTE “is a national alliance of educator preparation programs dedicated to the highest quality professional development of teachers and school leaders in order to enhance PK-12 student learning.” AACTE is a membership based group comprised of roughly 800 member institutions.

What is at issue between the two groups is how and whether it’s even possible to measure the efficacy of the student teaching experience, and thus preparation programs in general, in preparing effective first year teachers. Both groups acknowledge the complexity and even labyrinthine logistics involved in student teaching, but that’s about all they agree upon at this moment.

What makes the NCTQ report maddening to the teacher education establishment are some of the premises undergirding the study and the standards and methodology guiding the study. One of the main premises revolves around the notion of teacher effectiveness.

According to NCTQ, the number one variable affecting student learning in PK-12 classrooms is the teacher. This isn’t to say that there aren’t other variables. The discourse, however, is quite clear that the number two variable, whatever that might be, isn’t even close to the importance of a quality teacher in the classroom. In other words, a quality teacher is able to mitigate every other variable that might be used to explain away student underachievement. What makes this discourse problematic for some is the belief that a quality teacher can be “made” by replicating proven and identifiable behaviors, strategies, and techniques in the classroom.

The connection, then, to student teaching for NCTQ is quite clear and is found in its belief about the purpose of student teaching. According to the authors, “the purpose of the student teaching experience as a unique and critical opportunity [is] to produce the most effective first-year teachers possible.” And because it is believed that there are proven techniques and/or strategies by which to “make” an effective teacher, the “critical” student teaching experience should be conceptualized and conducted in accordance with such strategies. If a preparation program is not in fact taking the steps outlined by NCTQ, it might lead to a “poor” or “weak” rating.

According to the report, there are 19 strategies – standards – for conceptualizing and conducting an effective student teaching experience, though only the first five are referred to as critical standards. In brief, those standards are that

  1. the student teaching experience should last more than 10 weeks;
  2. the preparation program should select the cooperating teacher;
  3. the cooperating teacher should have more than three years of experience;
  4. the cooperating teacher must have a record of positively improving student performance; and,
  5. the cooperating teacher must have the capacity to mentor.

These five standards are conceptualized for the purpose of removing chance when placing student teachers in this most important of experiences.

None of this really sits well with the AACTE and many of its member institutions. In a statement issued, AACTE comments that “NCTQ uses self-derived standards and methodologies to make simplistic assumptions about a complex, dynamic and evolving component of teacher preparation – clinical practice.” Furthermore, the president of AACTE, Sharon Robinson, commented for Inside Higher Ed that “What NCTQ has done once again is start out with a methodology in mind, ask an interesting question, conduct a review that is not in the least transparent, and then offer some findings.” Robinson continues, “It is clear to me that these findings are not the findings that will add to and hasten, or even leverage, the reform efforts that are underway. These findings are a distraction.”

Though Robinson expresses some important concerns about the study, I submit that the findings are not a distraction, but a needed call to hasten the slow evolution of university and college-based teacher preparation.

The report is simply stating that student teaching is too important in the development of an effective first year teacher to leave placement to chance. This isn’t anything to hide from; it is a challenge to be met, and a very difficult one at that. It requires teacher preparation to wonder why is it that colleges are beholden to school districts and not the other way around. What is it that teacher education programs are doing – or not doing – that makes them of little immediate use or of any transparent value for local districts? This is a question that the smaller schools in the study seem more willing to address.

What angers most within teacher education about the critical five standards is that they are nearly impossible to meet. The findings bear this out as many prominent programs are labeled weak or poor largely because the programs leave placement in the hands of district administrators. Anecdotal experience, too, strongly suggests that there has to be a better way. I think most supervisors, placement directors, and student teachers who suffered at the hands of a terrible placement would also agree that we should be meeting those standards, or at least considering them while moving forward.

Besides the difficulty of attainment, the second major criticism against the critical five is that they are self-derived or arbitrary. This is just not the case. The report states that the standards are largely borrowed from a 2009 study by Boyd et al. which attempts to “perform a rigorous statistical analysis of the effects of common features of all student teaching experiences on future teacher effectiveness.” My suggestion moving forward is that programs with the necessary resources should attempt to engage in similar studies to help determine the effective practices for conducting a student teaching experience.

On my view, the NCTQ report, though idealistic at times, is what the profession of teacher preparation needs. We should welcome being thrown into the spotlight; we should welcome the opportunity to stand against the challenges levied assuming they’re fair; we should welcome the opportunities to reflect on the areas that might need some tweaking; and, we should feel proud to be a part of something so American as educational criticism—that is, if we can resist the temptations of Ye Olde Deluder Status Quo.

Nicholas J. Shudak is the Division Chair of Teacher Education at Mount Marty College, a Catholic-affiliated liberal arts institution. Along with chair duties, he is an assistant professor who teaches, advises, and supervises.

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