Conant's Fight for Better Teaching

Not since John Dewey has anyone made such, a sustained and provocative survey of American, education as has James Bryant Conant in his book-by-book analyses of our public school system this past decade. To evaluate Dr. Conant’s assessment of the teacher’s training we have called on Merle Borrowman, professor of education and of history, who after a lifetime of teaching in schools and colleges is today chairman of the department of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin.

WHENThe Education of American Teachers, by James B. Conant, hit the market in September, 1963, Fred Hechinger of the New York Times called it “Mr. Conant’s bombshell”; to Harold Taylor, erstwhile president of Sarah Lawrence, it was “a P.T.A. manual.” Few people have accurately and fully set forth the views which Conant intended to expound. Given the bias which every reader brings to a book, no author can expect all men to find within it the same meaning. But given such widely varying interpretations as The Education of American Teachers evoked, one must grant that Conant was less clear than he hoped to be.

Conant tried to speak with the voice of moderation which has characterized his earlier reports on American education; there is, in the book, balance. But this is an angry book, and the balance is a balance of attack both on the education “establishment” and on those who believe that all problems are solved by the liturgy that “a teacher must above all be a liberally educated man.”

The professional educators had, and still have, good reason to assume that Conant was friendly to their aspirations and that he believed the scholarly study of education to be important. Perhaps just because they had so long considered him their friend, they read his book avidly. Many felt threatened because they saw their power base exposed and attacked; others who teach courses in education were personally chagrined because he described much of their work as pathetic.

Moreover, just as the educationists were learning to live with The Education of American Teachers, Conant again assaulted their citadel. His new book, Shaping Educational Policy, in part derived from the earlier volume, repeated the charges that the National Education Association and its state affiliates seek unwarranted power over teacher education and state departments of education, particularly with respect to programs for elementary and secondary schools. It also seems to suggest that the same groups shape higher educational policy in many states. Unless this suggestion is sharply qualified, it constitutes a gratuitous attack on the N.E.A. coalition and its allies in university departments of education.

Some of the evidence behind Shaping Educational Policy does warrant the conclusion that in one or two states generally, and in several states where policy concerning the junior college movement is at issue, the N.E.A. affiliates have played an active role. But if one looks at the nation as a whole, I think it gross exaggeration to consider the educationist establishment a major power factor in the making of higher education policy.

The professors of the arts and sciences and their supporters were not sensitive to Conant’s attack. I do not know whether this was because Conant pulled his punches, because they were so self-confident that they failed to conceive themselves subject to criticism, because when the chips are down they are not terribly interested in teacher education, or because they were so delighted to see Conant flail the establishment that they considered his criticism of them mere rhetoric which had to be thrown in so the book would not appear too onesided. My guess is that all four factors were at work. Perhaps Conant’s failure to make specific recommendations for basic reform of arts and science education made his criticism seem relatively insignificant.

The most searching critics of The Education of American Teachers focused their attention on this and on other things which Conant failed to do. In one sense such criticism is irrelevant. He chose, as any author must, to write at length about some issues, merely to allude to others, and to ignore a further set of issues involved in teacher education. Since the complete reform of teacher education is inseparable from the reform of education as a whole, which is in turn dependent on more fundamental shifts in American culture, no one book can pretend to exhaust the issues. Yet to examine the choices Conant made does help one to understand his book. It also helps set the agenda for further reform of teacher education. Let us first consider the issues which Conant’s critics claim did not receive the attention they deserve.

One of Martin Mayer’s complaints has to do with the kind of preparation prospective teachers receive in the subjects they are expected to teach. His is not the usual complaint, that teachers in training are required to take too few courses in the liberal arts. Mayer charges that college instruction in the subjects to be taught is not of the right kind. He has been intrigued by the new curriculum movements: the new mathematics, the new physical science, the new biological science, and a new social science curriculum which, it is hoped, scholars will produce. These “new” curricula are the products of many people, but it is fair to say that the group centering in Professor Zacharias of M.I.T. has been the most vigorous in developing and publicizing the new programs.

The courses developed by this group and by other curriculum reformers have two things in common: they are the products of university scholars who have worked closely with master teachers on the elementary and secondary school level, and they operate in terms of what are called the “strategies of inquiry” and the “structure of the disciplines,” concepts popularized by such men as Jerome Bruner of Harvard.

