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The Foundations of Preparing Teachers: Are Education Schools Really “Intellectually Barren” and Ideological?

by Dan W. Butin - July 27, 2004

A host of recent federal, state, and scholarly initiatives question the viability of traditional teacher preparation programs. One recent study, for example, has suggested that teacher preparation programs are “intellectually barren” and ideological. This paper replicates and extends this study to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the actual practices of the more than 1,400 teacher education programs across the country. A content analysis of a large number of social foundations of education syllabi was conducted. This study found that prospective teachers may not be receiving an adequate preparation within their foundations courses. But this inadequacy is not one of being “intellectually barren” and ideologically skewed. Rather, prospective teachers are not being adequately exposed to the critical conversations, intractable dilemmas, and potential effectiveness of American education. The over-reliance on textbooks and the scant use of primary sources, when linked to additional problematic institutional contexts, suggests that prospective teachers may be better prepared to replicate the educational status quo rather than engage in substantive inquiry, intellectual debate, and deep reflection.

The role and value of teacher preparation programs seems once again to be in question.  Congress has directed the Institute of Education Sciences to provide a comprehensive detailing of the quality of teacher education programs throughout the country (Blair, 2004).  Individual states have already begun their own piecemeal approach around traditional certification programs: Ohio has passed legislation allowing “charter education schools” (Hoff, 2004; Ohio Department of Education, 2004); Pennsylvania, Idaho, and Florida now accept teacher certification gained online through the Federally-approved American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (US Department of Education, 2003); Georgia has recently allowed teachers to bypass teacher education coursework altogether (Georgia Professional Standards Commission, 2004; Keller, 2004).  Additionally, a host of scholarly committees have either recently completed or begun analysis on teacher preparation programs (Carnegie, 2004; Teaching Commission, 2004). 


Driving these inquiries is a growing critique of the viability of traditional teacher education programs fomented by the lack of concrete and detailed scholarship concerning their specific practices.  It is therefore not surprising that a recent content analysis of education school syllabi (Steiner, 2003, 2004), has received so much media attention (American Enterprise Institute, 2003; Keller, 2003; National Alliance of State Science and Mathematics Coalitions, 2003; National Council on Teacher Quality, 2003).  It did not hurt, of course, that Steiner’s study, entitled “Preparing Teachers,” concluded provocatively that teacher education programs were “intellectual barren” and indoctrinating students into highly skewed and radical ideologies. 


It is the goal of this research note to analyze and clarify the data and claims put forward by Steiner’s study and in turn to contribute to the ongoing national discussion on teacher preparation.  Specifically, this paper replicates and extends Steiner’s methodology to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the actual practices of the more than 1,400 teacher education programs across the country.  A content analysis of a large number of social foundations of education syllabi from a more representative sample of teacher education programs suggests that Steiner’s conclusions are ill-founded.


This paper analyzes and critiques Steiner’s methodology, presents the findings of a replicative study, and offers some implications for the preparation of prospective teachers within the social foundations of education.  This continued investigation of the empirical conditions of teacher preparation programs is crucial as educational policy attempts to link teacher preparation to classroom practices and student outcomes.   A closer look at what goes on within the “black box” of teacher preparation is thus warranted. 




Steiner’s (2003) goal was to determine whether teacher education programs were adequately preparing good teachers.   The rationale for this, he suggested, was that “the missing element [of public school reform], of course, were teachers” (p. 2).  His study assessed the quality of teacher preparation programs through a review of course syllabi in four program areas: Educational Foundations, Reading, Mathematics, and General Methods (p. 8).  A rubric was developed to determine the strength of each program area (pp. 31-32), and syllabi examined for whether or not they met the pre-defined criteria.  The syllabi were deliberately selected from teacher education courses within “elite schools of education” because, as Steiner argued, it was in such schools where the “professors conduct the research and give the reports that influence the profession as a whole” (p. 7). 


