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The Teaching of Teachers: Tough Lessons

October 25, 1987|Marc S. Tucker | Marc S. Tucker is executive director of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy.

WASHINGTON — A few years ago, when a government commission proclaimed "a rising tide of mediocrity" in the nation's schools, college faculties were quick to join the chorus of criticism. Angry at the poor preparation of entering freshman, they quickly responded to the new mood by getting tough, raising standards for admission. And so they washed their hands of the problem. But they have had no more success than Lady Macbeth; and like Macbeth's wife, they are deeply implicated in the crime.

The fact is that without a far-reaching commitment by colleges and universities that goes far beyond schools of education, elementary and secondary schools stand little chance of making much improvement in student achievement. Year after year, colleges turn out a significant number of graduates who are barely literate; many can't match an average 12th-grader in command of their subjects. A large number of college graduates applying for teaching jobs can't pass state examinations that are little more than tests of reading comprehension.

Who is at fault?

The truth is that education students in many institutions are regarded as cannon fodder for arts and sciences departments, which offer the courses education students take in subjects other than their major. Education students are full-time-equivalent bodies who pay for departmental salaries. They enable such faculties to do what they could not otherwise afford to do, but with no apparent obligation to meet the real needs of people going into teaching.

By 1992, teaching will almost certainly be claiming at least one in every 10 new college graduates. If colleges and universities want to improve the quality of applicants and reduce the resources devoted to remedial education, by far the best solution is to improve the quality of their own graduates who go into schoolteaching. That cannot be done without throwing the weight of the whole institution, especially the arts and sciences faculty, into improving the quality of schoolteachers and teaching.

Last year a report by the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, "A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century," called for the abolition of undergraduate degrees in education and the creation of graduate programs for teachers, offering a master-in-teaching degree. Deans of education at the nation's leading universities offered a similar proposal. It therefore becomes even more important that the general curriculum and all undergraduate majors be designed to meet the needs of teachers, not just those who will go off to graduate work in the arts and sciences or more prestigious professions.

Undergraduate majors designed to meet the needs of teachers would be better preparation for graduate work, because what is needed for teachers is a major that conveys in a holistic way the integrity of the discipline. Prospective teachers need an integrated perspective on their discipline leading to genuine understanding, rather than simply the provision of tools. Such a renovation of major curricula could also prove to be a powerful force for the general improvement of undergraduate education.

It is clear that many teacher-educators themselves are prepared to take strong measures to bring their schools to the front ranks of professional education. Nonetheless, the outcome is far from assured. It is entirely possible that new graduate programs for teachers will emerge that simply transport to the graduate level the curriculum that has prevailed at the undergraduate level for many years, or that the new graduate programs will be starved of the financial and intellectual resources they need to do the job, though the will is there.

Any way you look at it, it is hard to escape the conclusion that prospects for real progress in elementary and secondary education, and with them prospects for substantial improvement in the quality and quantity of college applicants, depends on action by whole college faculties and their leaderships, not just those who call themselves teacher-educators.

For all these reasons, it is hard to overstate the importance of a recent statement issued by 40 of the nation's leading college and university presidents. Gathered in Minnesota under the leadership of Donald Kennedy, president of Stanford, they issued a challenge to themselves

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