Future teachers need more liberal arts fewer courses in education

Two different kinds of problems point to the urgent need to rethink our entire system of teacher education in Massachusetts, and in the country as a whole. On one hand, the system supplies far too many teachers whose academic background in the subjects they are licensed to teach is inadequate. When one school district central-office administrator examined her teachers’ college transcripts in order to prepare a grant proposal for the teaching of American history, she discovered that “fully one-third of our middle school social studies teachers had zero hours in college history courses.” Another 53 percent had fewer than 10 hours of credit in college history, and most of them, she guessed, were from “survey courses, freshman level.” Many school districts have found that most of their elementary and middle school teachers need continuous and costly professional development in the subject matter they teach. This is remediation, not enrichment or updating – which is what professional development is in other professions.

On the other hand, those with the academic background to teach the subjects that need to be taught in secondary school have little interest in subjecting themselves to a traditional program in teacher education. A majority of the state’s new secondary mathematics teachers from 1999 until at least 2003 came through an accelerated training program funded by the Legislature for career changers and academically strong college graduates. In an evaluation of this program for the Massachusetts Department of Education by the Center for Education Policy at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, most of these new teachers said they would not have considered going into teaching if they had had to enroll in a traditional teacher training program.

There’s too much time spent in empty education courses.

Recent education reform efforts reflect a rethinking of the requirements for licensing prospective teachers and evaluating current teachers, here and around the country. The Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 included provisions intended to enhance the academic competence of new teachers. And the federal No Child Left Behind law has, for the first time in our national history, defined teacher quality with academic criteria and linked teacher quality to student achievement, compelling states to pay even more attention to teachers’ academic qualifications. In March, a highly critical report by the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, on the preparation of school administrators in master’s and doctoral programs burst onto the scene. His report on teacher education is due for release in the fall and is expected to be equally critical. It is thus timely to push the envelope of systemic reform of teacher education even farther in the Bay State.

In this essay, I suggest how to restructure the entire system to eliminate two key problems in traditional teacher education programs: too little academic study and too much time spent in empty education courses. These suggestions are based on my work in the state Department of Education from 1999 to 2003 revising state regulations for teacher licensure and program approval, upgrading the state’s teacher tests, and supervising the department’s professional development initiatives. State legislators and other citizens need to learn why important reforms in the Education Reform Act, whose provisions I helped to administer, did not go deep enough into the system to give us the academically stronger teachers our schools desperately need.

RENEWING LICENSURE

The Education Reform Act targeted teacher quality in three ways. First, it required that, from 1994 on, all teachers would have to hold a BA or BS degree from an accredited institution of higher education with a major in the arts or sciences appropriate to the instructional field. A second major, in education, was still allowed, but the primary major had to be in the liberal arts. In this way, reform-minded legislators tried to ensure that prospective teachers would take some demanding upper-level courses in an academic discipline. They also hoped that requiring a liberal arts major would curb the number of education courses prospective teachers could take in order to satisfy degree requirements.

Second, prospective teachers were required to pass two tests: a test of reading and writing skills and a test of the academic knowledge appropriate to the license sought. The legislators hoped that the prospect of taking a subject matter test for licensure would also strengthen future teachers’ academic course-taking. The law required neither a test of pedagogical knowledge nor a performance assessment. Accountability for pedagogical skills was expected to take place through the department’s approval of licensure programs in the state’s teacher training institutions, a review that assesses the quality of the pedagogical coursework and other components of the training programs every five to seven years.

Third, under the Education Reform Act teachers were no longer allowed to get licenses for life. An initial license, good for five years, could be obtained upon completion of an approved licensure program; the second license required completion of a master’s degree program or its equivalent. (The law did not specify the type of master’s degree teachers had to earn, it should be noted.) This license could be renewed every five years upon accumulation of a specific number of professional development points.

Though well intentioned, these provisions had unintended consequences. Since undergraduate students who aimed to teach a core subject in K-12 already tended to have a major in the liberal arts, the requirement of a liberal arts major chiefly affected those wanting to become pre-school, kindergarten, elementary, or special education teachers – those who traditionally would have majored in education. Many of these undergraduates sought the easiest major available – psychology, sociology, or a cobbled-together “liberal studies” major, rather than a subject they would teach, such as science, mathematics, English, or history. Largely because many colleges continued to require an education major or did not change course requirements for their licensure programs, these undergraduates were compelled to take as many education courses as before. Ironically, they had even less time for academic electives and probably began their teaching careers with a weaker academic background than they would have gotten under the old regulations.

In an effort to strengthen the academic preparation of future elementary teachers, a revision of the teacher licensure regulations in 2000 required 36 academic credits in the basic subjects they would teach (a requirement later extended to future special education teachers). Even though these regulations did lead to a decrease in double majors and in the number of prospective elementary teachers majoring in psychology, the 36 academic credits were and still are a compromise measure. The state’s private and public colleges have spoken out strongly against requiring undergraduates to choose from a pre-selected list of appropriate liberal arts majors, as Colorado has recently done.

