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'Churn, Ambivalence, Confusion' in Teacher Ed.?

Education professors continue to hold beliefs consistent with Dewey-inspired progressive-education principles. But they also seem to be warming up to some changes, most notably the Teach For America program and a tougher teacher-tenure bar, according to a national survey of teacher educators, released yesterday.

Overall, said the authors of the survey analysis, such findings are evidence that teacher educators hold a variety of disparate, even conflicting opinions about the state of the profession today and the changes occurring in the field in the post-accountability era.

"Much of what we find reveals a great deal of churn, ambivalence, and even confusion," said Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett.

Let's take a look at what the survey data say:

Philosophies seemingly inflected with progressive rather than pragmatic ideas are still pervasive in the colleges of education, the survey found. 68 percent of respondents said that they felt their role was to prepare teachers to be "change agents" for shaping education, while just over a quarter said that it was to work effectively within the realities of today's public schools. Other findings along these lines:

• While 82 percent of teachers felt it was essential for students to become "lifelong learners," only 42 percent said that it was equally important for a teacher to be trained in how to manage time and prepare lesson plans, and 24 percent held that belief about understanding how to work with state academic-content standards and accountability systems.

• 83 percent of the sample said it was absolutely essential to learn "21st century skills," but only 44 percent felt that way about teaching phonics in the early grades and 36 percent about memorizing math facts like multiplication tables.

They respondents still felt teacher education programs could do better. Half of respondents said that teacher education programs often fail to prepare teachers for the challenges of teaching in the real world, and almost three-quarters said that professors of education need to spend more time in K-12 classrooms.

Those figures are down somewhat, however, from identical questions on the 1997 survey—an indication that those in the teacher-education field see some improvements.

On issues of accountability, the respondents were only moderately favorable to national accreditation as a quality benchmark; 41 percent of respondents said such accreditation amounted to procedural compliance, compared to 46 percent who said accreditation was a baseline of quality. Over 7 in 10 felt that schools of ed. should be held accountable for the quality of their graduates. And 73 percent felt the schools need to do a better job dismissing candidates who aren't up to par.

Some interesting, somewhat contradictory findings on alternative routes: 47 percent of respondents said that such programs compromise the quality of the teaching force, but 32 percent thought they're a good way to attract new candidates. The Teach For America program got high accolades, with 63 percent saying it's a good way to get passionate teachers into low-income schools.

On specific policy initiatives, a majority "somewhat" or "strongly" supported making it easier to fire poorly performing teachers, even if tenured (86 percent); strengthening evaluations and moving the tenure bar to 5 years (79 percent); and having a core curriculum at each grade (78 percent). They were less sanguine about performance-pay incentives based on student scores, however (30 percent).

The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points for the entire sample; 716 educators at four-year colleges ultimately participated, but more than 5,400 were invited to participate, for a response rate of only 14 percent.

The survey folks conducted the analysis for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based group that has never exactly been rah-rah about the education schools. In the introduction, Fordham officials contended that many ed. professors "see themselves as philosophers and evangelists, not as master craftsmen sharing tradecraft with apprentices," although they acknowledged some interesting new movements within the schools about things like TFA and core curricula.

On the other hand, the survey's low response rate raised some red flags for Sharon P. Robinson, the president of the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education. She contended that the results "cannot be deemed definitive" for that reason.

Ms. Robinson also felt that the progressivist v. pragmatist frame of the survey might be a bit of a false dichotomy. A top-notch teacher can be both idealist and realist, an expert classroom manager who also supports fostering life-long learning in her students, she reasoned.

What do you make of the survey findings? If you're an ed professor, does this accord with your own take on your institution or the teacher-education field?

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