An examination of a total of 206 syllabi led Steiner to the conclusion that “we doubt that most schools of education are doing an adequate job conveying essential knowledge and skills to prospective teachers” (p. 32).  For foundations and methods courses, Steiner found “faculty…trying to teach an ideology to teachers – that traditional knowledge is repressive in its very nature…[and] a profound suspicion for that world.  This surely presents the risk of producing only confusion, resentment, and, too often, an early exit from the teaching profession” (pp. 32-33).  Reading and mathematics courses received a stronger endorsement given the rise and prevalence of national standards, though “too often [mathematics] courses lack rigor in their own assessment” (p. 33).  In the end, Steiner intoned that that we “need well-educated, thoughtful, and well-mentored new teachers, prepared neither to be free agents nor puppets on a string” (p.36).


A study was developed to ascertain the adequacy of Steiner’s research and conclusions.  The focus was specifically on social foundations of education coursework within teacher education programs.  Two questions guided this study: (1) Was Steiner accurate in what was and wasn’t taught in social foundations of education courses?  and, (2) Was Steiner accurate in the political and ideological slant of the course content?  Before further explicating the methodology of the present study, though, it is necessary to examine Steiner’s own methodology.


Steiner’s study was seemingly straightforward: a content analysis of course syllabi in order to determine whether prospective teachers are adequately prepared to become good teachers in the public schools.  Buried within such an articulation, though, are a host of questionable assumptions of causality.


Specifically, the following causal connections are presumed: between what is written on a syllabus and what is taught in the classroom; between what is taught in the classroom and what is learned by students; between what is learned by students and what is retained by students upon the completion of a specific course; between what is retained by students upon the completion of a specific course and what is accepted as legitimate by the student; between what is accepted as legitimate by the student and how the student is able to transfer such theory into practice; and, finally, between what a student is able to transfer into practice and its subsequent effectiveness as measured by student performance. 


Put simply, there is an extremely loose coupling between what is written and what is taught, between what is taught and what is learned, and between what is learned and what is subsequently enacted in an efficacious way.  Steiner’s study did not address such assumptions; it simply presumed the connections.  This study will not address these assumptions either, opting to address Steiner’s study on its own terms; nevertheless, it is important to make note of the fact that there is a very weak link between his (and my) conclusions regarding practices in teacher preparation programs and actual classroom practices in K-12 public schools. 


The present study’s focus on coursework in the social foundations of education is threefold.  First, Steiner’s conclusions that education schools are “intellectually barren” and “focused on indoctrination” were based predominantly on the results of syllabi analysis from foundations and methods courses.  It is thus incumbent on subsequent studies to focus on these program areas to determine more clearly how (or if) such problems exist.


Second, Steiner’s conclusions depended on his pre-defined standards for each of these program areas.  There was no cited research in the foundations or methods program areas to support his rubric’s definitions of what constitutes a “strong” versus “weak” program area.  Steiner cited over twenty academic studies within the reading field to support the development of his rubric for Reading courses; he cited eight academic studies to support the development of his rubric for Mathematics courses.  Yet not a single research study was cited to support the development of his rubric for foundations or methods courses.  This leaves open a troubling possibility for the articulation of ideologically-driven rather than research-driven criteria for these program areas.  It is thus incumbent on subsequent studies to be informed by academic research on what constitutes high quality content and skills in these two program areas.


Finally, Steiner’s articulated rubric for “strong” versus “weak” foundations courses was clearly uninformed by actual research and practice within the foundations field.  Steiner argued that assessment of foundations courses should be based on four criteria: (1) the use of primary sources, (2) the presentation of distinct disciplinary perspectives, specifically philosophy, history, and psychology, (3) an introduction to the major contemporary educational policy debates, and, (4) an “ideologically balanced” perspective that provides more than one side of any single issue (pp. 8-9; p. 31).  I will for the moment focus on the second and fourth criteria to demonstrate the problematics of Steiner’s standards.


