by J. E. Stone
Stone, J. E. (2000). Aligning teacher training with public policy. The State Education Standard, 1(1), 35-38.
The American Council on Education (ACE) recently issued a report calling for colleges and universities to either embrace independent assessment of the quality of their teacher education programs or to close them. The Council, which represents American colleges and universities, fears that the weak academic standards maintained by teacher education programs will damage the reputations of their host institutions. The report discusses the critical importance of well-trained teachers and calls on college presidents to lead campus-wide evaluations of entrance requirements, admission standards, and retention practices. What it fails to discuss is why teacher training programs have tolerated weak academic standards in the first place.
All teacher training programs are approved by state education agencies and almost all of the large ones are externally accredited. The ACE report suggests that “rigorous, periodic, independent appraisals” are needed, but, in fact, teacher training programs have undergone external appraisals for years. Why should campus-wide reviews be necessary in addition?
The following analysis asks why weak standards are tolerated, and it finds a surprising answer: They are tolerated because the teacher education community does not consider academic achievement—at least as the term is conventionally understood—to be the primary aim of education. It suggests that if campus reforms of teacher training are to affect learning in public schools, the presidents will need the help of policymakers in aligning teacher training with public policy.
Why Teacher Education Tolerates Weak Standards
Education’s consumers—parents, students, the lay public, and their representatives—presume that good teaching is teaching that brings about student achievement as measured by standardized tests. They value other outcomes too but improved test scores are a minimum. But as evidenced by Public Agenda’s Different Drummers: How Teachers of Teachers View Public Education, teacher educators take a view “that differs markedly from that of most parents and taxpayers.” They conceive of good teaching not as teaching that improves test scores, but as teaching that is correctly aligned with pedagogical theory. Among education professors nationwide, Public Agenda found the “teacher-as-facilitator” view to be predominant. In focus groups, “It was never questioned or challenged,” regardless of which group of teacher educators were involved.
The teacher-as-facilitator or “learner-centered” view of teaching is, within the teacher education community, the ideal against which all other forms of instruction are compared. It is an approach that encourages the teacher to coax and collaborate rather than instruct. It is an approach that requires the student to initiate and inquire rather than follow teacher direction. In short, it is an ideal form of teaching and one suited to ideal students, i.e., students who are exceptionally mature, eager, and well prepared. As Different Drummers observed: “If there is a single question raised by this recent Public Agenda study, it is, ‘What price perfection?’ Or, to put it another way, has the professors’ strategy for education become a classic example of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good?”
A primary reason why learner-centered instruction is ineffective in producing achievement is that its outcomes are an accident of the choices made by the student. Although the degree of learner-centeredness differs among teachers, the learner-centered ideal encourages student choice in matters such as the form and degree of engagement in academic activities. Teachers are expected to be “a guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.” Students are encouraged to engage themselves thoroughly and well but they are free to choose the insubstantial. Engagement, not outcomes, is the uppermost priority. “Good teaching” by the learner-centered definition is not designed to produce preordained objectives. Rather, it presumes that intellectual growth is enhanced by activities that may have only the remotest relationship to the outcomes expected by the public.
What are the outcomes sought by the public? Parents and employers want students to have thinking skills, but they place equal or greater importance on academic fundamentals. As Different Drummers found, “Most typical Americans—along with most employers—are alarmed by the number of youngsters they see who lack even basic skills, particularly such fundamentals as spelling and grammar. But for education professors, training teachers who stress correct English usage is a distinctly low priority.” Education professors consider the public’s concerns to be “outmoded and mistaken.” In a word, professors are learner-centered but parents and employers are learning-centered.
All of this is to say that the teacher education community is comfortable with weak academic standards because they believe that education cannot be judged by whether it produces recognized forms of academic achievement. Instead, they hold that the important outcomes of education are the task-specific enhancements of intellectual ability that are presumed to result from learner-centered educational experiences. The knowledge and skills valued by parents and employers are considered secondary, incidental, and dispensable.
