On the Path to Becoming “Highly Qualified”: New Teachers Talk about the Relevancy of Social Foundations

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  • EDUCATIONAL STUDIES, 44: 222246, 2008Copyright C American Educational Studies AssociationISSN: 0013-1946 print / 1532-6993 onlineDOI: 10.1080/00131940802511500


    On the Path to Becoming HighlyQualified: New TeachersTalk about the Relevancy

    of Social Foundations

    JULIE H. CARTERSt. Johns University

    Educational policy debates around the definitions of, and prescriptions for, the de-velopment of qualified teachers have long ignored the role that social foundationscan play in equipping new teachers for their roles in urban classrooms (Butin, 2005a;2005b; Cochran-Smith, 2004; Sirotnik, 1990). This article examines the voices of aset of urban teachers who have used their social foundations course to think throughthe urban educational terrain. Findings from these iterations indicate three themesfor how new teachers articulate the relevancy of social foundations. Both prospec-tive and practicing new teachers argue that social foundations not only informs theirthinking about the work of teaching and their understandings of the context of thatwork in urban schools, but it facilitates decision making around issues of practice.The most important finding is that teachers say it is social foundations courseworkthat helps them to place themselves within current debates about what defines ahighly qualified teacher.

    I think that everyone needs to take a class like this because it really makes youquestion why one wants to be a teacher, what kind of teacher that one wants to be,and as a teacher, what one wants to accomplish.

    Correspondence should be addressed to Dr. Julie H. Carter, Foundations & Secondary Education,Department of Curriculum & Instruction, St. Johns University, 8000 Utopia Parkway, Queens, NY11439. E-mail: carterj@stjohns.edu


    Thus begins the plea from one graduate preservice teacher for attention tothe role that a course in social foundations can play as new teachers begin toarticulate their beliefs and commitments to the work of teaching. In my so-cial foundations courses in an urban teacher education program, I often faceperceptions of relevance starting on the first day of class, when I ask what stu-dents are expecting to learn in a course entitled Social Foundations of Learn-ing. Common claims include, I wanted to get the courses that had to dowith teaching out of the way first [before taking social foundations] and Ithought this course would be more [of a] theory [course] and less about teach-ing. These perceptions are, of course, reasonable. As preservice teachers be-gin to wonder how they will approach the everyday challenges of teaching ina classroom, they want answers that provide direction, and a framework fordecision making that do not necessitate the asking of more questions. Percep-tions of relevancy run alongside the very real possibility that teacher candi-dates will relegate social foundations concepts to the heap of learning con-sidered not directly applicable to the classroom. Unfortunately, students arenot alone in these suspicions of the social foundations course. Educationalpolicy debates around the definitions of, and prescriptions for, the develop-ment of qualified teachers have long ignored the role that social foundationscan play in equipping new teachers for their roles in urban classrooms (Butin2005a; 2005b; Cochran-Smith 2004; Haberman 1987; Sirotnik 1990). Addi-tionally, there have been discussions supporting the concern about an absenceof a strong social foundations presence in preservice programs (Hess, Rother-ham, and Walsh 2004; Sirotnik 1990) and analyses of outright threats to elim-inate social foundations from teacher education programs (Morrison 2007; seeVirginia Educational Studies Association, 2006). Scholarship has also posited thatnew teachers see their theoretical coursework as unhelpful to the practicalwork of teaching (Boyd et al. 2006; Grossman 2008; Haberman 1987; PublicAgenda 2000; U.S. Department of Education 2002). However few studies haveexplored the question of relevancy from the perspective of social foundationsstudents (Murrow 2006), and it would seem vital that students be among thevoices heard in such debates, or at the very least, that they be able to talk backto scholars and policy makers about the role that social foundations plays onthe path to becoming highly qualified teachers. Based upon the voices of mystudents, I argue that it is within their coursework in social foundations that stu-dents begin to elucidate their emerging perspectives of the field, articulate theirunderstandings of what it means to be a new teacher in urban America, and indoing so, place themselves within critical debates about what highly qualifiedteachers find most germane to their preparation. When we listen to the voicesof those most affected by policy decisions around teacher education, we findardent justifications for the role that social foundations has and will play forteaching, broadly conceived as a developing practice, not one that is completed

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    as teachers transition from their certification programs into their first jobs asteachers.


