Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Cacophony or Embarrassment of Riches: Building a System of Support for Quality Teaching

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Cacophony or Embarrassment of Riches: Building a System of Support for Quality Teaching

Article excerpt

Offering a high-quality education to all U.S. students and building an educational system that supports teachers are topics of much concern and investment, passion and critique. Teacher quality is at the core of those ardent discussions, with calls for the reform and critical review of teacher preparation, induction, and professional development programs. There is no lack of activity in response to these calls. There are more than 1,200 teacher education programs at universities, another 130 "alternative routes," and at least as many induction programs. Every one of the more than 15,000 school districts in the United States has multiple professional development programs sponsored by school districts, foundations, federal grants, universities, educational entrepreneurs, informal institutions, and other agencies.

This (non)system of professional learning opportunities is carnivalesque (Cohen & Spillane, 1992): crowded, noisy, incoherent, with both attractive and seedy options. Teachers roam from one option to another. They attend a teacher preparation program with one focus and curriculum, and then join an induction program with an entirely different focus and curriculum. In many states, new teachers can be in two induction programs simultaneously. Teachers, school systems, and states select programs on the basis of interest, taste, convenience, or mandate. (Seldom--if ever--are they selected on the basis of empirical evidence of effectiveness.) Considerable personal, public, state, and federal resources are also poured into teacher development, but teachers seldom receive guidance about or the opportunity to select professional development that builds upon prior support. Making matters worse, much professional development is fleeting: Programs lose funding, interventions and materials come and go, and vendors change.

In sum, the system is incoherent, diffuse, and uncoordinated. There is significant variation within and across the system's three levels (teacher preparation, induction, and professional development). Although some might see this as an embarrassment of riches (and prototypically American with its wild array of options), we see it as more cacophonous than coherent. And it is the major stumbling block in any attempt we might make to institutionalize effective, "developmentally appropriate" support in the name of teacher quality.

In this article, we lay out several dimensions of the variability of teacher learning opportunities currently available, describe several concrete examples, and discuss the challenges and unintended consequences we face as scholars and educators as we try build a better system. We conclude by arguing for collective action. It may be that we are at a Gladwell-ian "tipping point": The variability offers rich opportunities to think and act syncretically, but it also leaves the educational establishment open to jurisdictional challenges (Tamir & Wilson, 2005; Wilson & Tamir, 2008).

We start with a broad-brush portrait of the variability that currently exists.

A (Non)System of Support for Teacher Quality

Teacher education does not exist in the United States. There is so much variation among programs in visions of good teaching, standards for admission, rigor of subject matter preparation, what is taught and what is learned, character of supervised clinical experience, and quality of evaluation that, compared to any other academic profession, the sense of chaos is inescapable. The claim that there are "traditional programs" that can be contrasted with "alternative routes" is a myth. We have only alternative routes into teaching. Compared to any other learned profession such as law, engineering, medicine, nursing, or the clergy, where curricula, standards, and assessments are far more standardized across the nation, teacher education is nothing but multiple pathways. It should not surprise us that critics respond to the apparent cacophony of pathways and conclude that it doesn't matter how teachers are prepared. …

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