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Meanings, silos, and high-stakes advocacy.


Consideration of the politics of teacher education must begin by establishing what is meant by teacher education. Looking at the past five decades of teacher education, Cochran-Smith (2004) suggested that the enterprise might be viewed in three ways: as a training problem, as a learning problem, and as a policy problem. Using this scaffolding, she created three definitions of teacher education recognizable to most education professionals: teacher education built on process-product research; teacher education informed by a constructivist knowledge base; and teacher education framed by how teachers are measured on their students' performance. These extremely useful categories help teacher educators view the strengths and weaknesses of the field with the passage of time. Yet this structure presents only part of the political picture. For most local, state, and federal policy makers, the substance of teacher education is less important than its instrumental nature. In the heat of policy debates, it is common for teacher educators to lament that decision makers think just because they were in school for 12 years, they understand teachers and teacher preparation. Although there may be an element of truth in this lament, it only hints at a more basic issue: In general, decision makers do not care how teachers are prepared or about definitional matters that are important to the profession. Instead, they see teacher education as a tool to achieve broader, presumably more important policy goals and consequently, they are unconcerned with research in the field unless it offers evidence that a more expansive policy expectation is being advanced. As an example, teacher education often is seen as a mechanism to lever employment policy; that is, to lower unemployment by enticing individuals with certain skills to particular job markets. In addition, in many states and localities, teacher education is thought of as a device to promote certain academic or community values: patriotism, support for diversity, classroom discipline, democratic understandings, religious beliefs, high examination scores, teaching to the test, and the like.

It should be noted that using aspects of the education system to advance a singular policy purpose is not unique to teacher education. Post-World War II federal policy to expand access to higher education was based on the need to find ways to occupy the time of returning servicemen and servicewomen until the postwar economy could generate jobs for them. As another example, the federal school lunch program was designed to provide a market for American agricultural products, not just to ensure that children have healthy meals. In this article, it is suggested that in regard to teacher education, the policy community has not moved beyond the assumption that its principal if not sole purpose is to help implement other, more important, policy options. To the extent that this perspective is shared by some K-12 advocates and leaders, the efforts of teacher educators to effect policy based on professional standards is hampered.

Conflicting expectations for teacher education are further muddled by lack of agreement about the role of schools, the purpose of education in the United States, and the influence of personal and collective values on the curriculum and how it is taught. For the most part, descriptions of the role of schools and purpose of education are retrospective. That is, historians have studied the system and then established useful categories to analyze events at a particular time (Lucas, 1997; McMannon, 1995). It is less obvious or certain whether, in the nation's history or in contemporary times, there has been a serious national conversation about the purpose of public education and schools. Arguably, in the second half of the 20th century, there were several points when the country stepped close to but never consummated a national debate on education. During the 1950s, when the nation felt its national security was threatened, the Congress enacted the National Defense Education Act amid controversy about whether there should be any federal involvement in elementary and secondary education. Federal role again was an issue in 1965 when the first Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed and signed into law. Similarly, establishment of the U.S. Department of Education in 1978 led to debate on whether federal policy in education should be legitimized by a separate cabinet-level agency (Cross, 2004). (1) Although each of these events offered an opportunity to discuss education and the roles of various government levels, none resulted in a national conversation that addressed two critical issues: (a) If there is an agreed on purpose for PreK-16 education in the United States, what is that purpose? and (b) What roles should PreK-16 education play in advancing a common purpose?


The 1989 Governors' Summit led to a set of policy goals for education, and although Cross (2004) suggested that "the goals also provided a common agenda to which all those who influenced and governed the education community were committed" (p. 99), it must be remembered this was a top-down activity that began with discussions among governors. As Cross noted, eventually the Congress became involved and the goals were essentially ratified in the House and Senate when legislation was passed to create the National Education Goals Panel. In reality, the eight goals are actually eight expectations of the education system and schools. They do not address national purpose and offer only passing attention to postsecondary education and the challenges of children with special needs. Citizen input was invited and encouraged only after the goals were identified. This does not have the markings of a true national conversation on educational purposes. (2)