The new curricula have a third thing in common: if they are to be handled effectively, the teachers in training must have a different kind of academic preparation from what they currently receive. To put it bluntly, most mathematics majors, even from the best colleges, cannot teach the “new mathematics” because it has not been taught to them in college; and the same thing can be said of the other new curricula. Believing as he does that the development of these new courses of study is one of the most important educational advances of the last several decades, Mayer is unhappy because Conant did not spell out the need for serious reform of college curricula.

Mayer is correct in much of his thinking. Though the new courses are subject to considerable improvement, the new curriculum movement itself is tremendously significant. It may well transform American education as dramatically as did the progressive movement of an earlier era. If the subjects taught in the elementary and secondary schools are drastically altered, there must be a major reform of college instruction in these fields.

Though Conant does not give this question the attention some believe it warrants, it is not true that he ignores it. On several occasions he argues that the college and university scholars in each field should work out a program consistent with what they consider the best thought in their disciplines and with what they believe should be taught in the lower schools. The steps already followed by the new curriculum workers, and the next step, recommended by such people as Mayer and Zacharias, the reform of the collegiate curriculum in the specialized fields, are precisely the kinds of moves that would be made by university scholars who took the Conant report seriously. Conant also deplores the resistance such moves have encountered on college campuses.

THE second major sin of omission laid by critics at Conant’s door is his failure to take more seriously the question of what ought to be the major functions of American schools. Unless we know what the schools should seek to accomplish, we can scarcely prescribe the preparation of teachers in those schools. In its most radical form this criticism has been voiced by Harold Taylor. As I understand it, his position is that America faces awesome moral and social crises and that our entire system of education must be drastically reformed or else we shall perish. To write about the education of teachers for a school system already bankrupt, and moreover, to write as if one wanted teachers merely to carry on more effectively the activities in which they are now engaged, is a rather trivial task, in Taylor’s view.

On this issue there is a basic conflict between Conant and his critics. Conant is, by no stretch of the imagination, a radical reformer. He is no less sensitive than Taylor to some of the “social dynamite” which lies in our midst. Indeed, in Slums and Suburbs he stresses the need for educational responses to the problems faced by the urban underprivileged classes. But Conant believes that schools can best contribute to their solution by providing more effective instruction in the traditional arts and sciences and in the vocational fields.

Though more confident than Taylor of the values of traditional instruction, I share his belief that the social functions of the schools should not be taken for granted. We do need to examine radical alternatives for our educational system, and if such alternatives are accepted, then far more drastic reforms of teacher education than those proposed by Conant are in order. I hope Harold Taylor someday writes his book on teacher education. It would be quite different from Conant’s book, though the book Conant wrote is of greater value to those holding the Taylor position than they apparently realize. The political reforms suggested by Conant are a necessary condition of more radical reforms which men like Taylor would like to see.

For the past two years Harold Taylor has been a favorite speaker for groups seeking an anti-Conant voice. On each occasion that I have heard him, he has dismissed Conant as concerned with mere political tinkering and has then launched a slashing attack on most of the things for which the educational establishment now stands. I can never understand how so staunch a disciple of John Dewey can treat lightly Conant’s efforts to bring about a political situation in which Taylor’s ideals stand a chance of being realized. I can, however, understand Taylor’s establishment audiences: it is pleasant to dream of new horizons when he who describes the dream neglects to tell you that your own rigidities and vested interests delay its approach.

A more restricted version of the Taylor critique has come from people concerned with instruction in the social foundations of education, namely the history, philosophy, and sociology of education. Perhaps the most astute critic in this group is Edgar Friedenberg of Brooklyn College, although Robert Beck of the University of Minnesota has handled the issue cleverly. These people argue that a teacher who does not thoroughly understand the social forces and ideological commitments which operate in American communities, and who has not consciously examined the bearing of these factors on his behavior as a teacher, is at best a craftsman, incapable of rationally choosing means or ends.

Technically, this criticism is invalid. In connection with what Conant calls “the democratic social component” of a teacher’s professional education, he asserts his belief that the teacher must understand the social and ideological forces which bear on the schools. Much of this understanding, Conant maintains, can come from general education in the social sciences. But, he points out, the professors of these subjects often lack an understanding of the schools as part of the social system and have insufficient time to examine educational problems. For these reasons Conant affirms the desirability of teachers’ taking courses in the history and the philosophy of education.

Yet the conviction clearly stated in his repeated proposition, “a course in the history or the philosophy of education is highly desirable,” is weakened when it is followed lay a qualifier such as “but not essential.”

