The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Of Teacher Preparation
We all know the role that educators play, that students learn from teachers. But who teaches the teachers? How do educators determine the best ways to lay the groundwork for those who will replace them in the hallowed halls of academia? Preparing a Nation’s Teachers offers a thoroughly detailed yet highly readable account of the most relevant issues affecting the preparation of prospective teachers in the United States.
A representative sampling of English and foreign language departments completed baseline studies addressing topics related to the education of high school teachers and later reported their observations.
Preparing a Nation’s Teachers presents the results of self-studies produced by 12 university departments — six English, six foreign language — with each document revealing the strengths and challenges that each department faced in proposing model programs to improve the existing state of teacher-preparation efforts at their universities. This endeavor was part of the Modern Language Association’s Teacher Education Project reform effort, the development of which was authorized by the MLA Executive Council in 1993. The studies present the challenges (budgetary and time constraints, among others) that faculty members encounter on a daily basis even when fully participatory in the educational reform spirit. It is worth noting, as the University of Iowa’s report reminds us, that the wide gap between schools and colleges is a phenomenon that dates back to the inception of the public high school at the end of the 19th century, when Harvard University President Charles Eliot complained about it at an 1890 National Education Association meeting.
Readers will also find success stories of universities that have evolved in response to the changing racial, cultural and religious face of the classroom, thereby having improved their program of study. In New Mexico, which is approximately 60 percent minority, New Mexico State University at Las Cruces has made significant changes to meet students’ needs. Norfolk State University in Virginia, an urban university with more than 8,700 students and the nation’s fifth largest historically Black college or university, began its report with a brief historical overview of the institution. They highlighted the degree and negative effects of the gross under-representation of minorities in education: “One’s personal identity is bound to one’s cultural identity. If either or both are not validated by the teacher and total school environment, the educational experience may fail to achieve its potential.”
This is not to suggest that only teachers who share the cultural origins of minority students can give the positive validation required for academic success. But the report emphasizes that “a representative presence of minority teachers in the secondary school is essential to ensure the commitment to inclusion and cultural validation that is vital to the encouragement of learning for all children.” In fact, the minority presence and the minority perspective is deemed to be of benefit for a balanced education for all students.
Like the reports from the English departments, the six reports by foreign language departments agree on the necessity of modifications to better meet prospective high school teachers’ needs. Many departments already have instituted changes to methodology that have drawn growing numbers to literary studies. There is a concerted effort to diminish the false divide between literary, cultural and linguistic studies within the foreign language majors. Most educators agree that there ought to be more opportunities to develop in-depth knowledge of the subject areas and for professors to try a variety of approaches to teaching literature. Student surveys revealed the need for increased attention to the practical aspects of classroom management, daily experiences, and more opportunities for study abroad. Model programs seem to be shifting away from a strictly literature-based program of study toward a more balanced distribution of courses that can comprise the major.
In addition to being privy to the insights contained in the reports and essays, the reader also benefits from the inclusion of additional documentation, such as course syllabi and required reading lists, that can serve as a working model for adaptation. The positive outcomes of the reports are highlighted while participants examine the continuing issues in ensuing essays.
One positive outcome is that some of the model programs proposed by the participating institutions have continued on the path to reform. Collaboration between high schools and universities remain close, allowing educators to continue sharing research and observations on varied matters of pedagogy. Courses have been created, modified or cut according to findings of several reports, and many of the curricular changes have led to joint doctoral programs between colleges that seem to be well-received by students. For example, thanks to increased collaboration, it is possible to earn a joint doctorate from the college of education and the college of arts and sciences at some of the participating institutions.
There is evidence that internal assessment can bring about positive change as educators and learners go about the task of revising the programs, aided by the strengthening or creation of ties among peers and cooperating institutions. Having acknowledged the difficulties associated with sustained collaboration, one essayist, Bob Broad, talks about the need for more “border crossing,” or more interaction among individuals from various fields within education. According to Broad, such collaboration has been shown to be effective because it leads to better teacher preparation and an overall greater understanding of what everyone’s role is.
The second part of the text, consisting of two essays on assessment, includes pertinent information for those whose departments are currently confronting issues of developing and applying assessment tools or considering changes to the curriculum. In light of the fact that instructors spend so much time and energy evaluating student work, it is only fitting that the designing and implementation of diagnostic methods continues to be a priority. The chapter by Edward M. White and Volney S. White sheds light on recent advances in the area of student assessment that could prove useful in all disciplines, not only for those in the department of English.
In the second piece on assessment issues, Judith E. Liskin-Gasparro reminds us that while concern persists regarding the oral proficiency of beginning teachers, more solid intellectual training and increased attention to assessment are also needed to improve teacher preparation. She also provides insights on issues related to the language proficiency evaluation of beginning teachers making the transition from high school to college-level language studies. She finds that, when it comes to assessment, “As an internal tool, it can serve as a mechanism for reflection and curricular innovation … but when the assessment is imposed externally, there is a real danger that it will be used as a mechanism of censure and control.”
Preparing a Nation’s Teachers is impressive in the scope it affords the topic of advances in teacher preparation while acknowledging the need for their continued evaluation. It is required reading for teachers, administrators and anyone interested in the current state of the complex processes that teacher preparation reform entails.
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