Why a School of Education?

I have recently become the founding dean of the school of education at Merrimack College. The school itself brings together already existing undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as a graduate institute that focuses on non-degree programs and professional development for K-12 teachers and administrators. It is, as such, not a true “new” school of education. Nevertheless, I had to reflect on whether it was even legitimate to take on the position of dean of a school of education in today’s educational policy climate. I am giving a short speech at the beginning of a forthcoming conference on the future of education that formally launches the school of education, and I thus want to lay out some of my thinking around why a school of education is not only relevant, but vital for preparing future educators.

(I should be clear at this point that I am speaking for myself as an individual and not on the behalf of the institution. Nevertheless, as dean, I occupy a public role and thus cannot simply take off my “dean” hat to put on my “blogger” hat. Thus whereas before I wrote in and through my expert and professional role as a social foundations scholar, this line, at least to me, is no longer clear. Let the reader, as such, beware.)

Twenty-five years ago just about every licensed teacher came through a traditional, bricks-and-mortar school of education. The alternative pathways in place were few and far between; in 1985 less than 300 individuals across the country had gone through an alternative route to gain teacher certification. Then along came Teach For America, the standards and accountability movement, the emphasis on “teacher quality” and alternative pathways, and, poof, a generation later schools of education are on the defensive, feeling outdated, maligned, and marginalized. 60,000 individuals a year go through alternative pathways towards teacher certification, states routinely create regulations and partnerships (e.g., ABCTE) that privilege “off-site” licensure programs (oftentimes seen in district-based residency programs), and the entire notion of a teaching degree within a “traditional” institution through course-driven seat-time seems antiquated. (This is not a dissertation, so check out NCEI’s data, David Angus’s brief history, or any of David Labaree’s writings on the subject.)

I of course hear AACTE’s cogent argument that 85% of all teachers still go through schools of education (they include the number of individuals going through alternative pathways run by higher education institutions), and I think Arne Duncan’s speeches about teacher preparation programs have been way too stereotyped, as they are in fact not antagonistic to the idea of schools of education (whereas the Bush administration completely was). Nevertheless, schools of education are clearly on the defensive, and I see that every day through the very positioning of how AACTE is responding and what the federal government is privileging in its funding, and, closer to home, in how Massachusetts and other states are revamping regulations and priorities within the context of the RTTT competition.

So why a school of education? Why buy in to a physical school of education within a residential liberal arts and pre-professional college?

The answer – rhetorically, pragmatically, and, yes, data-driven – is that it is the only formal place where future educators will have the opportunity to reflect, rethink, revise, and re-vision their ideas of what it means to be an educator in a complex and bureaucratic organization called a school enmeshed within a pluralistic, stratified and “global” society while beholden to deeply linear, outdated, and all too often punitive notions of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. To put it simply and quickly, schools of education offer the opportunity to change your mind about oneself as a teacher, to break out of the pattern of teaching simply as one was taught.

Teacher preparation consists of three things; two of them are standard and what is usually talked about: the opportunity to learn and the opportunity to practice. The opportunity to learn includes content knowledge (e.g., math), pedagogical content knowledge (e.g., how to teach math at the elementary level), and pedagogical knowledge (e.g., good classroom management skills such that one can actually deliver the math lesson one meant to). The opportunity to practice, in turn, is to actually try all of this out in an actual classroom. This traditionally includes pre-practicum and actual practicum opportunities (i.e., student-teaching) that can range anywhere from six weeks to an entire year. The third (which is never really talked about but what I argue is at the crux of powerful teacher preparation) is the opportunity to change.

This three-fold formulation – at least for me – greatly clarifies why traditional teacher preparation oftentimes appears so outdated. This is because the opportunity to learn and the opportunity to practice can legitimately and powerfully be done in a wide range of locations and modalities. (Which of course doesn’t mean it is done legitimately and powerfully in other locations and modalities outside of higher education institutions; but that is another argument and a completely different issue that I bracket for now.) I can become immersed in math and even in how to teach math through in-seat, hybrid, or online courses. I can teach myself calculus and I can sit with a master teacher in a professional development workshop to gain her perspective on “tricks of the trade” of ways to get student interest and enthusiasm. Similarly, the opportunity to practice can legitimately be done in a wide variety of formats. The key is that one sees multiple models of practice, attempts multiple modes of teaching, and gains substantive, ongoing, and critical formative feedback in one’s attempts as a new teacher. Institutions of higher education, in my perspective, have no monopoly on these opportunities to learn and practice.

Where higher education does have a monopoly, and one that is paramount to future teacher success, is in providing the opportunity to change. College – be it at the undergraduate or graduate level – is the only formal place I know where future teachers have the opportunity to carefully, thoughtfully, and critically examine the underlying assumptions and in-practice narratives of what teaching and learning means, what it should look like, and how do they fit into this picture. College – to put it both in truly banal yet also truly profound terms – changes us. Or at least it should, if we as academics and teacher educators do our job.

And this opportunity – the opportunity to change – is crucial. School is not a simple or obvious place. It is embedded in complex economic, sociological, political, psychological, and historical networks. This can refer to how school is organized, the demographics of who goes to school, the psychometrics of who succeeds in school and why, or the political realities of school funding (to name but a few off-the-cuff issues). None of us has thought all of these things through. And they matter. Perhaps not to the immediate classroom lesson. But to why I am teaching that lesson in the first place, in the way I am teaching it, with what kind of scaffolding, and with what kind of assessment I give afterwards.

I would claim that none us can be a good teacher without – at some conscious or subconscious level – having delved deeply into these dynamics, even if it is at the level (memorialized by Ted Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise) of realizing that the classroom is a negotiated inter-dynamic process. One has to consciously realize this before one can change it (if one so wants). (Which is why Sizer used this example as his set-up for the profound argument of what came to be known as the Coalition of Essential Schools model.)

And, and here’s the kicker, one can’t do that on one’s own. I can’t on my own push my mind beyond the boundaries of what I already know. To use Wittgenstein’s metaphor, the limits of our language become the limits of our world. I need a space – most likely a physical space with a real professor who has delved deeply into these issues for most of his/her academic career focus – in which to be pushed and prodded to think beyond what I have traditionally thought. To be shown connections I would have never imagined. To be dragged down the logical path I would have never wanted to explore. To be reminded that I don’t know how an argument plays out. To come to grips with the complexity that I will all too often gloss over. To think.

In the end, I may walk out of that college classroom with the same beliefs and propensity for actions I had when I first walked in the door. Which is in fact just fine. Because at least now I can better articulate and understand why I do what I do. And that – the self-reflective individual able to contextualize one’s beliefs and actions within a conceptual framework as impinged upon by the realities around us – is at the heart of powerful teaching. It gives me the chance to think about what it means to teach in the type of school I am hired by and with the type of kids sitting in front of me; and it gives me the chance to wonder, deeply and profoundly, whether in fact I want to teach as I was taught. And if I don’t, then how the heck do I want to teach? And why?

Thus what a school of education ultimately offers – beyond the opportunity to learn and the opportunity to practice – is the opportunity to come to grips with what it means to be a teacher today. This experience will never change for new teachers and why we need a school of education.

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