CONANT’S failure to state clearly his premises concerning the kinds of schools for which teachers should be prepared, and his failure to insist strongly that teachers in training investigate the relationships between schooling and social situations, need explanation. As Robert Beck has pointed out, Conant has written a number of books in which recommendations for education have been derived from his deep sense of the American tradition or his acute feeling of contemporary crisis. These include Education and Liberty, Education in a Divided World, Thomas Jefferson and the Development of American Public Education, and Slums and Suburbs. There is every reason to believe that his values, his sense of history, and his concern with the problems of society drive him to study education and attempt its reform. Why then do some of his critics feel let down?

One can only guess at the answer. Perhaps he believed his own commitments had been adequately stated earlier, or could be easily inferred from his recommendations. For several years he had written as if certain reforms — for example, the tightening up of the secondary school curriculum and action aimed at making slum and suburban schools more responsive to the conditions of their students — were so obviously needed that further debate was irrelevant. And it does seem that Conant often takes for granted that the basic values of a particular culture are beyond debate. He had, in The Child, the Parent, and the State, expressed the view that abstract general discussions of what “education really ought to be” tend to be fruitless.

I suspect, moreover, that Conant perceived a distressingly large gap between what could potentially be and what is. There are professors who can make the analysis of philosophical, sociological, and educational interrelationships exciting and valuable to a potential teacher. Yet if one is to judge by the reports of teachers in training, not many of them encounter such professors. One hesitates to insist that a course be universally required when one knows that in many cases it will be so badly taught as to be useless. And one wisely refrains from supporting any specific course until one is sure that it will be well related to other instruction the student receives.

The right place to decide what courses will be required is on a particular college and university campus. The right people to make that decision are the faculty members — professional and academic — acting in concert in behalf of the whole university. Such a total faculty knows what it can and cannot do well, and only a local faculty can get behind catalogue descriptions of courses to determine what is actually taught in them.

But a collegiate faculty needs feedback from the field for which it is preparing teachers. Such feedback can be provided by involving state education authorities and public school personnel in appraising the teachers produced by the college. Hence responsibility for the apprenticeship or internship of new teachers must be shared with these other agencies, and machinery must be established whereby weaknesses discovered on the testing grounds — the student-teaching situation — can be brought to the faculty’s attention.

The place to decide who should be permitted to teach is the public school classroom where a neophyte begins his teaching as a college student. The right people to make this decision are the public school authorities, headed by the state department of education. The crucial question to be asked by these authorities is not What courses has this person had? but Can he teach?

INTERESTINGLY enough, some state education departments interpreted Conant as suggesting that the power of certification be taken from their hands. Such a misinterpretation can be explained on two grounds. In the first place Conant did describe certain state departments as extremely weak. They are. And one can easily assume that Conant would not want to leave major responsibility for determining who should teach in the hands of a weak and inept body. In the second place Conant did describe many state departments as under the control of the N.E.A. coalition, whose power over teacher education he sought to curtail. Their reaction, as well as misinterpretation of his report,

suggests that they, too, strongly identify themselves with this group. The new book, Shaping Educational Policy, makes clearer his conviction that the solution is to strengthen state departments and to sharpen the focus of their efforts, not to replace them by bodies unresponsive to the public interest.

So far as the N.E.A. coalition is concerned, Conant supported moves which it has long encouraged: the reform of student teaching, and the design of career-development plans for the first three or four years of a teacher’s employment. But its members have found it hard to forgive his insistence that neither the National Commission on Teacher Education and Professional Standards nor the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education should be a major power controlling teacher education and certification.

His attack was particularly distressing for several reasons: the council had already been under the fire of James Koerner in his Miseducation of American Teachers; it had just been saved by its appeal committee from a damaging conflict with Carleton College, a high-prestige liberal arts college in Minnesota; the University of Wisconsin had recently launched a vigorous assault on the council; and the national commission formed by colleges and universities to police the accreditation business had already demanded significant changes in the council’s structure and policy. All this pressure had come on the heels of the important publication New Horizons for Teacher Education and Professional Standards, which had urged “the organized teaching profession” to rely on the council as the instrument by which the profession could establish control of teacher education and certification. Thus the council had acquired a symbolic significance far beyond its present virtues or evils.

