Bad and good ways to defend social foundations and reform teacher education

In Part I of a series of essays that somehow connect the politics of teacher education to austerity plans in Greece, Henry Giroux disappointed me most at "It is precisely this rejection of theory that prevents teachers from addressing the right-wing policies now being enacted in Texas and Arizona." There is something unreal about this argument that if only K-12 teachers had Theory, they'd be able to leap ideological nonsense in a single bound. Giroux has been prominent for decades in arguing that teachers can and should be intellectuals, and there is a core of a sensible argument in the essays (also see Part II and Part III), but it's wrapped up in so much intellectual confection that I saw little more than a gooey mess by the end of each essay. I've felt something like this regarding some other writers towards the end of their careers, that they desperately needed a strong-willed editor to help them cut the crap out. It is all the more disappointing given the need for clear-eyed perspectives on teacher education.


In the first essay, Giroux points out that Arne Duncan takes for granted and is continuing much of the core set of assumptions that drove school reform in the Bush II era. The broad strokes of that is uncontroversial. And Giroux argues that Duncan, David Steiner, and many others want teacher education to be primarily technical rather than intellectual, and there's a core truth to that. But Giroux makes both errors of commission and errors of omission in a scattershot approach. Giroux argues that the praise of Louisiana's teacher education reform ignores the disparate outcomes from Louisiana's K-12 system. Pause, scratch head: how can the slow development of changes in training new teachers be responsible for continuing inequalities in a system where new teachers are a relatively small part of the equation? Here's a case where a good editor would say, "Hey, Dr. Giroux, this just doesn't fit. We're cutting it to make the essay stronger. Yeah, I know it's one of your favorite passages. Good authors kill their favorite children, or passages, or whatnot." Or the following:

Duncan's attack on theory and critical thinking is not only rooted in the most perverse form of anti-intellectualism; it is also in lockstep with a conservative and corporate educational reform movement driven by an ideological agenda largely shaped by a number of anti-public conservative foundations, politicians, legislators and intellectuals who argue for deregulation and exhibit a strange obsession with crunching numbers.

Giroux is not alone in crafting a monolithic explanation of why the Obama administration's education policies parallel those of the Bush administration in several ways, but there's something deeply unsatisfying with the argument that it's a single wrong idea that's dominating in an uber-policy sense. And it just doesn't hang together when put in the context of education policy overall. The elimination of subsidized college loans from the private sector to create a monopoly for the direct student loan program? The $100 billion in ARRA to save teachers' jobs? Neither of those policies fits with Giroux's monolithic argument. Look, I understand the concern with reductionist education reform policies, but "it's complicated" isn't just a Facebook relationship status. There's more to the Obama/Duncan policies than "continue what George W. Bush started." This administration has done some very, very good things with regard to education (especially in the stimulus and health-care bills), and they've done some foolish things. That's very hard to fit in a seamless explanation such as Giroux's.


There is something fundamentally romantic about Giroux's grandiose argument defending classes in social and cultural foundations of education, and especially what he and others call critical theory. For those new to the term "foundations," it usually refers to four types of classes: educational psychology, measurement/assessment, curriculum theory, and humanities and social-science perspectives on education. Social or cultural foundations comprise the last. I push my students to think about the contradictions and dilemmas of education, so much so that a student from about ten years ago told me I had to read Giroux's essays. But I don't want them to save the world, or rather I don't really expect my classes to be the lynchpin in their future careers, however much my life revolves around my own area. For one thing, it's a bit absurd to simultaneously claim that we should be careful about all the child-saving goals some have for formal schooling at the same time we want people to Save the World using our perspective.

Far more realistic is a goal of sanity: If you take a class from me, I'll give you a rock to stand on when things are nutty. You should come out of my class understanding the central reasons why politics is inseparable from education policy, why there are conflicting expectations of schools, what the debates over the achievement gap revolve around, arguments over the roles of teachers and teaching as an occupation, and a basic outline of the history of education and social-science models of schooling. If you become a teacher after leaving my class, you'll have some ideas and tools to give you perspective as fads fly through your system. Or to take another analogy: my undergraduate classes in social foundations are the educational equivalent of defensive driving classes. Of course you need to know how to steer the car, work the mirrors, operate the clutch, and so forth. The mechanisms of driving are essential. But a good part of staying safe on the road is avoiding all the crazy drivers around you. Likewise with teaching: you need to know methods, but if you only learn methods you'll be crying frequently at 4 am, and not just in your first year of teaching.

The role of classes in humanities and social-science perspectives in education is different at the graduate level: researchers in other areas who wade into areas touching on humanities and social-science perspectives on education need to know something about the relevant materials my colleagues and I write lest they reinvent the wheel, misinterpret canonical authors such as Dewey, and otherwise lead themselves astray. One brief gloss on this is captured in books such as Tyack and Cuban's Tinkering toward Utopia (1995), after which graduate students in my classes commonly express amazement that "these things have been tried before" for a lot of these things policies. And, no, one book is not enough. Quick (for those who haven't taken social/cultural foundations classes at the doctoral level): what sorts of wheels do you not have to reinvent, thanks to Willard Waller? Robert Dreeben? Ira Katznelson and Margaret Weir? Amy Gutmann?