In regards to the second criterion, the foundations of education field has diverged from psychological perspectives on education.  This is by now a long-standing division between program areas (e.g. Counts, 1934), clearly articulated by scholars in the foundations field (Tozer, 1993) and by organizational self-definitions (Council of Learned Societies in Education, 1996).  The highly public (and thus normative) categorizations of the US News & World Report rankings also distinguish social foundations of education programs and educational psychology programs as two distinctively different fields. Steiner stated that “no [foundations] program we reviewed in any school gave student teachers an introduction to each of the four domains we reviewed” (p. 10).  Of course not.  If coverage of educational psychology is one of Steiner’s domains, and if foundations courses explicitly do not subscribe to the teaching of educational psychology, then Steiner’s conclusions are spurious before the study has even begun. 


In regards to the fourth criterion, Steiner’s call for “ideologically balanced” content is a political and theoretical minefield.  One teacher’s critical justice emphasis is another teacher’s disdain for rigor and clarity.  Steiner’s target here was obvious.  He highlighted the usual suspects of the intellectual left – Freire, Giroux, hooks, Ladson-Billings – that seemed to take precedence over other seemingly relevant content by, e.g., E. D. Hirsch, Diane Ravitch, and Chester Finn.


This is a legitimate complaint.  Yet the social foundations of education field has reframed this issue long ago.  As the Standards for the foundations field articulate (Council of Learned Societies in Education, 1996), the “purpose of the foundations study is to bring these disciplinary resources [of the humanities and social sciences] to bear in developing interpretive, normative, and critical perspectives on education, both inside and outside of schools” (p. 4; emphasis mine).  Put otherwise, the political left, right, and center can all engage in deep analysis, explicitly articulate specific morals, and critically examine the assumptions and implications of normative stances.  Steiner’s criteria of “balance,” in other words, focuses on the wrong agenda: he seems to want particular names included in syllabi, whereas the social foundations Standards emphasize tasks and skills.  Given Steiner’s flawed rubric for foundations courses, it is incumbent on subsequent research to articulate more legitimate criteria for the assessment of foundations courses.


This study is a replication and extension of Steiner’s analysis.  A search was conducted for all social foundations of education syllabi available on the Internet.  Only those courses taught within teacher preparation programs – be it in 4-year undergraduate programs or in 5th year or masters programs – were used.  Eighty-nine course syllabi matching such criteria were found, of which 55% had the title of foundations or social foundations of education (see Table 1).  All course syllabi included with non-“foundations” titles had explicit self-descriptions of engaging with the topics and issues within the social foundations of education.  Eighty-two percent of all of the syllabi were from the last two years (2001-2002, 2002-2003). 




Table 1. Titles of “foundations” course




Valid Percent


Social Foundations of Education




Foundations of Education




School and Society




Schools in a Diverse Society




Social Contexts of Education




Introduction to Education












Missing cases







The 89 courses were taught in 85 different institutions.  While some of these were so-called “tier 1” institutions (e.g. Miami University at Ohio, University of Wisconsin-Madison), the vast majority were lesser-known institutions such as Montgomery College and Louisiana Tech University.  The advantage of such an approach vis-a-visSteiner’s methodology is that this data set better mirrors social foundations of education coursework at the vast majority of teacher education programs in this country.  While the conclusions drawn here are not generalizable (given that this is still a convenience sample), they are more indicative of actual coursework than Steiner’s sampling of sixteen “elite institutions.” 


Moreover, Steiner’s argument that the practices at “elite” institutions are a harbinger of practice across the landscape of teacher education programs is also highly misleading.  Teacher preparation programs at elite institutions are usually firmly separated from other program areas such as social foundations.  Thus the people who do the research at top-flight institutions are rarely the ones who teach the introductory social foundations courses within teacher preparation programs.  Additionally, as Bredo (2001) has shown, social foundations programs at “elite” institutions tend to be focused on producing social foundations scholars, not teaching social foundations for prospective teachers.  Steiner’s sample, in other words, is highly skewed.


