Creating lasting impact by learning from the past

There are few more important goals in this country than improving student learning by transforming the field of teacher preparation. That’s why I was honored and excited to join the board at Deans for Impact.

But Deans for Impact is hardly the first reform project in teacher education. Deliberate efforts to improve teacher education have started and stalled for decades, and few have had any lasting impact. The obvious question: how can Deans for Impact avoid the same fate?

In my doctoral dissertation at the University of Michigan, I studied the experience of one well-funded and ambitious effort, trying to figure out what makes reforming teacher education in this country so difficult.

It was called the Holmes Group, taking the name from Henry W. Holmes, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the 1920s and a champion of university-based teacher education. Launched in January 1987 in Washington DC, it was made up of deans and department chairs from schools and colleges of education in more than 100 of the nation’s top research universities—all of them, as one member later described it, willing to “don the hair shirt of self-criticism.”

In 1987, as now, there was an urgent sense that the time was ripe for reform in teacher training.   The publication of A Nation at Risk several years earlier had galvanized public support and political will around education reform, and what was then just beginning to be called “teacher quality” was a central concern. The Holmes Group wanted to change almost everything about the teaching profession, from the career ladder – or lack thereof – to the courses taken by prospective teachers to the nature of the research carried on in colleges of education. Writing teams crafted three book-length manifestoes laying out the group’s goals; faculty at university and K-12 campuses across the nation turned their attention to improving teaching and teacher education. The American Educational Research Association (AERA) created a new division – Division K – dedicated to research on teaching and teacher education. Looking back on this era, many faculty members at Holmes Group institutions recall the period as one of the most exciting and satisfying of their careers.

Yet fewer than 10 years after it started, the Holmes Group project had imploded, joining the ranks of other efforts to improve teacher education that had begun with a bang and then faded quietly, including the M.A.T. programs of the 1960s and the competency-based teacher education movement of the 1970s. More recently, that list has grown to include projects such as the Carnegie Corporation’s Teachers for a New Era as well as several district residency programs.

So what lessons can Deans for Impact draw from this discouraging history? My conclusion was that a central problem of the Holmes Group’s efforts was that many of the teacher educators associated with it, committed though they were, did not know how to teach a genuinely practice-focused curriculum. 

Serious improvement in teacher education is impossible without significant changes in what teacher educators teach and how they teach it. Prospective teachers must learn the core practices of teaching – how to lead a discussion, explain content, check student understanding, and implement norms and routines in their classroom, to name a few examples – and develop the special kinds of content and pedagogical knowledge that they will need to carry out those practices.

As I watch Deans for Impact get to work, I am certainly mindful of the fate of the Holmes Group and of other efforts to improve teacher education. I hope that we can keep in mind how crucial it is that teacher educators in member institutions be supported to make the changes in their own practice that improvement in teacher education requires. New directions in policy won’t do much good if the people who work directly with prospective teachers are not able to teach practice.

Teaching is hard work, and preparing novices to do it is often just as difficult. But nothing could be more important, and it would be dangerous for us to turn our attention elsewhere for long.

Francesca Forzani is associate director at Teaching Works and a board member of Deans for Impact. For more information on our board, click here.

Francesca Forzani

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