Public school teachers are under fire on various fronts in many parts of the nation. Most prominently, the issues involve tenure, unions and evaluations. What gets less attention in the media is the movement that is bringing back "normal" schools.
I learned about the growth of the movement in the article "The New Normal of Teacher Education," by Arthur Levine, in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, said that until 1900, America's teachers were trained in one-year, non-collegiate schools, referred to as normals. They stressed practical education, vocations and pedagogy. Academic content was limited, and the programs, public and private, trained only elementary teachers.
After 1900, high school education became essential, and with this change came the need for more academic subjects, better teacher training and systems for evaluating the effectiveness of the schools. Colleges and universities became the training grounds for the nation's teacher corps. The liberal arts became the primary curricula. Most of the private normal schools shut down, and the publics began to emphasize academic subjects to survive.
Colleges of education were born, and, of course, with them came the rise of a class of education professors and philosophers. Most people believed that U.S. public education improved dramatically because of the conversion. The schools that trained teachers became more sophisticated and professional, academic rigor increased, incoming students were better prepared and standards across the board were strengthened.
For generations, America's style of public education was admired worldwide. But that was then.
"Today the university-based teacher-education programs that replaced the normal schools are being broadly criticized," Levine said. "Critics say the modern programs have lost touch with practice. Teacher education is a low-status field in universities, even within education schools. Too often, admissions and graduation standards are weak. Too many professors lack recent teaching experience and have insufficient contact with schools. Academic instruction is removed from clinical education, and clinical faculty are treated like second-class citizens. A majority of the nation's principals say universities are not producing the teachers they need."
Levine notes that many lawmakers, philanthropists and even some educators are moving to eliminate or minimize the university's role in teacher training, shorten the programs and introduce non-classroom routes to certification and licensing.
For better or for worse, the return to the old normal-school model is producing dramatic results: From 1986 to 2009, the number of new hires entering teaching through nontraditional routes nationwide jumped from 275 to more than 60,000 a year. Levine cites the efforts of Teach for America, the nonprofit organization that recruits top graduates for a five-week summer training program. The new full-time teachers are placed in schools with so-called high-risk students. In 2010, Teach for America reported 4,500 new recruits.
I have no evidence that the return to the normal model is either good or bad. What I do know is that much of the movement is being driven by conservative lawmakers and their constituents who are not friends of public education. Teachers do not need to be attacked and demoralized.
What to do? Public education is too important to be held hostage by competing philosophies and political grandstanding. Levine offers advice that can benefit the nation if it is followed.
"The problem is that, historically, university-based teacher-education and normal schools have been mirror images in their approaches to teacher education — one too removed from practice, the other too narrowly vocational," he said. "It doesn't make sense to choose one over the other. It's the classic Goldilocks dilemma: The remedy for too soft is not too hard. It's just right.
"It would be more desirable to marry the university and normal school — to create teacher-education programs that blend theory and practice, integrate academic and clinical instruction from the earliest days of the program, combine pedagogical and content education, and employ a faculty consisting of both practitioners and professors, each accorded equal status."