As college presidents talk with teacher educators’ about improving educational quality, they should bear these distinctions in mind. So should policymakers and the public. When teacher educators speak of good teaching, they do not necessarily mean actions intended to bring about the acquisition of basic knowledge and skills. In the learner-centered view, such recognized educational attainments are options, not requirements.
“Best Practice,” Learner-centered Teaching, and Progressive Education
Teachers are taught a variety of instructional methods but the approaches that are considered “best practice” are learner-centered. Best Practice: New Standards for Teaching and Learning in America’s Schools by Steven Zemelman, Harvey Daniels, and Arthur Hyde examined recent reports of organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the Center for the Study of Reading, the National Council of Teachers of English, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, as well as other major stakeholders in teacher education and from them developed a list of “state-of-the-art” educational practices for which there is a “strong consensus.” The authors characterized these practices as “student-centered, active, experimental, democratic, [and] collaborative,” which is to say they are the same practices herein termed “learner-centered.”
Best Practice argues that teachers overemphasize measured student achievement at the expense of “real” learning (i.e., the self-selected outcomes that result from learner-centered educational experiences). The authors believe that mandated achievement testing props up a “rigged meritocracy” and caters to “political demands for accountability,” and they recommend that schools place less emphasis on measurable outcomes as a means to producing better outcomes. What they fail to make clear, however, is that the “better” outcomes they have in mind, may or may not include the basic knowledge and skills sought by the public and most policymakers.
Best Practice also acknowledges a critical yet widely ignored aspect of its pedagogical recommendations: They are only the most recent manifestation of that which has been known historically as progressive education. It is a point that should be carefully considered by any policymaker or parent who accepts the education community’s guidance in matters of education reform.
Progressive education principles underpinned the “child-centered” schooling of the 1930s, the “open classrooms” of 1960s, and a long list of other innovations that have been tried and have failed repeatedly in the course of the twentieth century. Eighty years ago, progressive education was a welcome alternative to the harsh classroom methods of the nineteenth century. In that earlier day, students were required to memorize lengthy tracts as a form of “mental exercise.” Classroom life was highly regimented. The dunce’s cap and the hickory stick were accepted tools of classroom discipline. For students who were not assigned a wise and humane teacher, school could be an unhappy experience.
Progressive teaching methods were grounded in the revolutionary but complex ideas of John Dewey. Dewey reasoned that Darwinian evolution had equipped humans to learn from naturally occurring encounters with life’s daily experiences and that the optimal form of teaching was one that would approximate that process. Progressive educators believed that traditional schooling was both unpleasant and ineffectual because it artificially divided learning into subjects and forced students to learn without the benefit of natural context and natural motivation. They assumed that learning would virtually take care of itself if teachers would confront students with challenging and intriguing problems. To many, Dewey’s ideas seemed intuitively reasonable; and to many parents, teachers trained in progressive methods were far more appealing than the traditional teacher/taskmaster.
What was not widely understood then or now is that Dewey’s ideas were not merely an alternative means to the educational ends sought by traditional schooling. Instead, they embodied an entirely different concept of the nature and purpose of education. Traditional schooling was intended to teach children the knowledge, skills, and values substantiated by experience and recognized by adults. These included higher-order intellectual skills such as analysis and reasoning. In contrast, progressive education sought to promote what Dewey called “growth”—a kind of general enhancement of intellectual ability that was presumed to result from engagement with student-selected problems and projects. That the new and enlightened pedagogy largely abandoned the schooling outcomes most valued by parents and the public has never been clearly understood by educators or by the public.
Obstacles to Improved Achievement
It would be difficult to overstate the significance of the difference between the public’s educational aims and those embodied in the progressive/learner-centered viewpoint. Likewise, it would be difficult to overstate the relevance of this difference to the frustrations experienced by education policymakers over the years. In essence, the pedagogical ideal in which virtually all teachers have been trained has ensured that their aspirations are at odds with both public policy and the public’s educational priorities. A full discussion of this discrepancy is beyond the scope of this essay, but the following points may be useful to policymakers in understanding the obstacle they confront.
