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Teachers Colleges, Teacher-Artisans, and Education Reform


by Daniel H. Abbott - June 01, 2012

Teachers colleges stand in the middle of the education reform debate. On one side are teachers as an economic class, supported by the pillars they have constructed over the past century. On the other side are the federal bureaucracies and the research institutions which conduct educational research and support educational policies. The inability of teachers to display either empathy or competence in meeting the needs of secondary stakeholders, such as publishers, parents, and employers, has shifted educational power to bureaucrats and researchers. Teachers colleges should embrace this trend, and embrace their role as educators of teacher-artisans.

I am a product of teachers colleges. My undergraduate education was at a former normal school. Five years of my graduate education were at the teachers college of the university I attended. I believe the United States has the best network of teachers colleges in the world. Professors at these colleges fulfill the same obligations as professors in other fields: they research, they teach and they give service to the communities they live in.


Teachers colleges stand in the middle of the education reform debate.  On one side are teachers as an economic class, supported by the organizational pillars they have constructed over the past century. The National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Parent-Teacher Association, school boards, and other organizations were designed to support the economic interests of teachers and help teachers better understand the needs of others in their communities. On the other side are the federal bureaucracies and the research institutions that conduct educational research and support national educational objectives. The National Science Foundation, the Department of Education, and large research universities are among the many bodies which help push the boundaries of educational knowledge outward.


Teachers are on one side, and the federal-academic complex is on the other: both are called to help young people learn. Teachers colleges, in turn, have a role in supporting the teachers who are in the classroom, as well as in discovering techniques and methods that can be used by teachers, principals, superintendents, bureaucrats, and politicians to support teachers. Teachers colleges have done a fantastic job in helping our nation have the most forward thinking and most scientifically productive research community, with regards to education, in the world. Unfortunately, teachers colleges have not succeeded in training a world-class teaching cohort. The achievements of American students in K-12 education are not world class, in spite of the weight of research supporting them. Teachers share some blame for that. In turn, so do teachers colleges.


The reasons for these failures are many. When the American workplace was desegregated along sex lines, the subsidy of cheap female labor that American K-12 schools had received disappeared. Teacher salaries have not kept up, and the low-to-mediocre pay society provides to teachers is answered in the quality of education that society receives in return. Teaching is no longer a woman’s profession – a feminine analog to the legal field – but an artisan craft – in which apprenticeship counts for more than theory. Teachers are not professionals who are entrusted to work without supervision for the best interests of their clients. Rather, they are artisans – skilled laborers – who use practical expertise and learned talent to practice their craft


Additionally, safeguards that made sense when teaching was a profession that attracted high-quality workers do not make sense now that many see teaching as a back-up plan. Academic tenure, a reliance on teachers writing their own lesson plans, the absence of individual accountability, the lack of pay-for-performance or even piecemeal reward schemes, and other accouterments from the past are not appropriate for artisans even if they were once appropriate for professionals. Given the increasing importance of the knowledge economy, something has to give.


Teachers colleges should not change how they conduct research. They are already brilliant at that. Rather, teachers colleges need to change how they teach. They do not produce world-class professionals now, so little is lost by changing teaching methods. But nor do they produce world-class artisans, so much can be gained.


Teachers colleges should focus on providing pre-service teachers with extensive classroom experience so that they can learn from practiced experts, while educating pre-service teachers in areas that cannot be learned from experience. Instead of methods classes conducted primarily in a classroom, teachers should learn their methods through apprenticing under working teachers, starting when they are freshmen, with teachers college professors serving as coaches and guides. Time on university campuses should be spent primarily in areas that are impossible to learn from being on-site in a classroom: use of instructional technology, interpretation of standardized test scores, and so on.


Fortunately, if teachers colleges decide to emphasize apprenticeships and technology, they will find many friends along the way. There are three dimensions of force in the education reform debate. Employers and parents care about the cognitive and behavioral development that occurs within schools. State and local governments care about power, as do all government entities. Teachers and educational companies care about money and lifestyle. A realistic change to educational curriculum – a change that recognizes teachers are no longer professionals who need extensive training in theory but artisans who need apprenticeships– would enjoy the support of many of these actors, and downright hostility only from some teachers.


Employers and parents care about cognitive and behavioral development, but for different reasons. Across the world, globalized companies tend to spend on salaries in a country proportional to sales or profit in that country. Thus, large globalized companies have offices and facilities in the United States, Europe, China, India, Japan, and other large markets. The poor quality of American K-12 graduates make it difficult for these companies to attract American workers for these jobs, placing large companies in the politically embarrassing and economically inefficient position of importing foreign workers in the United States to hold the ‘American’ jobs which exist in the first place to avoid political complications.

Parents, for their part, vigorously compete with each other to attend schools that are not failing. As Dr. Elizabeth Warren has pointed out, this leads to a ‘two-income trap’ where even as family income increases, that excess income is used up paying for the higher rents, mortgages, and taxes in good school districts. They do this to protect their children from downward mobility. If teachers colleges would focus on training pre-services teacher to use technologies that amplify their own strengths, parents would face less stress and be one step farther away from financial ruin.


The federal and state governments would also be interested in such a reform. The Council on Foreign Relations, a mouthpiece for the foreign policy community, recently issued a report chaired by Dr. Condoleezza Rice and Chancellor Joel Klein calling for widespread education reform based on accountability. A surer sign of the elite federal consensus against the current practices of teachers will never arrive. Additionally, the 50 states (perhaps for more parochial reasons) have long been jealous of the power of teacher-controlled school boards.  By recognizing that teaching is no longer a profession and training pre-service teachers accordingly, State power will be flattered and teachers colleges will gain valuable allies in the state capitals.


The crassest dimension of the education debate is money, and teachers are politically united in opposing attempts by politicians and parents to spend more on educational contractors (testing companies, publishing companies, and so on) and less on teachers. The conflict between teachers (who profit from the current mediocre system) and corporations (who seek to profit from a reformed system) is driven by a mixture of greed and ideology from both sides. A backlash from in-service teachers against teachers colleges is possible if teachers colleges become more open or realistic about transitioning away from an educated professional model to a trained artisan model for their graduates. I suspect fear of this event is the reason why teachers colleges have been content to focus on new research while allowing their teaching arms to shrivel into mediocrity.


Teachers Colleges stand in the middle of the education debate. They participate in the federal-academic complex that helps set educational policy and discovers new educational techniques. They also train new generations of teachers. The high quality of research and the mediocre quality of teachers produced by teachers colleges leads to a natural tension. This tension can be solved by embracing the role of teachers as artisans who learn their craft through in-classroom experience, supported by university training in the use of technology and the interpretation of standardized tests. Such a solution would be supported by national and state governments, employers, and parents. Fear of a backlash among teachers against teacher colleges holds back this reform.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 01, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16787, Date Accessed: 10/17/2021 11:34:26 PM

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