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March 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 6

Ten Promising Trends (and Three Big Worries)

We can keep teacher preparation reform moving in a positive direction if we remember the purposes of schooling.

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For almost a century and a half, teacher preparation in the United States has been accomplished through specialized teacher education programs. And for almost as long, there has been controversy about those programs, especially about the appropriate balance between liberal arts and pedagogy, theory and practice, and university experiences and school-based experiences. During the last decade, some of the most highly publicized and politicized debates have focused on the evaluation of teacher education programs and on the merits of alternate pathways into teaching compared with traditional programs.
In the context of these continuing controversies, we have seen many new developments in teacher education. Ten promising trends have the power to reinvent the profession by diversifying its forms, expanding its scope, and strengthening its research and professional bases. But three problems may undermine these trends and impair the profession by limiting the goals of teacher education and narrowing its professional grounding.

Causes for Optimism

Trend 1: Focusing Attention on Teacher Quality

An enormous amount of public attention is currently focused on teacher quality and teacher preparation. For example, the U.S. Congress has charged the National Research Council with synthesizing data and research on teacher preparation programs in the United States, paying particular attention to whether the coursework and preparatory experiences of preservice teachers are consistent with research findings about effective practice. Another example is the Teachers for a New Era initiative, funded at more than $125 million (counting institutional matching funds) by the Carnegie Corporation and other funders. This project aims to transform how higher education allocates resources, organizes the academic disciplines, relates to public schools, and uses evidence to improve teacher preparation. These two initiatives, and many others now under way, suggest that the United States has rightfully acknowledged the importance of teachers and their incredible impact on the success or failure of students. This trend is not limited to the United States. Many countries around the world are paying increased attention to teaching quality and teacher preparation.

Trend 2: Viewing Teacher Preparation as an All-University Responsibility

University administrators at the highest levels have not traditionally taken an active role in decisions related to teacher education. In recent years, however, a number of resolutions (American Association of State Colleges and Universities, 1999; American Council on Education, 1999; Association of American Universities, 1999) have called on university presidents to provide leadership and consider teacher preparation an all-university responsibility rather than one that resides only in schools, colleges, and departments of education. These resolutions were not issued by organizations explicitly concerned with teacher preparation, but by general organizations for college and university presidents. They signal interest in the preparation of teachers at the top levels of higher education leadership.

Trend 3: Recognizing Multiple Pathways Into Teaching

Almost all states now recognize multiple providers of teacher preparation, including school-based teacher residency projects, distance learning programs, and for-profit schools. These pathways have been highly controversial. Staunch advocates of traditional teacher preparation have argued that alternate routes that bypass universities are inferior. Advocates of alternate routes have countered by challenging the effectiveness of university-based teacher preparation; extremists have even called for shutting down schools of education.
A promising trend is that many alternate-route programs are now tied to universities. In some states, such as New York, teacher candidates in alternate-route programs and in regular university programs must meet the same standards and often take many of the same courses. Thus, proponents of alternate routes have acknowledged that universities have something important to offer. By the same token, many advocates of collegiate programs have acknowledged that multiple routes are needed to produce enough teachers. There is growing mutual agreement that we should focus on program content and on candidates' experiences and knowledge rather than debate which kinds of programs or organizational structures are best.

Trend 4: Acknowledging Complexity

Many years of research examining which kind of teacher preparation program or pathway is “best”—four-year or five-year programs, traditional or alternate routes, and so on—have not shown the superiority of one route. Interested observers have almost always disputed the definitions, research methods, and results of such research (Zeichner & Conklin, 2005). But today's richer data sources, more powerful analytical techniques, and cross-cutting researcher collaborations are making it possible for researchers to get beyond the “horse race” approach and study teacher preparation and its component parts in more complex ways. Both the Ohio Partnership for Accountability and the New York City Pathways Project, for example, combine analyses of differing pathways into teaching with assessments of teachers' impact on achievement, studies of curriculum or classroom interactions, surveys of teachers, and information about retention rates. These new collaborative projects suggest that the field has the capacity to conduct the sophisticated research now required in teacher education.

Trend 5: Using Research to Guide the Curriculum

One common critique of teacher education has been that its curriculum is based on traditions and professional norms rather than on research. Recently, however, I have seen efforts to make the teacher preparation curriculum more research-based. This trend is reflected in state program approval and national accreditation standards. For example, a major new report,Preparing Teachers for a Changing World: The Report of the Committee on Teacher Education of the National Academy of Education(Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2005), represents the collective efforts of a 28-member committee under the auspices of the National Academy of Education. The report articulates the knowledge bases for teaching and makes research-grounded recommendations about how the teacher education curriculum can incorporate core knowledge for beginning teachers. Faculties of teacher education are already using the report to help evaluate and revise their curriculums.