Nor have teacher tests necessarily led to academically stronger teachers. The tests began in 1998, with about 60 percent of prospective teachers failing them and the Board of Education refusing to lower the cut score. Although education schools resented having their graduates take the licensure tests at all, they began to institute test prep sessions, and the pass rates improved somewhat. In 2000, the department strengthened the tests by removing questions on pedagogy and adding more difficult content questions. However, pass rates for most licenses did not decline, in part because peer review groups set lower cut scores for the revised tests, meaning that test-takers didn’t need to answer as many items correctly to pass.

Two stage licensure has done little to strengthen skills.

Moreover, the colleges began using these tests, which were supposed to be for licensure, as entrance tests for teacher training programs or for student teaching. This did keep the weakest students out of their licensure programs. But there is no clear evidence that they forced improvement of the academic courses future teachers would have to take, even if the review teams doing program approval did find the required academic topics seemingly covered in their syllabi.

Finally, the Board of Education held education schools accountable, via program approval, for pass rates on the subject matter tests as well as the reading and writing tests. The Board ruled that if less than 80 percent of an institution’s test-takers passed the tests, its licensure programs could be put on probation and, if no improvement took place, phased out. But the Board of Education could not hold arts and sciences faculty responsible for pass rates on the subject matter tests, even though they were responsible for the academic coursework future teachers took. Thus, the arts and sciences faculty was essentially let off the hook, especially since nothing in the Education Reform Act required colleges to strengthen their academic courses or to curb grade inflation. In sum, there is no evidence that these tests have strengthened the academic coursework that future teachers take or even increased the number of academic courses they take – one goal of the original legislation mandating teacher tests.

What happened to the second stage of the two-stage teacher license is yet another example of where the best intentions may lead. Requiring new teachers to earn a master’s degree or its equivalent for a second-stage license seemed a reasonable way to strengthen their academic background. But given how difficult it is for new teachers to take authentic graduate-level courses while teaching full-time, this requirement ended up creating a captive audience for academically empty M.Ed. degree programs, whose chief, if not only, value to this day lies in qualifying a teacher for a salary increase.

Worse yet, the second stage of licensure bore almost no relationship to the content of the first stage and did little or nothing to strengthen the new teacher’s academic knowledge or pedagogical skills. To meet the master’s degree requirement, education schools were able to offer any collection of education courses that added up to the requisite number of credits for a master’s degree program, or a specific master’s program they wished to promote – e.g., “creativity” or “peace studies.” In 2000, the regulations were revised to spell out the need for a connection between the two stages through coursework content. A simple matter of logic, one might think. But the teachers’ unions obtained a delay until 2006 in the implementation of this particular requirement for teachers “caught in the cracks” and still seek to avoid making the second stage of licensure a content-related sequel to the initial stage.

SCHOLARS AND TEACHERS

The root of the problem, philosopher Sidney Hook suggested in his 1958 essay “Modern Education and its Critics,” lies in the institutional separation, in the early 20th century, of teacher training programs from the scholars and researchers in the discipline the prospective teacher is training to teach. In Hook’s eyes, scholars and researchers abandoned the training of public school teachers and forsook grappling with the problems of “mass education in a democratic society.” These problems were left to the (then) new schools of education, in which prospective teachers and teacher educators alike could shape training programs and school curricula without benefit of contact with the scholarly fields whose foundations lie in the core curriculum of K-12 education.

If we want academically stronger teachers coming into our public schools, accountability for their academic preparation must be transferred from education schools or departments to the academic disciplines they need to master. Before they enter the classroom, prospective teachers of fifth grade and higher should be expected to complete a master’s degree in their discipline – a not-uncommon requirement in Europe – followed by an apprenticeship in the schools, or a one-year MAT degree program in the discipline. For this basic reform to work, undergraduate education courses could not be counted toward either an undergraduate or graduate degree program – thus eliminating a loophole that has watered down the five-year teacher-training programs that were supposed to provide a traditional liberal arts education followed by a master’s degree in education for licensure. To maintain the integrity of their academic content, these graduate programs would need to be accredited not by a professional educational organization but by a subcommittee of a professional organization for the discipline, such as the American Mathematical Society.

Restructuring accountability and requiring a graduate degree for the initial license would kill several birds with the same stone. First, it would guarantee that all new core-subject teachers have a strong background in the subjects they teach. Since undergraduate licensure programs tend to attract the weakest undergraduate students to teaching careers, requiring a master’s degree would put an end to that.

Eliminating undergraduate licensure programs for core subjects would also free future teachers to spend all four years on academic coursework rather than spending one-fifth to one-half of their college careers on intellectually empty education courses. In a survey of the state’s undergraduate licensure programs in 2002, the Department of Education found that the proportion of credits required in education coursework (including student teaching) for a bachelor’s degree ranged from 16 percent to 39 percent of total credits in foreign languages, 13 percent to 39 percent in science, 22 percent to 51 percent in elementary education, and 25 percent to 59 percent in special education. The loss of this much time from academic study undoubtedly helps to account for many teachers’ weak content knowledge today.

