Recalling 40 Years of Teacher Education in the USA: A Personal Essay

Nov. 01, 2014

Source: Journal of Education for Teaching, Vol. 40, No. 5, 474–491, 2014
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

Taking the form of a personal essay, the author describes developments within teacher education in the USA over a 40-year period. Beginning with his work within teacher education as a graduate student and moving across time, he describes major movements in teacher education, discusses several of the most influential ideas within the field and, by drawing on publications of the period, notes the influence of certain political and education figures.

A technical view of teaching and teacher effectiveness: the 1970s
In 1973-1974, the curriculum of teacher education was badly fragmented, there was duplication in content and little time was spent in schools outside of student teaching. For the most part, field experiences were simply left to school teachers. Cooperating teachers and university faculty seldom interacted. While university faculty controlled course content, they were remarkably disengaged from schools. The plan for improvement involved identification, with significant faculty involvement, of programme goals and agreement on course aims and content, and for increasing field experiences. Reducing the aim of reform to bare essentials. Key element of the reform then underway was increasing the amount and quality of the time teacher education students actually spent teaching and talking about teaching. More field experience in addition to student teaching was added and microteaching was required. In the quest for a science of education, the values of training were ascendant, showing signs of displacing those of education with its inherent messiness and unpredictability.

Teacher education at risk: the 1980s
On 26 August 1981, the US Secretary of Education, Ted Bell, appointed the National Commission on Excellence in Education. The Commission’s report, A Nation at Risk, was released in the spring of 1983. The report called for elected officials to take charge of educational reform and the federal government to get more involved in education. Within months of the report’s release, across the nation high school graduation requirements were raised as were college admissions requirements. Courses were refocused and the curriculum narrowed to reflect Commission priorities, including technology, foreign language, science and mathematics. Teacher education recommendations included placing greater emphasis on academic learning and strengthening of teacher evaluation systems to reward ‘superior teachers’. To solve shortages of mathematics and science teachers, greater flexibility was urged in the routes to teaching.

By the mid-1980s, several developments urged an enriching of the curriculum and instruction of teacher education. Interest grew in better understanding teacher development, including identifying differences between expert and novice teacher thinking and problem solving. Studies of teacher development connected teacher learning and development to biography and to cultural and social influences including to the nature of teacher work.
In addition to content changes, programme structures also were changed. Many institutions developed fifth year and graduate certification programmes, several of which still endure. Lastly, portfolios were introduced to document teacher learning.

Teacher knowledge and accreditation: moving through the 1990s
Beginning in the 1980s interest grew in alternative certification, initially as means for employing more teachers to staff challenging schools. With the growing influence of neoliberal reforms emphasising markets and provider competition, at the same time as efforts were underway to standardise teacher education programmes associated within colleges and universities, the federal government began funding a variety of licensure programmes that offered greater flexibility.
Furthermore, rapidly changing immigration patterns rised student body diversity and issues related to poverty that led to radical inequality of school performance across racial and ethnic groups encouraged teacher educators to engage in a variety of reform efforts. Greater effort was directed toward developing field experiences for beginning teachers that included increased opportunities to work with and learn from diverse student populations.

In 1987, the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (In TASC) was established by the Council of Chief State School Officers )CCSSO), an organisation that was primarily responsible for teacher licencing and programme approval. By 1992, In TASC had identified 10 National Board ‘compatible’ core standards for content and pedagogical knowledge expected of beginning teachers which, among other outcomes, gave prominent place to teaching issues related to student diversity. The 10 InTASC standards and dimensions quickly found their way into teacher education accreditation, framing institutional responses to NCATE visits. To this end, standardised tests have grown in importance as has documented performance as evidence of understanding.

Federal invasion: into the twenty-first century
Following creation in 1990 by the first President Bush and the nation’s governors of a set of national education goals that had year 2000 as their achievement date, on 31 March 1994, President Clinton signed into law The Goals 2000: Educate America Act. Driven by an outcomes model reminiscent of early competency-based models, the act provided financial incentives to states to achieve a specific set of lofty goals. The act proclaimed that by 2000 all children in American would enter school ready to learn, high school graduation rates would reach at least 90%, all children would demonstrate competency in English, mathematics, science and foreign languages, and every school would be drug and violence free. In addition, the act created the Standards and Improvement Council and the National Skill Standards Board.

NCLB: the new century
Representing an aggressive and punitive accountability model, and seriously underfunded, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) required all public schools receiving federal dollars to test annually all students or risk loss of federal funding. Schools were to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), requiring increasing standardised test scores year after year across several specific groups including economically disadvantaged students, limited English speakers and students with disabilities. Of these groups, at least 95% of the students were required to be tested. Schools that failed to meet AYP over time were to be punished, potentially involving replacement of the entire staff. States were charged with developing statewide measurable objectives and test development. Criticisms of NCLB abound, but the law did call much-needed attention to groups with histories of poor school performance. However, the law lead to a national test fetish that persists, severe narrowing of children’s school programmes in favour of time spent on mathematics and reading, and system gaming. The ideology underpinning NCLB has continued within President Obama’s administration as is evident in the federal Race to the Top initiative.

The author concludes that most teacher educators find themselves working under an ever-present and threatening regulatory gaze. Furthermore, in the USA, filling up expensive and rapidly evolving data management systems to document quality is substitute for the pursuit of quality. Yet, remarkably, the author argues that teacher education programme continues to attract smart, interesting and dedicated young people who want to teach.

Updated: Jun. 20, 2016


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