Cawthorne Professor Marilyn Cochran-Smith and students discuss findings of her co-authored study on teacher education research. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Asking the Right Questions
LSOE's Cochran-Smith offers primer for research on teacher ed
By Sean Smith
It is a familiar scenario, says Cawthorne Professor of Education Marilyn Cochran-Smith: Politicians, representatives from the educational community, the media and the public debate whether teachers are adequately prepared for their profession's demands, and all claim to have empirical evidence to support their viewpoints.
Trouble is, the answers often touted for teacher preparation seldom line up with the questions, according to Cochran-Smith - and the questions themselves are often insufficient.
"Before we make policies or implement practices on how we prepare our teachers, we should be sure our decisions are informed by research," said Cochran-Smith. "Unfortunately, there is just not enough out there right now."
Accordingly, Cochran-Smith and Kenneth Zeichner, associate dean of teacher education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, have proposed a to-do list for teacher-education research, including suggestions on design, methodology and topics. Sections explore areas such as preparation of teachers for diverse populations and students with disabilities, arts and sciences coursework in education and pedagogical approaches.
Their report was published this summer by the American Educational Research Association, of which Cochran-Smith was president during 2004-05.
For Cochran-Smith - who today will give her inaugural lecture as Cawthorne Professor in Burns Library - and her colleague, the volume is the culmination of a four-year study they hope can help defuse the combustible nature of teacher-education research.
To be sure, she says, Americans have always had strong views and intense conversations about how well teachers measure up to their jobs. But during the past decade, as the call for greater accountability in education has intensified, and the federal government in particular has pushed for quantifiable evidence of teachers' effectiveness - notably through increased testing - the discussion has not necessarily been a productive one, nor has the available research been helpful.
"There's too often an emphasis on what I call the 'horse race method' - comparing two approaches on any number of issues to try and find out 'Which is better?' and this has resulted in many studies that fail to link the whole process of teacher education," she said. "Focusing on just one question does not address whether particular approaches to teacher preparation actually result in better teachers.
"That does not mean there is no good research out there. It just means we have to ask some different questions. And so, rather than advocate specific teacher preparation routes, our study looked at what we know, what we need to find out - and how we might accomplish that."
For example, says Cochran-Smith, one flashpoint in education debates involves the efficacy of so-called "alternate" routes to teacher preparation. "There is little real hard data about this, and one reason is we can't agree what defines 'alternate.' Does it refer to all pathways into teaching except four-year undergraduate programs? Does it refer to streamlined summer programs? Does it include master's level entry programs?
"Once there is a better and consistent definition of the terms, then we can examine how alternate pathways may, or may not, have an impact on teachers in the classroom, and we can begin to understand why and under what conditions."
Another area that has been the subject of conflicting claims is the demographic profile of teachers. One demographic myth often cited about teachers, says Cochran-Smith, is "they come from the bottom 25 percent" of the college population. In fact, AERA analysis of the research indicates that college graduates in secondary education programs have comparable SAT/ACT scores as other college graduates.
Through their study, Cochran-Smith and Zeichner compiled a list of major characteristics of teachers: They are predominantly female, in their early 40s, white, monolingual and more likely to have high school and college-educated parents than in the past; most are prepared in baccalaureate programs at public universities and increasing numbers also major in non-education fields.
"But we need more than this, given our increasingly diverse student population," said Cochran-Smith. "We need to put together a more comprehensive, up-to-date database about not only current teachers, but prospective teachers - those who are in the pipeline.
"If we had some baseline comparisons with other professions, it would help us better understand the lack of diversity in our teaching corps. We also need to look at entry and certification standards, and how these might affect efforts to improve diversity."
While the federal funding environment may be tight, Cochran-Smith says there are avenues to support education research. "The talk is all of budget and funding cuts, but research that investigates the outcomes of educational policies and practices is high on the agenda."
In addition, "education school deans can make research on teacher preparation and education a priority," said Cochran-Smith, citing BC's research incentive and expense grants as an example of support at the institutional level that could be used to foster more research on the outcomes of teacher education.
More information on Studying Teacher Education: The Report of the AERA Panel on Research and Teacher Education is available through the AERA Web site at www.aera.net/newsmedia/?id=763.