Theory tic complaints about teacher ed

U.S. Secretary of Education spoke with Andrea Mitchell Friday about new teacher-education regulations that the U.S. Department of Education is preparing for a set of federal financial supports for teacher preparation programs. Most of the verbiage that you will read and hear will focus on tracking the impact of program graduates on K-12 student learning, a focus on outcomes. As Rutgers professor Bruce Baker noted on Friday, there was also an odd rhetorical tic in the middle of Duncan’s interview with Mitchell. Duncan said something that he, Arthur Levine, and others have claimed repeatedly in the past:

Mitchell: You want to see them in classrooms more, actually in classes doing work as part of their training?

Duncan: You can, absolutely. That’s the crux, that’s it, Andrea. So many schools of education [require] lots of history of education, philosophy of education, psychology of education, not enough teaching 28 or 30 diverse children in a classroom. Again, that practical, clinical experience is so important. [emphasis added; this portion starts around 2 minutes into the clip]

Apparently, Arne Duncan and I live in different universes. In Arne Duncan’s universe, teacher education is dominated by courses in theory and social/cultural foundations of education. In my universe, any specific undergraduate requirements for philosophy or history of education courses disappeared roughly a generation ago, there has not been a single tenure-track job posting this year specifically for an historian of education in any college of education in the country, and very few jobs exist for anyone in social or cultural foundations of education. Arne Duncan’s universe may not be the best world for pre-service teacher education, but apparently it’s great for historians and philosophers of education. My reality is different, and it’s based on a simple question: If historians and philosophers really controlled teacher education, where are the jobs for us? Arne Duncan’s remark is not based in the world where I work. It’s a rhetorical tic, and it is an example of the barriers to talking sensibly about teacher education.

Do historians and philosophers of education dominate teacher ed curriculum? Don’t take my word for it: you can look at the catalog description for undergraduate elementary education majors in a large public university near you (or minors, where there is no education major). Here are a few: University of South Florida-Tampa (my current institution–that PDF is for all undergraduate programs in our college), Arizona State University (where I’ll start working in July, and which Duncan praised in his press conference Friday), and to pick on a state at random… the University of MichiganMichigan State University, Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, and Central Michigan (For Central Michigan the PDF of the entire 2013-14 catalog). In six of those seven colleges of education, the apparently dominating theory courses comprise six or seven hours from a 120-hour program, split between educational psychology and a course lumping together all humanities and social-science perspectives on education. In no case is there an undergraduate course required for teachers that is devoted entirely to the history of education or the philosophy of education.

Is that domination? That’s 5% of the entire degree on the type of stuff that Dan Willingham writes about or that David Tyack and Larry Cuban write about, an amount that Arne Duncan and others thinks is evidently too much of a psychological or humanistic perspective on schooling. In one of the seven colleges, elementary education majors take three hours of educational psychology and nothing in social or cultural foundations. So that’s 2.5% of the total degree program devoted to what is apparently too much theory.

I fear that the myth of required history of education and philosophy of education courses is to teacher education what the myth of the Cadillac-driving welfare mom is to social welfare policy debates: an easy touchstone about shared values and a rhetorical trump card to identify who should be marginalized in policy. If the category of the “undeserving poor” is the target of the Cadillac-driving welfare recipient, the target of the history-of-education requirement myth is the undeserving teacher education program. It says, “Look at those wastrel faculty who do not know what their students need.”

Addendum (4/28): Below, Michael Caufield suggests that the better parallel is foreign aid, the regular and fact-free punching-bag of federal budget critics. (Hint: most critics of foreign aid assume it’s a large proportion of the budget, like Arne Duncan assumes social foundations is a large proportion of teacher ed programs.)

To many critics of teacher education, what is necessary is a technical training program laid on top of a basic general undergraduate education, and the assumption is that college-based teacher education has insufficient practical training and the wrong training. The myth about history and philosophy of education courses is about both, but let’s talk about the insufficient-training claim today.

Here’s the real secret about undergraduate teacher education: it’s never enough. It’s not enough, even if you eliminated every second spent on research about how children learn and the historical debates over the role of schools in American society. It wouldn’t matter if every second of every class for the last two years of college was either technical training or classroom experience; students would still say they needed more practical experience. I have seen surveys from one of the best special education programs in the country with several required courses in applied behavior analysis; both undergraduate and masters program alumni still complained that they needed more in terms of classroom management.

Undergraduate teacher education will always have insufficient training in its alumni’s view for two reasons. First, it is not enough because new teachers know how fragile their skills are. There are wonderful new teachers who have both the confidence and skills to handle the range of what happens in a classroom, but there are far more very good new teachers who are both excited and nervous in starting their careers, and justifiably so. The burden of responsibility for teachers is only partially eased by the relatively short education of teachers in the United States. We can improve teacher education a great deal, and even then we will have graduates with better training and experience, a better launching point… and still a launching point, not the complete set of skills good teachers need time developing. New teachers know they have a launching point and not a complete set of skills, and for psychological reasons if no other, they will always say they didn’t receive enough practical training.