It is important to recognize that even at those points when education gained prominence on the national policy agenda, teacher education was brought along as a tool or mechanism to achieve broader policy objectives. For the most part, teacher education's role was ensuring a constant flow of people qualified for a state teaching license. The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act of 1997 (IDEA), for example, details rights for children with disabilities. To fulfill IDEA's legal obligations to children and their families, teachers with special education credentials were needed, and the law included some--although arguably insufficient--provisions to recruit and prepare these teachers. When the pipeline of teachers completing collegiate-based teacher education programs could not fill the need, particularly in hard-to-staff schools, policy makers did not look for strategies to help universities gear up their teacher education programs. Instead, they legislated in Title II of the Higher Education Reauthorization Act of 1998 (HEA) and in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) support for alternative certification programs that could provide shortened preparation for potential teachers. While educators developed and expanded a teacher education knowledge base, the policy world moved forward in a different realm where a functional purpose for teacher education was becoming institutionalized. The policy message was very clear: One tool to prepare teachers is as good as another.

Dilemmas for teacher education. Understanding the position of teacher education in the policy world helps clarify some of the political predicaments for it. There is an appropriate sense of frustration for educators because in spite of their efforts to build a research base, which supports carefully structured, evidence-based teacher education programs, decision makers remain critical. Furthermore, the teacher education system is buffeted by unclear and often conflicting expectations about how teachers are prepared, a reflection of a larger national uncertainty about the purpose of public education. As if this is not enough, there is another layer of complexity. Other education interest groups, such as teachers, K-12 school administrators, school board members, college presidents, and higher education governing boards to name a few, tend to mirror the larger policy community's utilitarian view of teacher education. That is, because the policy world considers teacher education a device to achieve other goals--as opposed to a professional entity that should receive policy support to sustain it--other education groups tend to see teacher education in the same way. Thus, it is important to school administrators because they need staff (employment purpose) or it is important to college presidents because it increases enrollments (financial purpose). The section that follows looks more explicitly at the behavior of PreK-16 education interest groups and the impact of their actions on the politics of teacher education.


Understanding how most decision makers view teacher preparation is but one part of the political landscape. (3) It also is important to explore teacher education's position in the broader education policy arena. This section puts forward the notion of policy silos within the education community as a complicating component in the politics of teacher education.

There are a number of theories within the policy and political science literature to describe and predict behavior in the political process (Sabatier, 1999). However, these theories are most useful to analyze large, complex policy phenomenon, such as the budget process, national health care, transportation, and the like (Kingdon, 1995), or for use when comparing political behavior in the United States with other nations (Bloomquist, 1999). In general, proponents of these theories are seeking to hone them as tools to predict future political conduct (Schlager, 1999). Although these models differ in their purpose--describing or predicting behavior--and their methodologies, they are all grounded in five broad assumptions: (a) that the program or policy under study is large enough to attract attention at the highest levels of government, generally the president; (b) that it will be the primary focus of attention for multiple, well-funded interest groups; (c) that there is a legislative committee or at least a subcommittee devoted to the topic; (d) that it clearly falls under the authority of one unit of government; and (e) that it is free standing rather than imbedded within other much larger programs. Applying these criteria, study of the American education system could be appropriate for these models, but applying them to teacher education would not. Testing teacher education against the five assumptions that undergird most political science models illustrates why the politics of teacher education is infrequently a focus of study: (a) until the Clinton and George H. W. Bush presidencies, teacher quality was noted rarely as an executive branch priority; (b) there is only one, relatively small, organization with a dedicated teacher education advocacy agenda; (c) teacher education is not usually the focus of legislative hearings and has no congressional committee or subcommittee assigned specific jurisdiction over it; (d) it is primarily governed by state education agencies (higher education and K-12) with federal involvement occasional and confined to certain areas; and (e) when teacher education is mentioned in federal law, it is generally a very small piece of a large, complex piece of legislation (Earley & Schneider, 1996). Teacher education and the politics surrounding it are intriguing but not appropriate for the models that are often used in political science. Consequently, there is little scholarship on the politics of teacher education and few theories have been offered to explain its place and behavior in the political world.

