Experts discuss future of teacher education

May 13, 2011

Thursday afternoon, the School of Education brought together experts in education to answer the question, “Does teacher education have a future?”
The panel debated nontraditional methods for teacher education emerging from organizations like Teach for America (TFA) and their efficacy compared to the theory-based work of education school.

“University teacher education is under attack,” said School of Education Dean Deborah Stipek, who moderated the panel.

With the emergence of increasingly diverse paths to a teaching career, people are questioning the purpose and value of professional schools for education, she said. School of Education professor Pam Grossman stated that a central problem of preparatory education for teachers is that it distances itself from the practice of teaching.

Steve Farr, chief knowledge officer at Teach for America, shares this view; he believes practical teaching experience improves teaching more than instruction in theory.

“We can change [teaching] behavior more in two hours of putting people on their feet teaching than [we can through] a hundred hours of making people listen to lectures about teaching,” he said.

However, Deborah Ball, the dean of the school of education at the University of Michigan, believes that questioning the purpose and value of teacher education is not an immediate priority.

“The real problem is that we have no systematic way of evaluating teachers,” she said.

She argued that the priority in teacher education should be to define a standard skill set beginning teachers must acquire before they are allowed to teach a class.

But this raises the question of whether a national standard could be agreed upon. Ball and Grossman believe it’s a matter of striking a balance between specific standards and universal expectations.

When asked by Stipek what proportion of teachers certified by schools of education would meet her standard, Ball said an “appallingly low” number would. There is still a gap for schools of education to fill in preparing teachers before they began teaching.

Discussing what reforms in teacher education were needed to reach those standards, panelists agreed on the need to move from theory to practice.

It would be irresponsible, however, to have student teachers “practice” teaching in classrooms where they would be accountable for student performance, Ball argued. Gross proposed that simulation-based training practices borrowed from clinical psychology could provide an effective middle ground.

During the Q&A session following the panel, an audience member asked if the emergence of programs such as TFA would become a part of the attacks made on schools of education — the success of the former calling into question the value of the latter.

Farr responded that TFA was a complement to and not a substitute for teacher education. It serves a different purpose: increasing the supply of much needed teachers to less-developed areas.

The panel sparked lingering questions for many audience members.

“One thing…that would be good to hear more about is the preparation of good teacher educators,” said Michelle Brown, afourth year doctoral student at the school of education. “There’s a pipeline problem where we already don’t have enough good teachers, so naturally we won’t have enough good teacher educators.”

This panel is part of the Cubberley lecture series, which seeks to create a public forum for discussion of critical issues in education.

In an interview with The Daily, School of Education External Relations Associate Holly Materman spoke about the motivations for putting together this panel.

“The graduate school model, the Teach for America model and teacher residency programs are just three of the many different models emerging,” she said. “We should stop spending time arguing about who has the best system to prepare teachers, but instead look at…how all three paths to teaching can leverage best practices.”