The Role of the Federal Government in Enhancing Teacher Education

by Lauro F. Cavazos


Teacher education is currently in a state of turmoil, unrest, and uncertainty. The poor performance of America's schools despite a decade of education reform has increased the pressure on teacher educators to take the initiative in reforming their programs. This may prove difficult for them because teacher education is often a low priority at most colleges and universities. Another failing of higher education is that it does not appear to value the mission and purpose of teaching among its own general faculty. Too many institutions have emphasized research at the expense of teaching in making hiring and tenure decisions.

Colleges and universities need to rearrange their priorities to reflect the pressing need for effective teaching and better teachers at all levels of our education system. At the same time, Colleges of Education must lead in bringing about major reform and change on how we prepare teachers; that is where teacher improvement must start.

The concept that the federal government has a major or significant role in teacher education is not valid. It is true that the funds requested in the Goals 2000 Act and the Improving America's Schools Act of 1993, contain welcomed support for professional development for teachers. Both of these bills, however, have other education objectives. Teacher education at the university level is not emphasized. The federal government needs to target teacher education directly in stand alone legislation and not as part of an omnibus bill on education. This would serve to focus the attention of the nation on teacher education.

The federal government should make it clear that teacher preparation is a priority and that teachers are a national resource. Then, funding needs to be provided for innovative teacher education, for programs that target minority teacher recruitment, and for increased collaboration between universities and schools in the preparation of teachers. For example, schools and Colleges of Education can work together to blend education innovation concepts into the teacher education programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Further, the school systems should provide opportunities for their teachers to return to the College of Education for continuation education programs or courses. There they would learn about innovative teaching methods and concepts that would renew their teaching skills, and thereby enhance student education.

Beyond appropriating funds to initiate teacher education reform, the role of the federal government should be limited to monitoring and assessing the results. The details of improving teacher education should be left to the schools and colleges. In response to funding support, universities should direct their priorities toward the pressing need for effective teaching and better teachers.

The reforms we are seeing today in teacher education, led by some of the Colleges of Education, are aimed partly at undoing the mistakes of the past and empowering professional educators to organize their schools and teach to the best of their abilities. School based management will create the kind of entrepreneurial environment that will reward professional initiative and innovation. It is based on respect for the ability of professional educators to create effective schools where all children can learn.

There is no single model that can effectively reform teacher education. Ways must be found to attract and prepare talented persons to teach under the widely differing conditions found in America's classrooms. The best way to ensure quality teaching for all children is to permit the aximum flexibility in teacher education programs, limited only by the need to maintain accountability for outcomes.

There should be three overarching objectives for any teaching program. First, graduates must know how to create active learning environments. Second, all teachers must have a thorough understanding of the subject they teach. Third, all teachers must be educated to meet the challenges of cultural diversity in our schools. One of the most striking aspects of teaching in the 21st century will be the diversity of students who will be in America's classrooms.

Over thirty percent of public school enrollment is now minority. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, they will comprise more than 50 percent of the students in twelve states. This changing population poses some special challenges and problems for teachers and teacher education.

Many of these minority students speak a language other than English at home. Social and cultural differences can present extra challenges to teachers. Encouraging feedback from students experiencing difficulties, communicating effectively with parents, and overcoming gaps in student preparation are a few examples of areas in which minority students may require special attention.

Too many young teachers today find their training for a suburban education environment to be inadequate for the inner city school system where they are most likely to find jobs. Most teachers will not be able to draw on their own experiences to meet the instructional needs of a disparate population, so it is critical that teacher education programs provide the necessary background and training. It is important for teachers to see themselves as part of the community in which they teach, even if they live elsewhere. Schools must be careful that staff attitudes about poverty and ethnic background do not bias their teaching approach to minority students. Teachers need to learn about the culture and language of their students. Colleges of Education can provide continuing education activity and courses for those teachers from communities with large numbers of minorities.

If we are to prepare a generation of teachers to deal effectively with the linguistic and cultural needs of the student population, there needs to be a new emphasis on language proficiency in the undergraduate curriculum. Currently only ten percent of baccalaureate degree recipients are proficient in a language other than English. As a first step to increased bilingualism, that proportion needs to be increased to 50 percent. Further, Colleges of Education, which seldom require any language instruction, should make proficiency in a second language mandatory for all students, given the importance of understanding other cultures, and the need to relate to the growing changes in our society.

It is never too late for those teachers already in the system to learn a new language. In order to increase language proficiency, Colleges of Education should create partnerships with the schools that teach significant numbers of minority students. Through these arrangements, and in conjunction with the foreign language department of the university, learning opportunities could be provided in evening courses or during the summers. The federal government might target language proficiency as an important facet in teacher education and could provide funding as a stimulus to improving foreign language skills in the Colleges of Education.

The federal government should designate the education of minority teachers a national priority. Despite the growing minority representation in America's student population, the number of minority teachers has remained relatively stable at about ten percent during the last ten years. This means that many of our children will never have the opportunity to learn from minority teaching professionals during their growing years. As in other professions, minorities have important contributions to make to teaching, based on the unique perspectives, experience, and understanding that they may bring to the classroom.

Minority teachers may also serve as needed role models for minorites and disadvantaged students from communities in which the value of education may not be understood. A shared background may help a teacher communicate the importance of learning to students who otherwise would see little purpose in attending school.

In order to educate more minority teachers, Colleges of Education must recruit outstanding minority students to enter their programs. Colleges of Education should establish collaborative efforts with secondary schools that have large numbers of minority students. On a regular basis, education faculty need to work with the schools to identify minority students who have an interest in a teaching career. Faculty members should counsel them about a teaching career, and guide them in their choice of academic courses. The students should be advised of the costs of a university education, and be made aware of financial aid opportunities.

Student visits to the College of Education should be encouraged in order that they observe teaching activities and talk to enrolled students and faculty about a teaching career.

Universities must make education a priority and recognize that the preparation of teachers is not just the responsibility of Colleges of Education, but an integral part of the university mission. Institutions of higher education must make a real investment of attention and demonstrate a commitment of purpose in teacher training. In turn, the federal government should constantly remind universities of the importance of preparing teachers, and initiate programs that support Colleges of Education.

The challenge in teacher education is clear. We have set far-reaching national education goals, at a time when our schools are failing to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse society. Teaching in the classroom of the 1990s demands individuals who can create effective learning conditions, and who have developed an understanding of how to meet the education needs of a changing student population. We must not only restructure our schools, but we must transform the culture of professional educators into a culture of educational renewal that will produce the teachers we will need to truly provide quality education for all children.

Colleges of Education must communicate with the schools about the transformations taking place that will improve teacher preparation. They should encourage and aid the schools to critically review their teaching goals, methods, and programs. If needed, the colleges should provide expertise that will assist the schools strengthen their educational efforts. University-school collaboration is vital if education in America is to markedly improve. The federal government has a role in furthering this mission by targeting funding that makes such activities the norm and not the exception.

(figure available in print form)

"Which Came First" is the fourth of nine pieces of the Enlightenment Series produced during the 80s when I was attempting to define my existence in relation to the rest of humanity. The series is composed of artist's books that function as little morality stories. The fact that I have been in the educational field must have had some influence. I guess I continue to give form to complex issues in a manner that is nonthreatening while hopefully providing enjoyment in the process. Education, whether it be formal or not is, for me, more about learning than about teaching. . . . I am very happy to learn that this country is trying to redefine the nature of education through a collaborative approach. I want to believe that this nation will consider the role of art to be as important as that of the other areas of learning, all of which grew out of the creative process. That art is about the skill of thinking and a respect for feeling. ­ Celia Alvarez Munoz .


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