Trend 6: Implementing a New Research Agenda

Today, there is growing emphasis on using research evidence to assess the effectiveness of teacher preparation. Since 2000, multiple reviews of the literature on teacher preparation have addressed policymakers' and practitioners' questions. The most recent analysis, the culmination of a four-year effort, is Studying Teacher Education: The Report of the AERA Panel on Research and Teacher Education (Cochran-Smith & Zeichner, 2005). The AERA Panel conducted a critical analysis of the empirical research that met its criteria for rigor and relevance and concluded that research on the impact of teacher preparation practices and policies is generally weak and inconclusive. The report calls for an extensive new research agenda, better research designs and instruments, programs of research that cohere theoretically and methodologically, and resources to carry out the new agenda.

Trend 7: Documenting Practice

Another promising trend is the growth of local research about what prospective teachers learn in their coursework and field experiences, where and how long they teach, and what their pupils learn. The current standards of the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, for example, require teacher preparation programs to show evidence of their graduates' subject-matter knowledge and classroom performance and to have “data-driven assessment systems” built into their programs (Williams, Mitchell, & Leibbrand, 2003). The Teacher Education Accreditation Council requires “valid and reliable evidence” (Murray, 2005) about teacher candidates' performance and knowledge. At many institutions across the United States, teacher education programs are tracking teacher candidates from entry through graduation and beyond. They are assessing candidates' content knowledge in comparison with other college graduates, tracking how long they stay in teaching, and measuring their students' learning. These and other trends—such as the growing number of teacher educators engaged in self-study or practitioner inquiry—are building into teacher education a process wherein research guides curriculum, evidence is continually fed back into decisions, and effectiveness is measured in large part through evidence of teachers' and pupils' learning. Transforming teacher education in these ways represents a culture shift in the profession.

Trend 8: Getting to Outcomes

Policymakers now widely assume that we should evaluate teacher preparation programs and pathways—whether for programmatic, institutional, accreditation, or regulatory purposes—in terms of their outcomes. Many schools of education and some alternate providers of teacher preparation are explicitly articulating their goals and inventing new ways to trace their impact all the way to the ultimate destination: student achievement. The trend toward outcomes—as opposed to inputs or processes—in teacher education accountability is part of a larger shift toward defining education accountability more broadly. This focus on outcomes is also groundbreaking in professional education: Although providers of medical and legal education keep track of graduates' scores on professional exams, for example, they generally do not follow the graduates into hospitals and courtrooms to assess their professional performance in the field. This work may establish what has been a missing program of research: research that connects what happens in professional preparation to its eventual consequences in classrooms and in the world.

Trend 9: Going Beyond Test Scores

Recognizing that test scores are a necessary but insufficient way of measuring the effectiveness of teacher preparation programs, educators at some institutions are working to conceptualize teacher education outcomes in broader terms. Some universities are developing innovative ways to assess teachers' professional practice in terms of promoting both student learning and social justice. For example, educators at the Bank Street College of Education are using structured observations to analyze the cognitive complexity of the learning opportunities their graduates provide. At the University of California-Los Angeles, teacher educators are tracking the placement and retention patterns of their graduates who work in Los Angeles's most difficult schools, counting as an outcome their graduates' retention in careers as social justice educators. And researchers at Boston College are developing instruments for assessing how well teacher candidates have learned to teach for social justice. These initiatives have in common the assumption that high student test scores are not the only desirable outcomes of teacher education. Rather, multiple outcomes and multiple measures of those outcomes are needed.

Trend 10: Working Within and Against the System

Finally, a small but promising trend in teacher education is the effort by some teacher educators to work simultaneously within and against the larger education system. This means critiquing prevailing views about teacher education policies and practices in any public realms where educators have influence and access while continuing to do the work of teacher education within the boundaries of current policy and practice.
The point of this effort is to expand the ways people think about teacher education's role in society and its broader goals and purposes. For example, although there is general consensus among teacher educators regarding the importance of accountability, a number of scholars have pointed out problems with equating teacher education accountability with testing and have raised serious questions about what should count as measures of its success. They have also criticized the lack of attention to other outcomes, such as preparing teachers for diverse populations, ensuring equitable learning opportunities for all students, and working to make schools more caring and just. The promising aspect of this work is that educators are not simply trying to prove their points using the same kinds of evidence and reasoning that already dominate debates about teaching, learning, and schooling. Instead, they are working to change the terms of the debate.

Causes for Concern

Despite the promising trends noted here, there is reason for concern—even alarm—about the future of teacher education. Three big problems have the potential to undermine the progress that we need to make.