In the majority of states, it is easier to get a teaching certificate if one graduates from an accredited institution; but it is possible to secure certification without this assistance, and even with it a prospective teacher must eventually fulfill the particular requirements of a given state before he is granted a full certificate. The national council does exert some controls over the organization and the teachereducation programs of institutions it accredits; but very few institutions are completely denied accreditation, and relatively minor efforts are usually sufficient to meet the council’s objections. The council does not exist to single out distinguished institutions, or to put poor but hardworking colleges out of business. On its fully approved list are institutions of both types; among those given “provisionally accredited” status are first-rate as well as mediocre colleges; and the few colleges completely denied accreditation are either incredibly bad or thoroughly uncompromising in their determination to maintain their own peculiar pattern.

In my judgment Conant actually pulled his punches in criticizing the national council in his book. But when he spoke before the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education he charged that some accredited institutions are so poor that no one should dream of automatically certifying their graduates. The supporters of the national council know this, but they believe that in time this evil can be eradicated.

The hope of the N.E.A. coalition is to make sure that no one can teach unless he graduates from an accredited institution, and to maintain the Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education as an autonomous national body largely controlled by groups affiliated with the N.E.A. Only thus, they believe, can the “organized teaching profession” have control of its own membership. Conant’s objection to this is threefold: he does not believe an autonomous national body is the proper agency to make universal policy for educating teachers; he does not believe the “organized profession” should have exclusive control over who will be certified to teach; and he does believe that certification should be based on the individual’s demonstrated capacity to teach.

There is an interesting irony here. If the Conant proposals were adopted, classroom teachers, the cooperating teachers under whom student teaching is done, would in fact have a veto over every candidate for certification. It is hard to believe, however, that the council gives individual teachers any substantial power over who will be permitted to teach. What is really at stake here is the power of the N.E.A. leadership, not of its membership.

On the council issue there is no evidence that a rapprochement between Conant and his opponents is achievable. The currently proposed reforms still leave the council essentially in the same hands. No member of the N.E.A. coalition has even suggested abandoning the effort to tie state certification to accreditation; at least one of the professional groups, the school administrators, is now limiting membership in its organization to those trained in accredited colleges; and Mr. Conant is still adamantly opposed.

On other matters, however, there is increasing evidence that The Education of American Teachers is having an impact. The National Commission on Teacher Education is now encouraging the careerdevelopment programs Conant urged for new teachers. Its leaders point out that many of them were thinking along these lines well before the Conant book, and they were. Nevertheless, they publicly acknowledge gratitude to Conant for calling attention to this problem and for creating a climate of opinion in which such improvements become possible.

One professional group, the secondary school principals who remained friendly to Conant throughout the months of controversy, is actually establishing a pilot project of this type in several school systems throughout the nation. In this case explicit recognition is made of Conant’s leadership. He and several of his former staff members are assisting the group.

A few states, among them Florida, seem to be loosening up on certification practices without explicit reference to the Conant book. California, Illinois, Wisconsin, and New York are already involved in an experimental program designed to test some of the suggestions made in The Education of American Teachers. The project is supported by the United States Office of Education and is administered from the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin. The colleges involved are the Albany unit of the State University of New York, Sacramento State College in California, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Northwestern University. In each state the intent is to design a studentteaching situation which will make it possible for state authorities, public school personnel, and college professors to ascertain whether a particular student teacher warrants certification on the basis of his demonstrated teaching ability. One interesting feature is to determine what differences there may be between the judgments of professors and those of public school teachers. Conant and several of his former staff members have also shared in planning this project.

In New York State the Department of Education, under the leadership of Commissioner James Allen, last November announced a new project involving five public and private institutions. Vassar, Cornell, Brooklyn College, Fredonia State College, and Colgate University are all launching experiments based on Conant’s recommendations and conducted with his advice.

Finally, Conant has been in consultation with the faculty of Northwestern University, which is in the early stages of developing what promises to be a radical reform of teacher education, going beyond that contemplated by Northwestern in conjunction with the Wisconsin project mentioned above. Again, this university is working closely with representatives of the Illinois State Department of Education.

The head of what David Riesman called the “snakelike procession” of higher education begins to turn in the directions indicated by The Education of American Teachers. But teacher education is a ponderous and cautious beast. Even when the head moves decisively the body often remains placid. Thanks to Conant and others, that body now lies uncomfortably exposed. Given continued public pressure, it may yet shed its aged and brittle skin to move freely to a more defensible position.