Finally, requiring a master’s degree for entry into the profession would free new teachers from the need to work on a master’s degree in education while working full-time – thus allowing them to concentrate on improving their classroom management skills during their first years in the classroom. Whatever the MA, MS, or MAT degree cost would be offset by not having to incur the cost of a M.Ed. degree while teaching. The federal or state government might also give stipends to graduate students in a MA, MS, or MAT programs who commit themselves to teach for five years, especially in hard-to-staff schools.

In exchange for these more-rigorous prerequisites, new teachers could be eligible for full licensure and tenure after three years of satisfactory evaluations by a school supervisor. There would be no need for coursework of any kind, just frequent observations by a school supervisor. Such a process would be similar to the one used in British schools today. And for license renewal every five years, what could be more relevant than requiring a core subject teacher to take at least one relevant course in the arts and sciences during the five-year cycle?

Voilà! Accountability for academic preparation is placed where it belongs, in academic departments. New teachers begin their careers with master’s degrees and the academic knowledge they need, and with student teaching experience to ease the shock of being on their own in a classroom.

ON-THE-JOB TRAINING

But I can hear the voices clamoring, “Where is the pedagogical training?” In the apprenticeship model, it would take place in the best of all possible worlds: the classroom. It would take place under the auspices of veteran teachers, the local school board, and parents – rather than education faculty who are as out-of-touch with schoolhouse reality as they are with academic rigor. From its ivory tower, this last group is still preparing teachers with such pseudo-teaching strategies as cooperative learning groups, “reader response” in the literature class, and “invent-your-own-algorithms” in the mathematics class.

However, the MAT program is likely to be the most popular model of teacher preparation. This program might consist of four graduate courses in the subject the teacher will teach, covering content needed for teaching to the state’s K-12 standards; no more than one “methods” course (to cover lesson planning, classroom organization, and teaching methods for that subject); and a semester of student teaching accompanied by late afternoon seminars. Restricting methods courses to specific subject areas would all but eliminate generic strategies like the “workshop model” that are applied inappropriately to all subjects and grade levels. It is in schools where classroom teachers are required to teach to the whole class most of the time that student teachers will learn how to teach.

The intellectual benefits for teacher educators attached to academic departments as discipline-specific pedagogical faculty for the MAT program would be enormous. Their home base would be the academic department, not an education school. They would attend graduate courses that future teachers of the discipline take, in order to keep up-to-date in the intellectual field. Pedagogical faculty would also report to the department on the teaching or learning problems they see in secondary school classrooms on that subject, enlisting the help of scholars to work out content-relevant ways to address these problems.

What about prospective teachers of pre-K to grade four? They should continue to complete an approved program in an education school, whether as undergraduates or graduate students. But their education courses should focus on beginning reading and writing pedagogy guided by the research framework for Reading First, the K-3 reading initiative that is part of No Child Left Behind. And they should be expected to pass a separate test of arithmetic knowledge as well as a separate test of beginning reading pedagogy for licensure. To date, no state, not even Massachusetts, has been bold enough to require all prospective teachers of elementary-age children to pass a separate test of arithmetic knowledge – a requirement that is long overdue. However, there is no reason teachers of lower grades should have to complete a four-year undergraduate education. In many countries around the world, preschool and primary grade teachers receive their training in three-year pedagogical institutes.

Massachusetts, like other states, is now struggling to upgrade the diverse staff who work in day care centers and preschools. Strong consideration should be given to moving teachers’ aides or day care workers with an associate’s degree or less into a three-year program (possibly offered through a community college) culminating in a pre-school, kindergarten, or primary grade license, instead of a four-year BA program. Restructuring education schools as pedagogical institutes for pre-K-4 teachers, accountable for children’s achievement in literacy and numeracy, might well be the most productive use of the current faculty in our education schools and an effective way to address the shortage of well-trained teachers in the all-important beginning years of a child’s education.

Meet the Author

The national mood is clear. State and federal legislators, as well as parents, want academically stronger teachers in our public schools. For the public schools to attract and retain more academically competent teachers than they now do, it is also clear that we need to restore teachers’ moral authority, raise the ceiling for veteran teachers’ salaries, and improve professional working conditions. But these measures will not matter much if we do not first strengthen the academic preparation of core-subject teachers for grade five and up, and align their pedagogical training to the subjects they plan to teach.

Past efforts to reform our system of teacher preparation in Massachusetts have been well intended but, to a large extent, have created even deeper obstacles to reform. It is time to forget half measures and go the whole way. The state needs to hold the right faculty in higher education accountable for the academic preparation of our core-subject teachers and restructure the entire system.

Sandra Stotsky is a visiting research scholar at Northeastern University and co-director of We the People Summer Institute, co-sponsored by the Lincoln and Therese Filene Foundation and the Center for Civic Education in California.