Worry 1: Using Test Scores to Define Teacher Quality

The current education regime is increasingly equating both teacher quality and student learning with test scores. This equation is far too simplistic. Teaching does not simply involve transmitting bits of information, and learning does not simply consist of receiving information that can be tested. Moreover, teacher education programs and schools need to promote skills beyond academic learning, including social and emotional development and the ability to participate in a democratic society. To represent teacher quality and student achievement solely in terms of increases in test scores reflects impoverished notions of teaching and learning that are contrary to research and experience. Despite its very real promise, then, the current emphasis on research and evidence in teacher education has the potential to narrow the kinds of questions we ask about teaching and to exacerbate the current trend to define accountability solely in terms of students' test scores.
The future of teacher education depends in part on how accountability plays out. The greater focus on evidence and outcomes may simply lead to the development of more and more sophisticated research models that are still basically linear in nature, with student test scores as the end point. Or—and this would be much better—this trend could result in the development of multifaceted research approaches that pose a range of questions, incorporate multiple research paradigms, and define pupil learning outcomes in ways much broader and richer than test scores.

Worry 2: Viewing Teachers as Saviors

The current attention to the importance of teacher quality creates another danger. Some policymakers are positing teachers as the determining factor in students' success while ignoring other complex variables: school resources, leadership, and investments in teachers' capacity building and professional development, not to mention such student-related factors as family structure, economic status, housing, health, and employment. But the problems of schools are much bigger than teacher quality, and the problems of society are much bigger than imperfect schools.
There is a real danger that society will use teachers and teacher educators as scapegoats for the other parties responsible for the current state of public education—the officials who establish monetary, trade, and industrial policies that influence economic competitiveness; the business and industry leaders who lobby for and benefit from those policies; the testing and textbook industries that profit from the current obsession with testing and accountability; and the various layers of school bureaucracy caught up in the red tape of schooling and far removed from the daily work of classrooms.
Teachers cannot fix everything, even if we hold them accountable for everything. But if we approach teacher quality and preparation as one part of much larger education and societal problems that must be attacked on a variety of fronts, then the future of teacher education looks bright.

Worry 3: Treating the Purpose of Education as Supplying the Labor Force

In the United States, we have seen a growing assumption that the primary purpose of public education (and thus teacher education) is to produce a workforce that will meet the changing demands of an increasingly competitive, global, and knowledge-based society. A narrow focus on producing the nation's workforce has pushed out other traditional goals of teacher education—chief among them the goal of producing teachers who know how to prepare future citizens to participate in a democratic society. Gutman (1999) argues that the key to deliberative democracyis “publicly supported education that develops the capacity to deliberate among all children as future free and equal citizens” (p. xii).
If all children are to have the benefit of a democratic education that prepares them to act as free and equal citizens of a society, then all teachers will need to have the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to teach toward the democratic ideal—and all teacher preparation programs ought to be measured at least in part by their success at producing teachers who teach for democracy. When teacher education programs heavily emphasize students' test scores and teachers' scores on content knowledge tests, attention to preparing teachers to teach for democratic goals is squeezed out.

Fulfilling the Promise

The trends discussed here have the potential to bring about real change in teacher education—not just a change in rhetoric.
Several developments, however, may undermine these promising trends with negative—even dangerous—consequences for the future of teacher education. To maximize the potential of the promising trends and minimize the problems, the education community will need to work to change the terms of the debate over the purposes of schooling and teacher education. Our efforts must be guided by the understanding that the bottom line is not raising test scores, but enhancing learning and preparing citizens for democratic participation.

American Association of State Colleges and Universities. (1999). Call for teacher education reform: A report of the AASCU task force on teacher education. New York: Author.

American Council on Education. (1999).To touch the future: Transforming the way teachers are taught. An action agenda for college and university presidents. Washington, DC: Author. Available:

Association of American Universities. (1999).AAU resolution on teacher education. Washington, DC: Author. Available:

Cochran-Smith, M., & Zeichner, K. (Eds.). (2005). Studying teacher education: The report of the AERA Panel on Research and Teacher Education. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Darling-Hammond, L., & Bransford, J. (Eds.). (2005). Preparing teachers for a changing world: The report of the Committee on Teacher Education of the National Academy of Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gutman, A. (1999). Democratic education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Murray, F. (2005). On building a unified system of accreditation in teacher education. Journal of Teacher Education, 56(4), 307–317.

Williams, B., Mitchell, A., & Leibbrand, J. (2003). Navigating change: Preparing for a performance-based accreditation review. Washington, DC: National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education.

Zeichner, K., & Conklin, H. (2005). Research on teacher education programs. In M. Cochran-Smith & K. Zeichner (Eds.), Studying teacher education: The report of the AERA Panel on Research and Teacher Education (pp. 645–736). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Marilyn Cochran-Smith is Professor of Teacher Education for Urban Schools at Lynch School of Education, Boston College, and a researcher and author on teacher education.

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