Not only are educators and policymakers using similar terms to refer to very different ideas about education, neither side seems to understand the inconsistency. Most policymakers want schooling that produces high minimum levels of conventionally measured knowledge and skills. Their expectations include the higher-order intellectual skills but the basics are seen as indispensable. They assume that educators respect those priorities and are using the best available means of producing the desired outcomes.
Teachers are given to understand that learner-centered practices are the latest and most pedagogically sound means of producing what policymakers want—or at least what they should want. Few have a clear understanding that these so-called state-of-the-art methodologies are recycled versions of a pedagogical concept that is marginally suited to academic achievement. Rather, teachers are taught that learner-centered pedagogy is grounded in a convincing body of research and experience, not some longstanding doctrine. For example, even though Zemelman et al. acknowledge the linkage between current “best practice” and progressive education, they characterize their recommendations as strongly backed by research. In truth, the vast majority of studies pertaining to learner-centered instruction are not the kind that can discern whether teaching Method A produces greater achievement than Method B. Instead, most of them are theoretical, anecdotal, and opinion-based. The few that do empirically assess achievement outcomes are only weakly supportive and contradicted by other findings. For example, the federally sponsored Follow Through research of the 1960s and 1970s found that the progressive/learner-centered pedagogical models not only failed to help disadvantaged students, they produced worse results than the teaching practices used in the study’s control groups.
Another obstacle posed by the learner-centered vision is the belief that the findings of developmental psychology show that students may be harmed by teacher-directed instruction. Teachers are taught that their assignments and expectations may not agree with students’ developmentally regulated proclivities, thereby putting students at risk for frustration and burnout. Moreover, teachers are given to understand that students who study and learn merely because teachers require them to do so gain only a superficial understanding. According to the learner-centered view, real learning can take place only when there is true interest in the subject at hand. Learner-centered educators disdain “teacher-centered” assignments as “drill and kill” and “rote memorization.” Schools that encourage standards and measurable outcomes are derided as teaching “mere facts” and employing a “one-size-fits-all” curriculum.
Despite widespread teacher belief in the dangers of teacher-directed instruction, there is virtually no credible evidence of it producing academic or psychological harm. To the contrary, the above-cited Follow Through project found a highly structured and scripted form of teaching called Direct Instruction to be more effective than any other tested model with regard to both basic skills improvement and enhancement of self-esteem. Given the prevailing opinion among teacher educators, however, this finding has been largely ignored.
As a matter of day-to-day classroom practice, teachers pay little attention to indicators of development per se. Instead they work with students who are similar in age, ability, knowledge, and skills, and they are guided by a curriculum that has proven suitable for a given group. While the pedagogical strategy of matching teaching styles to developmentally determined learning styles would seemingly enable teachers to fine-tune their efforts, researchers have not found it effective in improving achievement. In fact, the entire line of studies of which learning styles research is a part—so called attribute-treatment interaction research—is generally conceded to have been unsuccessful in improving instruction. Not incidentally, Public Agenda found that most parents reject the concept of tailoring schoolwork to student interests, preferences, and backgrounds.
What developmental research has contributed to classroom practice, however, is a set of theoretically inspired restrictions that rule out virtually all forms of pedagogy that are inconsistent with the learner-centered model. Learner-centered instruction solves the problem of fitting teaching to developmentally governed differences by allowing students to choose the nature and degree of their engagement with that which is being taught. Theoretically, good teachers can arrange classroom experiences that are so irresistibly engaging that students will choose to undertake virtually everything for which they are developmentally prepared. However, learning takes study, and study requires the time and effort of students who live in world of competing attractions. Interest alone is typically insufficient. In reality, children cannot reasonably be expected to appreciate the value of academic requirements that appear boring and unimportant because they have not had the opportunity to see either the long-term rewards of learning or the long-term consequences of failure. Experience has not yet taught them what adults know about lost opportunity and life’s prospects.