The syllabi were examined using five distinct criteria: (1) the use of primary sources, (2) the presentation of distinct disciplinary perspectives, including history and philosophy, (3) an introduction to the major contemporary educational policy debates, (4) the development of interpretive, normative, and critical perspectives on education, and (5) the political and ideological slant of the course content. 


The first four criteria mirror Steiner’s, with the modifications (as explicated earlier) of the removal of psychological perspectives in criterion #2 and the substitution of the Council of Learned Societies in Education’s language for Steiner’s “ideologically balanced” criterion in #4.  The analysis of the syllabi based on these four criteria is to directly answer the first guiding question of this study: was Steiner accurate in what was and wasn’t taught in social foundations of education courses?   The analysis of the syllabi based on the fifth criterion is to answer directly the second guiding question of the study: was Steiner accurate in the political and ideological slant of the course content? 




Table 2 provides an overview of the course content in the social foundations syllabi examined.  “Primary sources” were coded for if the readings were drawn from highly influential classical or contemporary readings.  Some syllabi did not have all of the data coded.  In such cases, they have been excluded from the particular analyses and coded as “missing cases.”  “Other texts” were coded for if the readings were books other than textbooks (e.g. Alfie Kohn’s The Schools Our Children Deserve, Deborah Meier’s The Power of Their Ideas). 





Table 2.  Sources of content in foundations courses




Valid Percent


no textbook, just primary sources



no textbook, just other texts



no textbook, other texts and primary sources



just textbook



textbook and other texts, no primary sources



textbook and other texts and primary sources







Missing cases







The single largest percentage of foundations courses use just a textbook (~36%), with the next largest percentage of foundations courses making use of a textbook and other texts (~30%).  In fact, the use of textbooks, either on their own or supplemented by other texts and/or primary sources, is the predominant mode of teaching in foundations courses (~80%).  Alternatively, only thirty-two percent of foundations courses make use of primary texts, either on their own or in combination with a textbook and/or other texts.  There is also a statistically significant negative correlation (Pearson correlation of  -.562) between the use of a textbook and the use of primary sources.


Table 3 provides a summary of the textbooks used in foundations courses.  While it is beyond the scope of this paper to do a detailed analysis of these textbooks, a cursory analysis suggests that most of them are set up in a standard format, covering such topics as the history and philosophy of education as well as legal and contemporary policy issues (e.g. vouchers, charter schools, diversity, standards).  An analysis of the assigned readings in the syllabi confirm that the vast majority assign exactly such issues, with additional readings from the textbook including issues such as the economics of education, gender equity, and multicultural education.  Likewise, courses that do not make use of textbooks use primary sources and/or other texts as a means to address similar content.  In fact, every syllabus covered the philosophy and history of education, as well as select topics of contemporary policy debate. 



Table 3. Summary of textbooks used in foundations courses





Valid Percent



Ornstein, Foundations of Education





Johnson et al, Introduction to the Foundations of Education





Parkay, Becoming a Teacher





Ryan and Cooper, Those Who Can, Teach





Sadker and Sadker, Teachers, Schools, and Society





Joseph Newman, America’s Teachers





Joel Spring, American Education





Tozer et al, School and Society





Other (all single cases)










Missing cases









These findings address the first three criteria of this study.  Specifically, (1) the vast majority of foundations courses do not make use of primary sources; (2) all foundations courses make use of philosophical and historical perspectives on education; (3) all foundations courses offer an introduction to some of the major contemporary policy debates in education.


It was not possible to address the fourth criterionindicating whether foundations courses helped to develop interpretive, normative, and critical perspectives on education.  This would have entailed a comprehensive analysis of each textbook used, which was not possible given the number and variety of textbooks found to be used in foundations courses. 


It is still possible, though, to address Steiner’s concern of the lack of “ideological balance” in foundations courses.  The fifth criterion of the political and ideological slant of a course can be estimated.  Course content was coded as being “critical,” “somewhat critical,” or “not critical.”  For the sake of clarity, I will conflate political terminology with Steiner’s notions of ideological balance: liberal/radical perspectives as “critical” and not ideologically balanced by Steiner; “centrist” perspectives as somewhat critical, and conservative perspectives as “not critical” and ideologically balanced by Steiner.