    A short review of literature surrounding the tensions between theoretical and prac-tical teacher education coursework is helpful to situate the importance of listeningto prospective teachers on this matter. In 2004, American Enterprise Institute, apolitically conservative think tank, produced a report that suggested that Americanschools of education were not only providing teachers an intellectually barrenpreparation, but also producing teachers with politically biased and ideologicallyimbalanced perspectives on teaching and learning, and doing so, in large part,via coursework in the foundations of education (Hess et al. 2004). This criticismwas not new. Various studies and policy reports both within and outside of so-cial foundations circles have indicated that new teachers see their coursework asonly marginally important to the work of teaching (Boyd et al. 2006; Haberman1987; Public Agenda 2000; U.S. Department of Education 2002). A 2000 reportby Public Agenda (funded by the Open Society Institute and Thomas B. Ford-ham Foundation), for example, reported that teachers see their teacher educationcoursework as far too theoretical to be helpful in the work of teaching.

    Although 41 percent of teachers say their preparatory programs struck the rightbalance between theory and practice, more than half (56 percent) say there wastoo much education theory and not enough focus on practical classroom challenges.These perceptions sometimes created a dismissive backlash toward venerated educa-tion philosophers: All these methods classes, Piaget, and all that stuffits mostlyuseless, declared one teacher. (Public Agenda 2000, 30)

    Since such teachers also tend to see going back to school as an unnecessarystep to teaching (Public Agenda, 2000), they may also be more likely to enroll inprograms that minimize theoretical coursework. Back in the late 1980s, KennethSirotnik (1990) sought to uncover the extent to which the study of foundationspermeated teacher education programs nationally. The study was an effort to ex-plicate what he believed to be the eroded presence of social foundations inteacher education programs. Rather than finding an overbearing ideological slantcoming from teacher educators, or efforts to indoctrinate teachers, he found thatthe language of [foundations] was simply not part of [students] vocabulary andthat students and education faculty alike appeared unaware of any underlyingphilosophy driving [their] programs (712). Fifteen years later, Dan Butin (2004),attempting to counter the argument that teacher education in foundations had be-come ideologically imbalanced, conducted an analysis of eighty-nine foundationscourse syllabi from eighty-five different higher education institutions. In his find-ings, he suggested that preservice teachers may still not be receiving an adequate


    level of foundational thinking from their programs; but more specifically from thereadings reflected in their syllabi. According to Butin, although prospective teach-ers may not be receiving sufficient preparation within foundations courses, theinadequacy is not due to intellectually barren content. As Butin (2004) asserted,prospective teachers seem to be exposed primarily to pre-digested perspectivesand pre-packaged secondary sources that cannot adequately convey the criticalconversations, intractable dilemmas, and potential effectiveness of American ed-ucation (28). More recently, Butin (2005a) edited a special issue of the journalEducational Studies, devoted to articulating how and why social foundationsof education matters for teacher preparation within a policy framework (3). Helocated the decline of foundations coursework within efforts of policy makers,who have reframed teacher education discourses. Such frameworks, according toButin, among others (Apple 2000; 2006; Meier and Wood 2004; Selwyn 2006;Sunderman, Kim, and Orfield 2005) have linked the No Child Left Behind Actscommitment to closing achievement inequities directly to the instrumentaliza-tion of teacher skill sets that circumvent actual course content on issues of raceand class inequities. It would, therefore, be important to understand what thosemost highly qualified to close these gaps have to say about trends toward in-strumentalization vis-a-vis issues of inequity.

