Working to empower – not enfeeble – educator preparation

Why are there teacher shortages plaguing a variety of regions in this country? And why are some colleges of education facing significant drops in enrollment?

Just over a year ago, NPR reporter Erik Westervelt called and asked me these very questions. I told him then what I say again now: We don’t know. To my knowledge, there are no rigorous empirical studies that offer a true causal explanation of why some people who might have chosen to become teachers, or enroll in a traditional teacher-prep program, have recently decided to pursue different careers. (If you know otherwise, please send the research my way.)

The absence of such evidence, however, has not stopped those of us working in this field from speculating. For example, Dr. Ilana Horn, a professor and teacher-educator at Peabody (Vanderbilt), recently offered the following hypothesis via tweet:

Part of neoliberal ed reform has been to denigrate teacher prep. Enrollment down in most ed programs in the US. This cuts supply.

This theory – let’s call it the “teacher-prep denigration” theory – is a plausible explanation for teacher shortages and enrollment drops. But the number of plausible theories that may explain a phenomena will always exceed those that are actually true. And despite its facial plausibility, I’m not sure the denigration theory holds up under scrutiny, for two reasons.

The first problem is historical. The sad reality is that so-called traditional teacher-preparation programs have always faced withering criticism. Stanford education historian David Labaree writes about this at length in his masterful history of teacher education – titled, tellingly, The Trouble with Ed Schools – which includes the following quote:

Coursework in education [schools] deserves its ill repute. It is most often puerile, repetitious, dull, and ambiguous – incontestably.

That quote is from 1963, and you can find others like it throughout the past century. Rather than being some new phenomena, the “lowly status” of education schools has been the norm. Labaree argues, persuasively in my view, that this is the result of powerful historical forces, including the incorporation of normal schools – the programs that used to train teachers exclusively – into this nation’s research institutions in the early to mid-20th century.

I suspect these massive historical shifts are far more influential in shaping teacher preparation today than, say, the latest NCTQ rankings.

The second problem with the teacher-prep denigration theory is empirical. In a brief exchange I had with Horn over Twitter, she offered Teach For America as one example of a nefarious “neoliberal” enterprise. Leaving aside the merits of that claim, if TFA is one of the lead perpetrators of teacher-prep denigration, it seems to have misfired in its message as enrollment declines are just as sharp at TFA as they are in traditional teacher prep. And of course TFA as an organization was founded long before the current enrollment shortages started showing up in the data. There is no evidence suggesting a causal relationship here.

So if the teacher-prep denigration theory is lacking, is there an alternative causal mechanism that might explain recent enrollment declines and shortages? Well here’s one: over the past 10 to 15 years, student-debt loads have exploded as states have shifted the costs of college financing from a public responsibility to one increasingly borne by students themselves. From 2005 to 2013, the amount of total student-debt quadrupled from approximately $240 billion to a cool $1 trillion.  And despite a portfolio of programs designed to reduce student debt for teachers specifically, most teachers – to say nothing of the general student population – are unaware of these programs, and only a paltry number participate in them. So with spiraling tuition and mounting debt over the past decade, perhaps students enrolled in traditional four-year institutions pursued careers they concluded would pay more than teaching?

Yet despite our differences on the causes of existing teacher shortages, one area where Horn and I surely agree is we must stop reflexively denigrating traditional teacher-preparation institutions. Instead, we can acknowledge that our system of preparing educators can and must improve in ways that emphasize the power of renewal and transformation. As Prof. Robbie McClintock of Teachers College at Columbia aptly noted in a provocative rejoinder to David Labaree’s “lowly status” argument, “concentrating only on questions of status frames [the] argument in a way that both excuses us from responsibility for our status and enfeebles us in doing anything about it.”

Exactly right. The deans I’ve had the privilege of working with at Deans for Impact embrace this responsibility, and we are working to empower rather than enfeeble. And it’s my hope that through our collective work, we will bring about an end to teacher shortages by inspiring a new wave to enter this noble profession. We have much work to do – and so much to gain from doing so.

Benjamin Riley

Founder and Executive Director

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