Teacher Education, Teacher Preparation, Journal of Teacher Education

Written by: Donald Heller

Primary Source: The Dean’s Blog


The Journal of Teacher Education recently solicited from me and other deans of colleges of education the answers to a series of question regarding the state of teacher education in the country.  JTE is the flagship journal of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, and its editorship will be moving this summer to our college (you can read an announcement about the move here).  Edited versions of the responses to the questions will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal, but I thought it might be useful for me to share my views now.  So here are the questions sent to me and my responses.

  1. What is your view of the overall state of teacher education in the U.S. today?

Teacher education is currently undergoing major change in the United States. Most traditional teacher preparation programs, such as those in colleges of education and education departments in colleges and universities, have seen declines in enrollment over the last decade. Part of this decline is due to the rise of alternative certification programs nationally and in many states during this period. In addition, there is anecdotal evidence that some students are being dissuaded from entering teaching because of the changes that have occurred in the profession in recent years. These changes include increased accountability demands in schools and for teachers, a perception (often confirmed by reality) that teachers have less autonomy in the classroom and are being pressured more to “teach to the test,” and constraints or reductions in teacher pay, benefits, and union protections.

These changes are putting immense pressure on many teacher education programs, who have long been seen as “cash cows” that brought many undergraduates into their institutions. As these enrollments are drying up, I think that many colleges of education are struggling with their changing roles in the institution.

  1. When you think about educating prospective teachers, what “trade-offs” do you think come into play in designing impactful educational experiences?

One of the things we have determined in the College of Education at Michigan State University is that our students need a strong clinical experience to become the best teachers they can be. Thus, we have had for over two decades a five-year undergraduate teacher preparation program in which students earn their bachelor’s degrees in four years (along with engaging in practica in school settings along the way), and then embark on a year-long teaching internship following their graduation. We believe that this strong, 30-week clinical experience, when combined with their coursework in pedagogy and content areas, produces teachers who are prepared for the challenges of education in the 21st century on their first day in the classroom. Students also benefit from doing their teaching internship after they have completed all of their coursework, rather than in parallel with their last two or three semesters of coursework.

The trade-off in this model is that students have to make a commitment of five years to earn their teaching credential, when most of our competitors require only four years. In an era when both students and their parents are well aware of the rising price of postsecondary education, we know that we have to demonstrate the added value that the commitment to our model requires.   But we receive very positive feedback from employers about the preparation of our graduates, and we share this information with prospective students to help them appreciate the value of our program and the commitment it requires.

  1. What is your view about the current state of the research base in teacher education? What “big questions” do you think the teacher education research field (still) needs to address?

While teacher education is not my own area of research, and thus I am not deeply immersed in it, since becoming dean I have read a fair amount of the work that is currently going on. I think the truth is that there is a wide range of quality in teacher education research, some of it very good and some that suffers from serious deficiencies. This is not unlike education research in general. I know that we strive to ensure that our doctoral students who are interested in careers as researchers have strong training in research methods, including research design and methodological techniques, so they will be well prepared to carry out rigorous studies when they become faculty members themselves.

I think that one of the more recent trends in recent years that is helping to strengthen the quality of teacher education research is the entry into the field of people with training outside of education. We are seeing many more political scientists, sociologists, economists, and others who are looking at questions in teacher education, and many are bringing a methodological rigor to their work that at times has been lacking in some teacher education research.

I think one of the key questions that we are still striving to understand in teacher education is, What makes for a good teacher? While we have some good work that has helped us to answer this question, I think we still have a lot more to learn about this.

  1. What are your thoughts about the current generation of teacher education students with regard to motivation, risk taking, and productive struggle in learning to teach? In what ways is it similar to or different from past generations of teacher education students?

It is difficult for me to compare the current generation of teacher education students with earlier ones, as I am still new to the field. But I can tell you that I am incredibly impressed with the dedication and commitment of the young people we have entering our teacher preparation programs. We go out of our way to ensure that they are well aware of the challenges they will face when they enter their own classrooms, and they embrace these challenges and tackle them head on. For example, we have a specialized program, the Urban Educators Cohort Program, that trains students specifically for the challenges they will face working in urban districts around the country. Students are provided with specialized coursework that focuses on the needs of students in these districts, which often includes high proportions of students living in poverty, with special needs, and who are English language learners. In addition, students conduct their year-long teaching internship in one of the cities with whom we partner, districts that currently include Detroit, Chicago, Lansing, and Grand Rapids.

Our students are also very cognizant of the increasing demands they will face when they become teachers. This includes such pressures as being facile with technology in the classroom, being knowledgeable of the Common Core State Standards, and how to teach a diverse set of students in their classrooms.

  1. What are your thoughts about the state of teacher education curriculum and accreditation and/or state-level certification standards?

This has been a real challenge for many teacher preparation programs. Here in Michigan, for example, our state Board of Education voted a few years ago to adopt the Common Core State Standards. But then the legislature tried to reverse this decision, but lacking the authority to do so, could only intercede through its funding to the Department of Education. So after a couple of years of working toward implementing the Smarter Balanced tests to replace the existing state-designed assessments, the Department of Education had its funding for implementing the Smarter Balanced assessments eliminated and had to back off and create its own new assessments. These kinds of rapid, back-and-forth policy changes make it difficult for us to structure our teacher education curriculum. But we adapt our curriculum as these changes occur as best we can.

Because we are preparing our graduates to teach anywhere in the country and even around the world (one-third of our recent teacher education graduates have taken jobs outside of Michigan), this is a real challenge for us. We strive to have our curriculum flexible enough to prepare students to teach anywhere.

  1. What are your thoughts about the intersections of technology and teacher education?

I meet with groups of our graduates as they are completing their year-long internship each year. Two of the questions I ask them are, “What parts of your education prepared you well for your career as a teacher, and in what areas do you wish you had more training?” Invariably, in answer to the second question, what I hear from the interns is that they wish they had more training in how to incorporate technology into their own teaching. While we have included more about technology into our curriculum (and state certification standards require a certainly level of training in technology), it is clear that our graduates want more.

One of the difficulties we have is that there is a wide range of technology adoption by school districts in which our graduates are teaching. Some are well-funded and have state-of-the-art technology, including one-to-one laptop or tablet initiatives; others are much earlier in the technology adoption curve. So we work to train our graduates to be able to work with whatever technology they do find in their first classroom.

– See more at: http://edwp.educ.msu.edu/dean/2015/the-state-of-teacher-education-in-our-nation/#sthash.aquv9uyh.dpuf

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Donald Heller
Donald E. Heller is Dean of the College of Education and a professor in the Department of Educational Administration at Michigan State University. Prior to his appointment in January, 2012, he was Director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education and professor of education and senior scientist at The Pennsylvania State University. He also has held a faculty appointment at the University of Michigan. His teaching and research is in the areas of educational economics, public policy, and finance, with a primary focus on issues of college access and choice for low-income and minority students. He has consulted on higher education policy issues with university systems and policymaking organizations in California, Colorado, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Washington, Washington DC, and West Virginia, and has testified in front of Congressional committees, state legislatures, and in federal court cases as an expert witness. Before his academic career, he spent a decade as an information technology manager at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Donald Heller

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