There is also an academic reason why teacher education is never enough: we would like teachers to have both the general education (“content knowledge”) and also the practical skills to succeed, and all in an undergraduate program. We want math teachers to have a deep knowledge of math, history teachers to really know history, … and as a corollary, elementary and special education teachers to know everything. And then we’d like them to spend significant time learning practical skills. And don’t forget that they should know what constitutes basic ethics in the profession, something about the reality of a diversifying nation, and ideally, we’d like them to have enough perspective about their jobs not to burn out. And all of that in 120 credit hours, four years more or less. Oh, and public colleges of education also need to welcome in college students who decide halfway through their sophomore or senior year that they’re interested in teaching, and somehow still get them out the door without “excess” credit hours, as if what they learned in other departments is useless to being a teacher.

If you want to scare yourself about elementary schools, think about the following: if the only undergraduate coursework that elementary teachers take in academic areas is to fulfill general-education requirements, then in many cases elementary teachers are starting their careers when the second-to-last math class they have ever passed was taken sometime in high school. The second-to-last history class was in high school. The second-to-last composition class was in high school. The second-to-last lab science was in high school. You can throw away all the debates over teacher education and focus just on this: do you really think that an undergraduate degree gives elementary teachers enough academic background for everything they need to teach?

In the real world, where newly-minted teacher education graduates are at least somewhat uncertain about their skills, and where we cannot squeeze all the stuff we’d like them to learn into the typical two-year program, how should we look at teacher education curriculum? Apparently everyone knows precisely what should happen–or certainly Arne Duncan knows, Linda Darling-Hammond knows, NCTQ knows, and advocates of “let everyone in the door and then measure VAM effects” know–but maybe we should take this debate over holding programs accountable for success of their graduates’ students as a sign that we really don’t know enough and we would like to.

For some of us, this should be an opportunity for research, a lever with which to point out that programs receive too little information about their graduates’ early careers, that colleges of education are currently required to track far too many input variables instead of being assisted in tracking graduates, and the type of VAM-like model the USDOE prefers is relevant for at most a small proportion of whom and what we really need to track with recent-graduate performance. Alas, because of Arne Duncan’s rhetorical tic, and those of many others, we are unlikely to see a discussion about research, because everyone already knows precisely what should comprise teacher education, and because the debate will focus on mechanistic accountability.


If you were sharp and ate your Wheaties this morning, you may have noticed that I skipped over two questions above: why do we see the rhetorical tic that everyone apparently has of blaming social foundations and ed psych courses for all the woes of teacher ed, and what should be the role of social foundations courses in teacher education?

To answer the first question, beyond the issues discussed above, there are two reasons why graduates of teacher education focus on what Duncan labels history and philosophy of education requirements:

  • The inclusion of a necessary topic does not mean it’s taught well or can be mastered easily. Some topics in my area are relatively easy to teach: students pick up human capital easily, they’re interested in social capital, they understand the history of discrimination, and they’re eager to debate the various purposes of schooling that people have argued about for centuries. There are other topics that are on the other end of the scale of difficulty, in my experience: normative ethics, cultural capital, and the sociology of bureaucracies (i.e., where they’ll be working). Welcome to the world of “there are 1000 critical ideas I want you to leave with,” and if you don’t get the balance right, students will feel that they were asked to learn the more difficult material and not given enough credit for learning the easier material.
  • Material in what you might call social or cultural foundations is often introduced by faculty who are teaching other courses–faculty who have no expertise in any of the social/cultural foundations fields but are determined to go beyond making “by the way” connections between my stuff and the core of what students should be learning in their classes. I remember several years ago reading the blog of a masters student at Big Name College of Education who was complaining that her methods course faculty were spending 90% of the time talking about poverty instead of helping her learn skills. If she is still teaching, she is precisely the type of graduate who would complain to Arne Duncan about “too much theory” in her program, and justifiably so. My response to her and all others: on behalf of the faculty in Colleges of Education across the country, I hope you will accept my humblest apologies for the abuse of your time. I have no business spending half of my courses teaching methods, and likewise for the reverse. Your methods faculty have a critical job, and I’d love them to make logical connections to what you remember from my course… but I know that if you are in a course specifically about English language learners, you need to learn something about linguistics, a lot about how that applies in the classroom, and some occasional handwaving and “think about this” gesturing towards what I teach. More than the occasional gesture towards what you should have learned in my course about the sociology and history of immigration and schools, and your faculty member is practicing social foundations without a license.1

In terms of the appropriate role of social foundations in teacher education, I’ll try to state this in the best backwards-planning approach I can muster on a Sunday morning, and you will notice my perspective has an historical slant to it:

  • I want new teachers to know enough about the history and sociology of education and childhood to avoid making foolish mistakes in thinking about and talking with children and families. Example: new teachers who are inclined to blame family structures for children’s reading difficulties should understand not only that their responsibility is to teach everyone but why the opposite has a long and ugly pedigree.
  • I want new teachers to know enough about where their preconceptions about education fit into broader debates, and to understand where parents and educators with different views are coming from. Example: teachers who think they’re missionaries to poor children and poor communities need to know the history of that idea and why that approach will raise hackles (and for whom).
  • I want new teachers to understand enough about the debates over the purposes of schooling so that they can identify older arguments when they appear in new bottles. Example: When a principal or superintendent distributes copies of an op-ed griping about how “kids these days” aren’t reading enough Shakespeare, teachers should recognize that this comes from a history of arguments that education is primarily a way of transmitting cultural heritage (and a good dose of declension mythology).
  • I want new teachers to understand how ethical questions go beyond the obvious sorts of abuse that get teachers’ mug shots in the papers. I want teachers who can reason clearly about those issues rather than repeat bromides they’ve heard.
  • I want educators in leadership positions to understand more about the history of education reform efforts, enough to avoid wheel-reinvention and utopian fads.

I know what doesn’t work to accomplish these ends: erasing liberal-arts perspectives from teacher education. I know another thing that is unlikely to be successful: trying to infuse these ideas into methods courses with faculty who do not have an academic background in relevant disciplines.

Are there approaches that could work other than the isolated social-foundations course? Absolutely; I can think of a range of them, from mastery-based requirements for this material to co-teaching professional courses in seminars side-by-side with clinical courses, and others. Right now, we don’t know which might work, because all the incentives in the past few decades have worked to discourage experimentation in colleges of education in this way and instead have pushed programs to meet the bureaucratic and accreditation requirements of the day.2 We tend to organize programs around a long list of requirements instead of end goals (which is also horrible modeling for future teachers!).

I do not think the proposed and in-process-of-being-drafted regulations are likely to change those dynamics at the national level. I’d love to be proved wrong, Secretary Duncan. Get some basic data about the influence of program-specific graduates on their own students? Absolutely! But make sure it’s balanced by streamlining micromanagement and with assistance on gathering other data on graduates, and please skip those rhetorical tics that will not survive a basic fact-check.

Either that, or please find the magic ring that we historians of education are supposed to get to control teacher education. I never received mine.

Correction (4/28): Apparently there is one tenure-track history of education job opening at the University of Oklahoma this spring. Go, Oklahoma! And in this case, I think the exception proves the rule.

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  1. Note: The “practicing without a license” remark is a joke. I really do want everyone to think about my issues, and I also recognize that there needs to be an appropriate balance in teacher education programs. Besides, you only need a license to practice social foundations in North Carolina and Kentucky. []
  2. In states such as Florida, college-based programs face a double-standard, micromanaged by the state department of education while alternative programs have far fewer input restrictions. []

5 responses to “Theory tic complaints about teacher ed”

  1. Tim Holt

    Welcome to the world that K12 has been living in for decades now:
    Education is broken.
    Unions suck.
    Teachers Suck,.
    Students are being shortchanged.
    The tests tell the tale.
    Parents should take over.

    I was just wondering how long it would take to get to higher ed.
    Perhaps if the higher ed community had been paying any kind of attention (and being proactive against these intrusions) at all to their K12 brethren over the years since NCLB was passed, they might have been able to anticipate this.

    Anyway, welcome to the party!
    Don’t be surprised when they want to close you down and make Pearson in charge of the Teacher ed programs.
    Enjoy the ride.

    Every K12 teacher in the US that Higher ed has been ignoring for decades.

  2. couchloc

    “I know what doesn’t work to accomplish these ends: erasing liberal-arts perspectives from teacher education. I know another thing that is unlikely to be successful: trying to infuse these ideas into methods courses with faculty who do not have an academic background in relevant disciplines.”

    On these issues I think you’ll find that most philosophy departments are more than willing to work with other programs to offer courses that fit their specific needs, especially in regards to normative ethics. The ethics course at my university serves students from any major. We also offer biomedical ethics for medical-school students, and business ethics to fulfill a requirement for the business school. It wouldn’t be too difficult to find some common areas between philosophy and education I presume.

  3. Glen McGhee

    Teacher ed makes an easy target for folks desperate to give the illusion of progress/activity because they can push it around — try the same thing with high-energy particle physics — it wouldn’t happen.

    It’s all about relative status, perceived status (David Labaree has written extensively on this).

    A second thing about “faculty … spending 90% of the time talking about poverty instead of helping her learn skills” — this is specifically what Ruby Payne addresses, and the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

  4. Michael Caulfield

    I think your analysis of this as a verbal tic is right on, but I’d like to propose another analogy: History of Education classes as foreign aid and wasteful spending.

    You ask the average person how to solve national budget shortfalls and the answer is obvious: cut foreign aid and wasteful spending.

    So when Bill Bennett wanted teachers to spend more time on their core subject — well, how, exactly? Simple. Cut the fat. Earmarks. History of education courses. Yadda yadda.

    Now Arnie wants less time on the core subjects, apparently, and more classroom management. How, then — what do we sacrifice? Same thing.

    Nobody wants to admit that sometimes more requirements is just more requirements, so we play this stupid game.