Teacher Education Research Paper

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This research paper describes the current status of teacher education across several Western countries. It begins with a brief historic note before reviewing policy initiatives, programs and programmatic orientations, teacher educators, and prospective teachers. The entry concludes on a pervasive theme, namely, that while contemporary teacher education has high potential, it remains fraught with problems.

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While teacher education varies a great deal across and within most Western countries, common patterns do emerge. The historic evolution of teacher education shows similarities across Europe and North America. Formal teacher education began in the USA in the 1820s and 1830s with the establishment of ‘normal’ schools that derived their general design from European models. State and large city normal schools spread rapidly in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century. By 1914 every city in the US with a population of at least 300,000 maintained normal schools, usually in conjunction with the public schools and typically integrated with the curriculum of those schools. However by 1940, normal schools had become largely obsolete, evolving into 2-year teachers colleges. In the latter half of the century they became 4-year state or city colleges and in several instances became multi-purpose colleges and even universities.

This pattern of teacher preparation evolving from normal schools to colleges and university campuses occurred in Canada and several European countries shortly after World War Two. The reasons for this move provide a useful context and perspective for understanding the state of contemporary teacher education in Western society. The policy arguments offered for making the move did not vary much from one country to the other. Feiman-Nemser (1990) described the trend in the USA as a means to professionalize teaching. Europeans and Canadians believed that by moving teacher preparation from colleges to universities candidates with higher academic standing would enter the profession, an improved context for research would be created, and new and more innovative programs for teacher preparation would develop (Gwyne 1976, Myers and Saul 1974). The contemporary picture of teacher education presented in this research paper can be judged in part at least by how well these expectations have been met. Clearly, achieving those goals has been mixed. For example Sheehan and Fullan (1995) argue, ‘…teacher education has failed to achieve the place it deserves in the improvement of education’ (89). In 1990, Goodlad and his colleagues concluded their study of teacher education with concerns that remain common today:

—–To be sure, the crisis that we speak of (in teacher education) is one of degree, affecting education faculty and their organizations variously. This was certainly the case for the 29 institutions in our study. Yet, we did not sense that there was a strong bond of shared identity in purpose and self-confidence sufficient to ward off intrusion and to develop political strategies for long-term survival and organizational renewal. Perhaps other professional schools in multiversities are similarly affected. But it seems to us that schools of education are particularly vulnerable to being pushed around by arts and sciences, by central administration, and by state lawmakers and certification boards. (1990, p. 398)

On the other hand, progress made by many groups and institutions at the ground level frequently goes unnoticed by the critics and policymakers.

1. The Policy Arena

Policy in teacher education differs from one country to another both in terms of who determines it and the nature of that policy. The USA and Canada differ from other countries that have Ministries of Education, which develop and implement national education policies, which affect all levels of education from higher or post-secondary to elementary and secondary education. In the USA and Canada teacher education is a state or province responsibility and elementary and secondary education is viewed as primarily a local responsibility with an overlay of accountability in each of the 50 state agencies and 10 provinces. Unsurprisingly, then, little curriculum articulation exists between the two sectors and standards for pupil achievement in elementary and secondary schools do not interface with emerging standards for prospective teacher performance. Perhaps most disturbing is the broad scale lack of intersection between reforms in the organization and culture of elementary and secondary schools and those initiated in higher education teacher education. In contrast, the Ministry of Education in Britain has total authority over all levels of education including teacher education. In Australia, both national and state Ministries have jurisdiction. But as Tisher (1995) points out, the federal government in Australia has been increasing its authority in recent years.

The situation in the USA, where policy is now focused squarely on the testing of teacher performance, illustrates this trend for more external control of the enterprise. Driven by recent research which underscores dramatic differences in teacher performance as revealed in student test scores (Sanders and Rivers 1998), the testing and accountability movement has moved from the kindergarden to grade 12 (K–12) sector to teacher education. Measuring teacher performance has become the current focal point in teacher education ‘reform’ with program approval moving from processes to products. While performance assessments have some ways to go in terms of sound psychometric principles, the majority of States have enacted recent legislation with respect to teacher testing and the National Council for the Accreditation of Teaching (NCATE) has also adopted a teacher performance assessment posture. It should be noted that national voluntary accreditation of teacher education has been available since 1927. What is particularly telling is that less than 600 education schools of over 1300 are accredited, although those accredited do prepare more than two-thirds of the United States’ licensed teachers. Thus from a policy perspective major limitations exist here.

Beyond performance assessment, the 50 states vary greatly in terms of policies impacting teacher education. Some of these policies appear enabling, but others do not. The teaching professions, research community and learned societies have typically, but not always, provided the input for these policies. However state legislative bodies have become increasingly intrusive and in some instances have curtailed the number of professional courses and mandated what should be taught. Several States have also initiated alternative routes to certification.