    Educators have long expressed a concern for the messages that get sent inschools of education, to teachers headed into urban schools specifically (Delpit1996; Hilliard 2004), and for the hegemonic mechanisms though which thosemessages get forged. Michael Apple (2000; 2006), among others (Anyon 2005;Nelson, Palonsky, and McCarthy 2007) has been an influential voice to articu-late the processes that undergird the conservative modernization of educationalpolicies (Apple 2000, xi). According to Apple, this trend has favored commonsense approaches to the establishment of seemingly neutral standards with regardto curriculum and textbooks, and to the knowledge they legitimize. These largelyneo-conservative efforts have resulted in deep suspicion of the motives and com-petence of teachers (Apple 2006, 43). Such distrust has led to intensified effortsto control the everyday work of teaching. To a growing extent, teachers have be-come the targets of efforts to reform what is wrong with education. At the teachereducation level, coursework that focuses on the intellectual work of teachingforexample the broader political and social inequities in wealth, housing, healthcare,gender, and heterosexist privilege systemshave yielded to instruction in tech-nical approaches to student success. This shift has not only been noted by thosein teacher education, but by teachers themselves. Teachers get the message that,rather than larger structural and sociological explanations, they, themselves, arelargely responsible for children who succeed and for those who fail at school. Arecent survey conducted by New York Citys teacher union revealed that over 80percent of respondents (61,000 teachers), disagreed that their educational chan-cellor has confidence in teachers expertise (Gootman 2008). Asa Hilliard (2004)

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    has indicated that such messages lead to a lack of faith among educators inurban settings. Further, prospective teachers are exposed to the rhetoric of leav-ing no child behind, although few seem to know about the excellent teaching andlearning environments that do exist for urban children (Hilliard 2004, 28). Theresulting crop of new teachers comes to fear their responsibility to close the gapwith little understanding of its origins, nor any overarching philosophy for theirwork in schools. Recent studies indicate that in alternative certification programs,particularly ones that fast-track teachers into classrooms without a full set of priorcoursework, teachers articulate feeling unprepared to fulfill their responsibilitiesin relation to curriculum and instruction (Keiler and Carter 2007; Carter and Keilerin press). The problem, therefore, is one in which new teachers are entering thefield without having had an opportunity to think through, question, and developa comprehensive picture of the educational system they are soon to become a partof, and this level of unpreparedness threatens the potential of teachers as a vehiclefor democratic education (Butin, 2004, 29).

    Certainly, even social foundations scholars would agree that weak foundationscourses are poor preparation for engaging in the intellectual enterprise to whichButin (2004) referred. I do not argue here that teacher education faculty needto be overly concerned about presenting a balanced perspective of the historyand social context of schooling. I argue, however, that as educators provide stu-dents access to the broad range of historical and current debates on teaching andlearning, they begin to articulate those perspectives for themselves and that, un-like Sirotniks (1990) findings, students do develop the vocabulary to articulatethe language of foundations. Sonia Murrow (2006) has pointed out that whenundergraduate students are given a rich assortment of texts and assessments thatallow them to dialogue with the texts, they can and do develop an authentictheory-and-practiced-based philosophy of education, which may allow them toenact critical pedagogy in real classrooms. This might include advocacy for theirstudents and schools (54). What seems vital then, are the perspectives of prospec-tive and practicing teachers as they make explicit the role of social foundationsreadings in these philosophies. This is especially true in urban contexts, regardingconversations about what it means to develop highly qualified teachers. It isthese iterations that can and should be used, not only to respond to, but also toextrapolate relevant policy debates. When new and prospective teachers give voiceto their developing understandings about the social and political issues to whichthey are most subject, the shift in thinking can be significant. New beliefs canbecome deeply held convictions that, as professional educators have suggested,can and should lead to individual and collective action for change.

    This article examines the voices of a set of urban teachers who have usedtheir social foundations course to think through the urban educational terrainand, in some cases, take action toward creating equitable environments for urbanchildren. The data, taken from four groups of prospective and practicing teachers


    (N = 104) at one urban institution, lays bare their response to course readingsand writing exercises on the role that social foundations plays in their thinkingon the critical conversations that currently play out in the literature about urbanteaching and learning. Findings from these iterations indicate three themes forhow new teachers articulate the ma...