Education Silos

The construct of policy silos is suggested as a way to examine the political behavior of PreK-16 education interest groups. A policy silo is formed when individuals with similar characteristics and a common agenda bond together with the passage of time for a political purpose. In the education world there are three major policy silos: higher education interests, elementary and secondary school interests, and special education interests. Although there is some variety inside each silo, those within are committed to protecting and advancing the broad policy goal for which their silo is named. It is not coincidental that these three silos parallel three largest federal education laws: HEA, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (now NCLB), and IDEA. In fact, silos are artifacts of federal-level policy decisions to deal with education in a particular way. There may be conceptual and logical connections between these three policy areas, but for the most part, they are administered and funded separately. Consequently, silos do not promote PreK-16 collaboration. On the contrary, they are characterized by competition for resources (federal and state), finger pointing, distrust, and promoting policy options that are silo specific.

For the most part, PreK-16 policy agendas serve to fortify and expand one or more of these silos. Moreover, what makes sense in one silo may create problems for others. As an example, federal programs to promote and fund class size reduction in the lower elementary grades were a K-12 silo issue. Federal funding for smaller class sizes was seen as a way to address concerns of teachers and at the same time help school districts get more resources for personnel. However, implications of this program for higher education and special education were given scant attention. As a consequence, colleges and universities were unable to quickly prepare more teachers, and school districts saw special education teachers migrate into smaller elementary-level typical classrooms, exacerbating the demand for special education teachers (McLeskey, Tyler, & Flippin, 2004).

Silo behavior is also created and reinforced within federal agencies where one office may be unaware of, or not acknowledge, policy initiatives in the same cabinet department. Special education personnel preparation provides an illustration of this policy complication (J. Cashman, personal communication, 2000). IDEA assumes that sufficient special education teachers will be prepared and that regular education teachers will have needed preparation to participate in individual education plan meetings and work with disabled children in their classrooms. The HEA amendments included provisions in Section 207 requiring colleges and universities that prepare teachers to report the pass rates of their students on their licensure exams. About the same time, data from the Educational Testing Service (Gitomer & Latham, 1999) revealed that students pursuing a special education credential had lower scores on standardized examinations than other future teachers. This led to speculation within the teacher education community that institutions worried about their licensure pass rates might eliminate or curtail special education programs if the students in them did not score well on these assessments. Staff in the Department of Education's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services were unaware of HEA amendments and their potential impact on special education teacher production until a year and a half after the law was enacted (J. Cashman, personal communication, spring 2001). The existence of policy silos does not automatically prevent cross-sector collaboration. Permanent and temporary coalitions are established when substantial leverage is needed to promote initiatives that are perceived as important to multiple interest groups. The Committee for Education Funding, as an example, is a coalition of PreK through higher education organizations united to increase federal appropriations for all education programs. During the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA, several coalitions of special education and PreK-12 interests were formed with regard to particular elements of that law. Nevertheless, there is constant pressure from outside and within silos to perpetuate narrow, relatively self-serving policy options.

Education Silos and Teacher Education

Criticisms of teacher education as a monopoly not withstanding, in reality it does not have the political or policy independence to have its own silo. Rather, because teacher education is generally seen as a tool to advance larger policy agendas, traces of it appear in varying amounts in multiple silos. At the federal level, teacher recruitment, preparation, and professional development are strategies to assist elementary and secondary schools' staffing needs (Shaul, 1999; Stedman 1996, 1998). These programs are primarily in the Department of Education but may also be found in other agencies such as the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, Energy, Labor, and in the National Science Foundation. In spite of teacher education's presence in multiple federal agencies and programs, in virtually all instances, it is seen as adjunct to a larger objective, such as delivering services to educationally disadvantaged children, implementing special education laws, advancing the use of technology in schools, or enhancing K-12 student performance in mathematics and science (Earley, 2000). Consequently, support for teacher education by interests in the large policy silos is minimal and often dismissive. Nevertheless, the expectations for teacher education are extensive. Kleinhammer-Tramill, Westat, and Fiore (2001) traced both the authorities and funding for personnel preparation with federal special education legislation and noted in their conclusion that although special education personnel preparation was part of special education law for many years, fully half of vacant teaching positions were unfilled, a supply/demand problem McLeskey et al. (2004) reported persists today.