Clearly, effective teachers must be sensitive to both learner comfort and learning outcome. As experienced teachers well understand, students can become frustrated by a succession of failed attempts to learn. However, the matter of that which a teacher believes about developmental limitations has important consequences. A teacher who assumes that failure to achieve means a developmental limit has been reached is likely to discontinue his or her effort. In contrast, a teacher who does not make such an assumption is likely to seek an improved means of teaching—especially if children of the same age are known to succeed with the same material. In other words, a belief in developmental limitations—especially a belief in difficult-to-assess cognitive limitations—encourages teachers to delay and reduce expectations for learning rather than question the effectiveness of their practices or their pedagogical principles.
Resistance to Accountability
Given the nature of their perspective, learner-centered educators tend to resist accountability for recognized forms of achievement. They believe that “good teaching” cannot be judged by gains in standardized achievement test scores. They believe standardized tests are capable of measuring only memorization skills and factual recall, not “higher-order” cognitive processes—a criticism rejected by most authorities in educational measurement. Such educators want schools to be accountable for “real” thinking in the “real world,” i.e., thinking demonstrated by “authentic” products and performances and collected into student “portfolios.” Essentially they want schools to be accountable for outcomes reminiscent of the “growth” envisioned by Dewey, not the knowledge and skills expected by most parents and policymakers.
Aligning Teacher Training and Public Policy
The teacher education community’s idea that good and responsible teaching does not have achievement as its first priority presents a very substantial obstacle to the kind of educational improvement sought by policymakers, parents, and the public. Most educators believe that laymen are simply ignorant of the pedagogical and developmental considerations on which sound teaching should be based. Moreover, they believe that they have a moral responsibility to protect children from what they see as politically inspired attempts to impose wrongheaded forms of accountability. Many of education’s highest officials share this view. Not infrequently, they and staff members of state departments of education quietly work with accrediting bodies and professional organizations to diffuse what they see as a misguided insistence on objectively measured academic achievement.
In a sense, public schools are caught in the middle, and so are college presidents and policymakers. All are under pressure to improve achievement but all are dependent on a professional community that has been taught to think of high expectations for measured achievement as stressful, wrongheaded, and contrary to the best interests of students.
A New Tool for Measuring Teacher Effectiveness
If college presidents are to improve teacher training in ways that will impact elementary and secondary school achievement, they will need the help of policymakers. Teacher training is aligned with the learner-centered ideals of the teacher-education community, not the objectives of public policy. College presidents cannot address this issue because they cannot and should not stipulate the curricular details of academic programs.
A reasonable point of intervention for policymakers would be to rethink current policies on assessing teacher quality. States currently employ a variety of indicators that are assumed to be predictive of classroom effectiveness. In truth, indicators such as completion of an approved training program and success on licensure exams are more clearly an assurance of familiarity with learner-centered instruction. A better indicator—one more directly aligned with public policy–would be the measured effectiveness of novice teachers in improving the achievement of their K-12 students. Data on the classroom performance of novice teachers could be aggregated on a program-by-program basis and made available to the public. Over time, teacher-training programs producing effective teachers would attract enrollment, and those with less effective graduates would tend to lose enrollment. The quality problem would become an enrollment problem and college presidents would be able to effectively address it.
Measuring teacher effectiveness is not a simple matter, but policymakers do have a new tool at their disposal. Called value-added assessment, it is a type of statistical analysis that summarizes the student achievement gains produced by individual teachers. Student gains are computed by comparing each student’s current performance with his or her previous record. Value-added assessment is field-tested, fair, and objective; and it permits not only teachers but schools and school districts to be fairly compared as well. It is currently used in several large districts and statewide in Tennessee.
Unless training in pedagogy is aligned with public policy goals, efforts to set higher academic standards for teachers will have little effect on learning and school reform will continue to be characterized by frustration, failure, and wasted resources. Teachers trained in learner-centered methodologies know little about producing achievement gains. Indeed, they have been taught to resist demands for a greater emphasis on achievement. If policymakers want improved achievement, they will either have to redirect the efforts of the nation’s teacher training programs or take the drastic measures suggested by the ACE report. Instituting value-added assessment for novice teachers would be a sensible and fair-minded first step.
J.E. Stone is an educational psychologist and professor in the College of Education at East Tennessee State University. He also heads the Education Consumers ClearingHouse (www.education-consumers.com).