Why Has Classroom Teaching Been Stable over Time? (Part 6)

A reasonable question to ask at this point in this series of posts is: Hasn’t the annual entry of university-trained teachers into public schools brought many changes in teaching lessons? The answer is no. In fact, brand-new teachers have, over time, perversely, become agents of stability in classroom practices.  [i]

Here is an abbreviated version of university training and entry into classroom teaching

The story-line of teacher education in the U.S. is two-fold. First, there is the historic and fundamental question facing all teacher preparation programs: do we prepare students to become teachers in schools as they are or do we prepare students to teach in schools as they should be?  Most programs have straddled the answer to the question by stressing how teaching should be and spending little time on how actual classroom teaching is (see Chapter 4).

The other half of the story-line is that within research-driven universities producing new teachers rather than scholars has given professors of teacher educators a poor reputation.. Laced by decades of pungent criticism of poorly performing teacher preparation programs and producing deeply flawed research studies, many university education departments have been (and are) viewed as second-rate within the institution. [ii]

Poor reputation or not, teacher education programs have disseminated new knowledge of the science and art of teaching to those preparing to become classroom teachers.. Within these programs, neophytes were (and are) exposed to the “learning sciences”—a collection of disciplines including cognitive psychology, anthropology, sociology, computer science, the neurosciences, and instructional design. All of these programs have a clinical portion—required to gain a state license–that places the novice into classrooms where under the guidance of a cooperating or mentor teacher plan and teach actual lessons to students.[iv]

In short, there was unceasing demand from districts for certified teachers and universities became the place for educating and training novices to know about the humanities and sciences while taking state required courses to be not only eligible to teach in school districts but mirror effective teaching—as conceived by university educators–in their own classrooms. University schools of education became the state-certified toll road that led directly to classrooms. Crudely put by university critics of schools of education, producing teachers was a “cash cow” and, therefore, essential to the financial health of the institution.[v]

Research-driven universities abided the inclusion of teacher education because the historical function of teacher training once located in what were called “normal” schools in the 19th century were absorbed by the next century’s growing colleges and universities that aspired to national recognition.[iii]

Many of these university schools of education became strongholds of a certain tradition of teaching: student-centered instruction.  Most teacher education programs became places where child-centered instruction became the prescriptive norm for beginning teachers. Enamored with the ideas of 20th century Progressives such as John Dewey who was initially at the University of Chicago and later joined like-minded professors William Kilpatrick and Harold Rugg at Columbia University. Teacher educators pressed neophytes to embrace child-centered instruction where teacher-student interaction and student engagement were considered markers of “effective” teaching. [vi]

Once in public school classrooms, however, these novices, well versed as they may have been in university teacher education programs even spending a few months or an academic semester in actual classrooms under the tutelage of “cooperating” teachers, now faced the realities of spending six or more hours daily with one group of 25-30 students in an elementary school or in a secondary school facing five separate classes and preparing lessons for two or more subjects. 

The next post takes up how these novices turned into experienced teachers and sustained stability in instruction.


[i] I do not include Teach for America and other alternative certification programs in my analysis because they produce a tiny fraction of new teachers entering urban classrooms where most of these novices are placed. While many TFA teachers stay beyond their two-year commitment, the vast majority are leavers. See Wikipedia, “Teach for America” at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teach_For_America 

[ii]Geraldine Clifford and James Guthrie, Ed School (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); David Labaree, The Trouble with Ed Schools (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004); Marilyn Cochran-Smith, et. al., Critiquing Teacher Preparation Research: An Overview of the Field, Part II, Journal of Teacher Education, 66(2), 2015, pp. 109-121. 

[iii] Jurgen Herbst, “Nineteenth Century Normal Schools in the United States: A Fresh Look,” History of Education, 1980, 9(3),  pp. 219-237. 

[iv] Etta Hollins and Connor Warner, “Evaluating the Clinical Component of Teacher Preparation Programs (National Academy of Education Committee on Evaluating and Improving Teacher Preparation Programs, 2021). Ken Zeichner, a teacher educator at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) for over three decades and later at the University of Washington before retiring details his journey from elementary school teaching to tenured professor. He lays out nicely the problems and dilemmas facing teacher educators in the courses they teach, connections to regular school teachers who work with student-teachers from the university, and the clinical experience university students have in schools. See “Becoming a Teacher Educator: A Personal Perspective” Teaching and Teacher Education, 2005, 21, pp. 117-124. 

[v] For example of common criticisms, see Jennifer Medina, “Teacher Training Termed Mediocre,” New York Times, October 22, 2009; Alternative routes into classrooms apart from university courses and practice teaching have grown since the 1980s (e.g., Teach for America). Nearly all states provide options for adults to become certified teachers apart from enrolling in university-sponsored courses.. Nonetheless, nearly all new teachers (95 percent) are licensed to teach through university-approved programs.  See Gene Glass, “Alternative Certification of Teachers,” (Education Policy Research Unit, 2008) at: http://epicpolicy.org/publication/alternative-certification-of-teachers

[vi] See David Labaree, The Trouble with Ed Schools (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 2004), chapters 3 and 7.

1 Comment

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One response to “Why Has Classroom Teaching Been Stable over Time? (Part 6)

  1. Oh, boy. On the edge of my seat, here. It was always a topic of conversation where I worked when I was a new teacher – which Universities were training the “good teachers.” San Jose State started as a Normal School. I went there as well as some ancestors who were teachers. It was declared a good program. There is a private program that was declared not so good because one lousy teacher went there. He subbed for years before landing a job. On the other hand, one of our best teachers went there, too.

    I learned some good things in my program, but I don’t think the most important things can be taught. You can teach the science but not the art. The art is something you must have a talent for. When I went to my classroom experience assignments, I had worked with children before. My mentors taught me some new tricks, but they won’t work if you don’t have the right “stage presence.” It doesn’t work to be mean, and it doesn’t work to be a pushover. It’s a perfect boundary setting with a smile, and I can do it. Not everyone can. SJSU did not teach me this. It’s an art, a talent I have.

    However, I agree about the child-centered thing. Most schools here don’t want that. I’m also familiar with John Dewey, not from college but from Alfie Kohn. Funny that Dewey was at University of Chicago because my father got his Ph.D. there in something like Education Research and Science. His first job was in the teacher education program at UCLA. He went on to work for a company that sought to explain the test scores of Title I students in LA Unified, among other things I’m sure. He’s not a fan of Dewey.

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