For primary texts and other books, examples of “critical” authors included Michael Apple, Peter McLaren, and bell hooks; examples of “somewhat critical” authors included Alfie Kohn and Larry Cuban.  Such differentiation was more difficult for textbooks given the number and variety of textbooks.  Nevertheless, textbooks by authors such as Joel Spring and Jeannie Oakes were coded as “critical” while those by authors such as the Sadkers and Tozer et al. were coded as “somewhat critical.”  Table 4 provides a summary of these results. 




Table 4. What is the content of social foundations coursework?




Valid Percent


Not critical = ideologically balanced



Critical = not ideologically balanced



Somewhat critical







Missing cases







Two-thirds of foundations course seem to be “ideologically balanced,” whereas only 19% of foundations courses clearly are not.  Even counting the “somewhat critical” category, less than one-third of all foundations courses could be labeled by Steiner as “ideologically skewed.”  Moreover, if we look only at those courses using textbooks in one way or another, the results are even more striking: fully eighty percent of all foundations courses would be “ideologically balanced” as defined by Steiner.


It is thus possible to address the fifth criterion: foundations classes are not as critical or “ideological” as Steiner suggests.  In fact, just the opposite seems to be the case.  Foundations courses seem not to make use of critical perspectives, especially those making use of a textbook.  Interestingly, the use of a textbook appears to be the dividing line between critical and non-critical syllabi.  While eighty percent of courses using textbooks would fall under Steiner’s “ideologically balanced” definition, only twelve percent of those not using textbooks would be defined as such (and a full 63% would be deemed “not ideologically balanced”). 




Steiner worried that education schools are shortchanging prospective teachers, and thus by implication, America’s schools.  From his perspective, teacher preparation programs do not provide adequate pedagogical or professional knowledge that can make a difference in classrooms.  Moreover, prospective teachers seem to be indoctrinated into faddish and radical theoretical positions.


Steiner should not be worried, at least not by this.  Based on an analysis of social foundations of education syllabi from eighty-five teacher preparation programs around the country, there appears to be little basis for such worries about the quality or slanted ideology of teacher preparation programs.  This study found that prospective teachers are being exposed to the philosophical and historical perspectives of education; prospective teachers are learning about contemporary educational policy debates; prospective teachers are not being indoctrinated into a faddish ideological mindset.  Steiner will be happy to know that there is no nationwide conspiracy of Nietzschean radical relativism that will incite “confusion, resentment, and, all too often an early exit from the teaching profession” (p. 33) in prospective teachers.


Instead, Steiner should be worried about something else.  This study found that foundations courses are heavily over-reliant on the use of textbooks (~80%) and make scant use of primary sources.  While such statistics are not worrisome in and of themselves, they are part of a larger problematic issue within the social foundations field.  Studies have found that only two-thirds of all faculty teaching foundations courses have doctoral degrees in the field (Shea and Henry, 1986; Shea, Sola and Jones, 1987).  One study found that foundations instructors actually least enjoy teaching the philosophy and history of education; “current social issues” was the favorite by far (Towers, 1991).  Likewise, there is to date no nationally-recognized standard for social foundations courses, as there is in Reading or Mathematics (Tozer and Miretzky, 2001).  In many cases, therefore, textbooks become the de facto standard of what faculty teach and students learn within foundations courses. 


The worry for prospective teachers, teacher educators, policymakers, and by implication America’s schools, is therefore not that education schools are producing ideologically imbalanced and underperforming teachers.  The worry is that prospective teachers are not being provided with the opportunity to think through, question, and develop a comprehensive picture of the educational system they are soon to become a part of.  Prospective teachers are not being prepared to see how American schools are linked to the very notion of American democracy (Dewey, 1916; Tozer, 1993). 