The arguments over social foundations and "theory" in teacher education make me wince in part because they come from the counterfactual assumption that social foundations dominates teacher education. Arthur Levine made that error in one of his reports, Arne Duncan makes it, and David Steiner makes it. Were we so lucky that historians, philosophers, and sociologists of education ran the roost, but that just isn't so. Go find the social-foundations requirement in California state law or regs: I dare you. It's not there, and I don't know if there's a single state that requires it. NCATE doesn't. TEAC doesn't. Part of the difficulty with classes in social and cultural foundations of education is that they are often "infused" into other classes taught by faculty (or adjuncts or graduate students) without much more formal education in the constituent disciplines than a single class themselves. In some small college programs, there isn't much choice with the small numbers of faculty. But full-time positions specifically in foundations of education have declined dramatically over the past few decades, and it feeds a vicious cycle:

  • External and internal pressures rise on teacher education programs to add technical content to programs.
  • Programs of studies shift away from courses based in liberal-arts programs and towards more technical courses. (Sometimes this is reduction of gen-ed requirements outside teacher ed, sometimes in reduction of social foundations requirements.)
  • As foundations requirements drop, colleges and universities hire fewer faculty in the area on retirements. Some social foundations faculty entirely disappear in institutions.
  • Some time later, there is a countervailing push (either externally or internally) to increase material in teacher education programs on diversity, multiculturalism, the social context of education, etc.
  • Teacher education program faculty restructure programs again to add the material.
  • Without social foundations faculty, those who teach courses in diversity, multiculturalism, the relationship between schooling and democracy, and so forth have relatively thin backgrounds in those areas. They do the best they can...

... and the best that someone outside an area of expertise can do is often very different from someone who has spent years of study in the area. I've got three years of postdoc experience in a special education department, but you'd be nuts to ask me to teach methods classes in special education. I am just not competent to do so. Period. So what happens when people teaching classes in schooling and diversity do so with a small handful of graduate classes touching on diversity, themselves not taught by anyone with a liberal-arts background, and without being responsible for a broad field of readings beyond the required readings for those classes?

In other areas of education, we'd call this out of field teaching. To argue that teacher education is too laden with theory because you can easily find course titles, catalog descriptions, and syllabi with terms such as foundations, critical theory, diversity, and so forth when the instructors for those classes don't have significant academic backgrounds in social foundations is the teacher education equivalent of saying that high schools were too laden with science if we lived in a world where somewhere between a large minority to a solid majority of science teachers had no more than one or two science classes in college.

So the reality of teacher education today is that much "theory" is watered down, outside the context of a rigorous course in a liberal-arts tradition. I construct my readings so that no student can agree with everything they read in my course unless they've read poorly, but I can imagine someone with minimal readings in the area assigning a recent provocative writing in one particular direction without a broader context. In my undergraduate social foundations class, I assign more than a dozen pieces of writing that students usually find difficult and require close attention. But if the primary reading is a text and the emphasis is on understanding terminology or a cascade of regurgitated social-science models as separate "chunks" to memorize, students avoid a structure of close reading, deeper criticism, and a conversation among authors.


Where to go from here on teacher education and the right mix of liberal-arts courses and technical courses? First, I think we call bullshit on those who simultaneously praise Teach for America and then want colleges of education to strip their programs of everything but vocational approaches. You can't ask schools deeply in need of good experienced teachers to take fresh-out-of-school liberal-arts graduates and then say every other teacher has to start with a purely technical background. Double standard, no? Second, when talking about social foundations we stop channeling George S. Counts, who argued in the 1930s that teachers could be social reformers in an explicit sense. That is essentially what Giroux is doing even while acknowledging the (culturally) conservative nature of teaching. That lays a pretty heavily guilt trip on future teachers, who can do a great deal to improve the world just by doing their jobs, keeping perspective on bad policy and going around it legally, and staying sane while doing so.

We also have to support a solid balance of liberal-arts and professional courses as essential for new teachers. That's enormously difficult in a public four-year college or university, as universities discovered in Florida when the legislature tried to mandate more than 30 hours of prerequisite liberal-arts courses for education majors. It was great in theory, but in practice it required students to know at the start of their first semester that they wanted to be teachers. It is also true that those who want to have secondary specializations need to start early because they essentially have to double-major if they want to be certified when they graduate. The current move is to require teacher-education students to have consistent field experiences every year (preferably every semester), with the right supervision, of course. Again, this sounds great, but it imposes structural inflexibilities in other parts of a student's program of studies.

What we are left with is the reality of structurally-incomplete programs: in four years, relatively few student are going to have both a great liberal-arts education and also a great professional education. In the 1980s, the Holmes Group had another theoretically-bright idea, which is to make teacher education a five-year process, adding in a masters-degree program before people graduated and acquired jobs. Unfortunately, lots of students need to have jobs before they can take the graduate credits, and in most public universities, graduate courses are a large quantum click higher in tuition. New York State pioneered the "masters degree during your early professional career" approach, which recognizes the incomplete nature of baccalaureate degrees as professional education.

In the end, the masters-in-five-years requirement may be the best approach to the inherently incomplete nature of undergraduate teacher education. Unfortunately, that doesn't address the individual gaps in a new teacher's background or the incompatibility of taking graduate classes in the academic year while you're teaching. So it needs tweaking: New teachers fresh out of college need to be told explicitly what they come in with, what gaps they need to fill, and what type of program they must take (whether heavy on liberal arts, heavy on technical methods, or something more specific). I don't care if they are formal masters programs or graduate certificates or whatnot; we just need to acknowledge that most new teachers need help both during the year in their classes and with deeper background in either liberal arts or professional education. Any liberal-arts courses need to be heavier in the summer than in the academic year. And school districts should pay teachers to acquire more education in their first few professional years as part of accelerated early-career raises.

I wish I could change the world so that teachers were paid well enough to wait until they have a graduate degree to start teaching, or that we really could provide a great liberal-arts and a great professional education all in four years. But it does no good to propose policies based on what isn't true now. What is true now is that few teachers come out of college fully prepared to be great in the classroom right off the bat, and that isn't going to be the case no matter what Arne Duncan or you or I would wish. So we have to accept that people graduate college with an incomplete preparation, and then we need to help them without pretending that either just a technical or just a liberal-arts education is enough.

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