This picture is additionally problematic because teacher recruitment, preparation, and professional development programs may be conceptually associated with one unit of government, but funds may flow through a different one. Federal professional development programs for mathematics and science teachers for the most part go to the state higher education agency and from there to institutions of higher education or partnerships of colleges and universities and local schools. Teacher recruitment grants through Title II of HEA are federal awards administered through the Office of Postsecondary Education and are categorical grants to school district and college partnerships. Funds for NCLB Title I programs, on the other hand, are formula funded directly to state education agencies and from there to eligible school districts. Consequently, when federally funded programs reach the school or classroom level, they may be or appear to be unrelated and at cross-purposes.

Because appropriations for the large federal education authorities are divided among federal accounts that parallel the education unit receiving the federal dollars--higher education, elementary/secondary schools, and special education programs--the fact that small teacher education initiatives are imbedded in them makes funding for teacher education vulnerable. Lobbyists for the major silo programs operate on the premise that core programs must be protected. As a result, small programs that have a utilitarian rather than central purpose will be sacrificed if it is believed this will protect the silo's core.

Dilemmas for Teacher Education

Teacher education is faced with a double dilemma: First, educators have very appropriately attempted to legitimize teacher preparation's place on the policy agenda by presenting relevant scholarship on the importance of professional preparation to children's learning. This clearly is the nucleus of teacher education. Unfortunately, most policy makers attach an instrumental rather than a professional purpose to teacher education and often are unable to make the connection between teacher education's professional agenda and the expectation it will be a tool to accomplish a broader purpose. Second, when looking for support from other education interest groups, it is important to appreciate teacher education's vulnerable position. Although recruiting and preparing teachers may be important to implement some larger goal, it always will be lower on the political food chain than a policy silo's core program.


The existence of large federal education programs that operate independently of one another, the emergence of large policy silos to protect these federal authorities, and the presence of teacher education in relatively small measure in these policy silos have neutralized teacher education's political leverage. Teacher education's relationship with the powerful education silos in which its programs reside is sometimes described as overarching or crosscutting, but in reality it is marginalized. As a result, it has been difficult for teacher preparation's advocates to initiate sustained attention in the Congress and administration about the meaning and purpose of teacher education in the policy world (as opposed to outside of this world, among educators, where it can be argued these discussions do occur). Because of this definitional quandary, teacher educators have essentially lost the high ground to those who view teacher preparation as merely a policy tool. Consequently, the arguments from those who support minimal teacher preparation and the abolition of teacher licensure have begun to resonate with policy makers.

Challenges for Teacher Education

Teacher education's political situation may be dire but it need not be fatal. Fundamentally, teacher education faces two challenges. The first is to confront and change the prevailing belief that teacher education is no more than one of several potential tools to advance other policy options. It is futile to argue for or against provisions in federal law until this narrow view of teacher education is reconciled with reality. Teacher educators' efforts should be directed to changing what decision makers accept as true. This will require educating and continually reeducating members of the policy community on what constitutes a carefully constructed, evidence-based teacher education program and why that is a legitimate policy expectation

The second challenge is to rethink teacher education advocacy. It is quite possible that the Congress will consider reauthorization of HEA and NCLB in 2005 and 2006. This is a fitting opportunity to confront silo culture and engage in broader discussions on the purpose of public education in the United States and how teacher education contributes to that purpose. In this situation, the target of teacher education's political advocacy should be shifted, at least in the short run, from elected officials to those who hold silo power. Little progress will be made unless and until the various education interests accept that collectively, they have more influence than they do by remaining in their separate silos.


(1.) Education interest groups were not united on creation of a cabinet-level Department of Education. Most K-12 organizations supported the new department, whereas all but two higher education organizations, the American Association of University Professors and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, opposed it.

(2.) Readers may note the absence on this list of the National Commission on Excellence in Education's (1983) A Nation at Risk. This effort is acknowledged, but A Nation at Risk leads primarily to conversations on the quality of schools. Like other reports before it and after, it did not help the nation reach consensus on the purpose of education.

(3.) This section is based on a panel presentation by the author at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association in 2001 and a series of speeches in 2003 and 2004 in which the metaphor of silo was offered and examined.


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Penelope M. Earley, Ph.D., is professor and director of the Center for Education Policy in the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University. Before moving to George Mason, she was a vice president with the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education in Washington, D.C.
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Author:Earley, Penelope M.
Publication:Journal of Teacher Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2005
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