This study has found that prospective teachers may not be receiving an adequate preparation within their foundations courses.  But this inadequacy is not one of course content being “intellectually barren” and ideologically skewed.  Rather, prospective teachers seem to be exposed primarily to pre-digested perspectives and pre-packaged secondary sources that cannot adequately convey the critical conversations, intractable dilemmas, and potential effectiveness of American education (Butin, 2004). 


Steiner asked, “Are American schools of education up to the task of preparing teachers?” and answered his own question with a disappointed “No.”  This analysis, on the other hand, answers with a disappointed “Yes.”  Education schools seem to be neither sites of intellectual barrenness nor indoctrination.  Rather, this analysis finds teacher preparation programs (at least as viewed through the lens of foundations courses) to be symptomatic of the educational status quo.  They replicate the reliance on teacher-centered, textbook-driven, and fact-based forms of schooling to the detriment of substantive inquiry, intellectual debate, and deep reflection.  If, as Steiner argued, the future of America’s schools truly rests on the foundations of its teacher preparation programs, then foundations courses must become a central component in the revitalization of teacher education.



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Steiner has recently slightly revised the methodology of his study (Steiner, 2004).  This research note follows Steiner’s earlier formulations due to their greater clarity and the lack of substantive change in his overarching conclusions irrespective of the slight modifications.

I have regrouped Steiner’s four original domains.  Steiner states that the four domains they analyzed were the coverage of: philosophy, psychology, history, and policy (p. 9).  Embedded within each of these domains were other criteria, such as the importance of primary sources and ideological balance.  My regrouping shifts the emphasis of the rubric without, I believe, disrupting Steiner’s overall goal.

The goal of such a methodology was not to develop a representative sample of foundations syllabi.  Instead, it was to replicate Steiner’s own methodology.  While I acknowledge and accept that this distorts any attempts at generalization, I am skeptical of a large self-selection bias of such a sample.

Course titles with minor variants, such as “Foundations of American Education,” were placed under the similarly appropriate course title. 

Generally speaking, the education field distinguishes between “social foundations of education”-type courses and “introduction to education”-type courses.  The latter is usually considered a survey course that addresses issues subsumed by the “teaching as a profession” rubric, with social foundations of education being one of several units.  Two reasons, nevertheless, dictated the inclusion of such courses.  First, there are no binding accreditation standards for the social foundations of education; as such, an “introduction to education” course may be the only exposure to social foundations issues that prospective teachers receive in some teacher preparation programs.  Second, as this study determined, there may be little substantive content difference between courses titled “social foundations of education” and “introduction to education.”  Both types of courses, for example, were just as likely to make use of a textbook.  This, in and of itself, speaks to a high level of potential content similarity across such courses.

Primary sources were understood to be highly influential classical or contemporary sources.  While there may be some disagreement of who may belong on “the list” (See Butin, Bredo, Kohli, Newman, and Thayer-Bacon, in press, for the politics and pragmatics of this issue.), the point here is that students’ self-selection of an article from an educational journal or magazine did not count as the use of primary sources.  Additionally, the reading of primary sources was counted only if it was a required reading in the actual course outline.  Many syllabi had a “recommended” reading list with numerous influential classical and contemporary authors.  Nevertheless, there is no reason to presume that students actually read any of these texts if not required to.  It should also be noted that supporting the use of “primary sources” has its own problematic potential to slide into a “cultural literacy” rigidity (See Butin et al, in press, again on this point.). 

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 27, 2004
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11354, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 7:47:49 PM

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About the Author
  • Dan Butin
    Gettysburg College
    E-mail Author
    Dan Butin is an Assistant Professor of Education at Gettysburg College. He is the editor of Teaching Social Foundations of Education: Contexts, Theories and Issues (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, in press) and Service Learning and Higher Education: Critical Issues and Directions (Palgrave, forthcoming). His research and publications focus on the intersections of critical multiculturalism and poststructuralist thought, teacher education, and alternative pedagogical strategies.
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