It's time to update teacher-training methods, educators say

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Just as concern for the quantity and quality of America's teacher force reaches its highest level in 25 years, a group of influential college education deans propose to drastically alter teacher education. The Holmes Group, as it is known, is made up of education deans from the nation's 50 largest research universities. They have met for two years in ``intense'' debate, as one member put it, over how to reform the training of teachers -- training they say has not changed in nearly a century.

``Society has changed; knowledge has changed; but the way we prepare teachers has not changed,'' says Cecil Miskel, a Holmes executive board member from the University of Utah.

The tight grip schools of education have had on the academic life of prospective teachers has chased away the best teacher-candidates, Holmes Group members contend. Undergraduates are being required to take too many courses in educational theory, and not enough in their basic field of teaching, be it math or science or the humanities.

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Furthermore, members say, prospective teachers of the type needed in schools today need more intellectual challenge than is provided by the typical undergraduate education program, often set up for underachievers more interested in the concrete ``how-tos'' of teaching than in courses requiring independent thought.

In something of an earth-shaking move in the education field, the Holmes Group has solidified a plan proposing that its member schools (which may number more than 100 by the end of the year) do away with the undergraduate education major. Instead, teacher candidates would receive a masters degree following a required fifth year of research and student teaching in a graduate program.

Such a move is in keeping with the implications behind a recent Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) study. In reviewing the college transcripts of some 6,000 teachers, it found that: almost no teachers took upper-level courses even in their own field; three-quarters of the education majors took no courses -- economics, for example -- outside their field; and half the course load of many was in pedagogy.

When you added up the typical education major's college course work, says Mark Musick of SREB, ``You scratched your head as to what it added up to. Four years were often spent in some strange ways.''

Eliminating the education major is just one in a series of steps designed to attract bright students into a profession that, as Holmes chairwoman Judy Lanier of Michigan State says, ``must for the first time ever compete in an open labor market.'' Beginning in 1990, she notes, the nation will need some 200,000 new teachers a year; at the same time, the traditional teacher pool of women and minorities is expected to be much shallower.

The great need articulated by the Holmes Group is to establish teaching as a profession rather than just ``a job,'' and to make it attractive for a wide variety of interested and qualified persons. A proposed Holmes reform in teacher licensing would work in this direction, enabling a teacher without an M.A. to receive a five-year temporary ``Instructors'' license -- to find out if teaching is for them. The next rung up the ladder would be the ``Professional Teacher,'' a title given one who had received a masters degree and passed a series of exams. Finally, through exemplary work and specialized study, a teacher could become a ``Career Professional.''

The most controversial proposal is the required fifth year of study. In such reform-minded states as New Jersey, with its quick teacher certification plan, politicians and school officials say a fifth year is unnecessary. The Holmes Group argues strenuously that this is not only untrue and unprofessional, but that it is based on a popular myth about teaching -- that teaching is something anyone with a little subject knowledge can do without much prior experience.

In a recent report, Holmes Group members refer to this as the ``Naive View of Teaching.'' No account is made in the ``naive view'' of the skill involved in crafting a lesson for different levels of learners. Nor is much attention given to interactive teaching skills -- knowing how to teach critical thinking, learning to identify misconceptions, being able to work with groups as well as individuals, or managing time well. Good teaching is an art, they say, and has a lot to do with the quality of learning in the classroom.

In conjunction with this idea, Holmes Group schools will experiment with professional development schools where students watch excellent teachers practice, and have their own teaching critique. Previously, says Mr. Miskel, students have tended to be isolated from practice until they are ``thrown'' into a school.

State education leaders, hungry for comprehensive reform ideas, say even if the Holmes Group approaches are not adopted wholesale, they will provide an important model for other states.

The Holmes Group is named after Henry W. Holmes, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the 1920s. Mr. Holmes argued at the time that teacher training was a ``highly significant part of the making of the nation.'' However, Holmes's plan to reform and professionalize teachers and teaching faded quickly.

The present Holmes Group, however, believes that the nation is entering a critical period for elementary and secondary education -- a period where more than half the teaching profession for the next quarter century will be chosen between 1990 and 1997.

The Holmes leadership warns against simplistic notions of reform in this era. ``When America said it was going to the moon in the 1960s,'' says Ms. Lanier, ``we backed up that assertion with action -- with major research and development. The same is true in trying to turn around the teaching profession.''

Critics say the Holmes ideas are self-serving, since most of the institutions do not have a major undergraduate commitment to education in the first place. Holmes leaders say they are trying to establish the highest possible standards in teaching.

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