The centralized governance systems in Australia and Britain have produced substantial policy changes in teacher education. Pimm and Selinger (1995) described the situation in Great Britain in terms of the ‘commodification of teaching.’ Under the Thatcher government initial teacher preparation has been nationalized with proposals to give elementary and secondary schools a stronger role in initial teacher preparation, provide more time in these schools for prospective teachers, and require courses to equip them with specific competencies. Apparently, the government hoped to give schools the full role of training teachers with or without the accreditation of higher educational institutions.

Policy developments in Australia followed a period of public criticism of teacher education (Tisher 1995). The critics saw teacher education as having a weak knowledge base, a shallow curriculum, and an inability to attract top students. Hence policy moves included, among others, encouraging stronger partnerships with the schools such that more of the pedagogical studies would occur there, a stronger base in academic subjects for beginning teachers, and a better integration of pedagogy and research. The policy decisions since have led to numerous closures and amalgamations of institutions that provide teacher education.

Policy in Canadian teacher education has been left largely to the faculties of education themselves. Provincial Ministries of Education who have responsibility for teacher preparation typically limit their efforts to insuring that potential candidates have the necessary courses to graduate. Consequently, intrusive policies of teacher testing and radical restructuring do not exist in Canada. Ministries do occasionally undertake reviews of teacher education in Canada. In Nova Scotia, for example, following such a province wide review, four of eight teacher preparation programs were shut down. In two provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, Colleges of Teachers have recently been established to set standards for certification, but their long terms impact on policy has yet to be determined. (Sheehan and Fullan 1995.)

A common historic policy approach across these countries becomes evident. In the 1960s and 1970s, after teacher education had moved to Universities, schools and faculties of education appeared to enjoy considerable freedom in how they undertook the preparation of teachers. But the 1990s have seen numerous initiatives on the part of governments, particularly in the USA, Australia and Great Britain to exercise greater and greater control over teacher preparation in the form of mandating standards, introducing programs of teacher testing, and placing limits on curriculum within schools and faculties of education. The reaction of academics appears to vary from one country to the next. Tisher (1995) notes that the policy changes in Australia went unchallenged by a docile group of teacher educators. Taylor (1994), who finds teacher education in England under attack, proposes alliances to improve the image of teachers and to assist educators to defend teacher education from its enemies.

The motivation of policymakers to undertake such moves appears to rest with economic concerns. Sanders (1995), for example, who examined the political influences in Germany, perceives that the need for high levels of productivity in the economy drove policy changes in that country.

In sum, themes emerge across these policy initiatives. First, in every country steps have been taken by policy makers to reform teacher education from outside the institution itself. The reform initiatives within institutions, which we describe elsewhere, have either not matched the expectations of policy makers or have been ignored by them.

Second, most policies mandate or support greater involvement of the schools in teacher education either in the form of school/university partnerships or in other cases control by schools over teacher education. However, such policy proposals for restructuring and innovative activity have not typically been followed by a major reconceptualization of what should actually occur as a result of such collaboration.

Third, across these western countries is a move toward greater accountability which too often translates into a narrower, more technical view of teaching. For example, the British experience is built around a national curriculum with the development of competencies for teachers to teach for that curriculum. The apparent simplicity of many of these policies has the potential of ‘dumbing down’ the curriculum for teacher education. The notion of teaching as a complex endeavor and the beginning teacher as an educated person appears to have been lost in these policies.

2. Teacher Education Programs

The program landscape of teacher education takes the form of a common organizational model within which alternative orientations appear. Traditionally, learning to teach has been a process of providing beginning teachers with knowledge and skills about teaching through coursework followed by a school experience where beginning teachers are expected to apply and integrate such knowledge. Britzman (1986) terms this an implicit theory of simple and immediate integration of knowledge about teaching. The university provides the knowledge, the school the field experience and the students integrate the experience. Because it has more in common with the culture of the university than it does to the culture of the school, links to the field are often ignored. As Guthrie and Clifford (1988) note, as Schools of Education have drifted toward the shores of academe they have drifted away from schools. During that period of drift, schools and faculties of education have lost the clear sense of mission that typified the normal schools. What has changed over the years however is the type of knowledge, skills, and expectations that are acquired by beginning teachers during the coursework phase.

These changes have come about with the move of teacher education to the university which has achieved the intended goal of creating a setting for research and scholarly activity to address issues in teacher education. This has produced a rich and varied knowledge base ranging from research on teaching and reflective practice to the philosophical and psychological studies leading to the notions of constructivism. This diverse corpus of knowledge, which Zeichner (1999) calls the ‘new scholarship in teacher education,’ can potentially equip beginning teachers with the tools and understanding to better approach their teaching than was possible in the days of the Normal schools.

Also, numerous studies of program attributes have contributed to successful teacher learning (Howey and Zimpher 1989, Goodlad et al. 1990, DarlingHammond 1996). Howey and Zimpher identified in their case studies the following attributes of coherent programs:

—–Programs have one or more frameworks grounded in theory and research as well as practice, frameworks that explicate, justify, and build consensus around such fundamental conceptions as the role of the teacher, the nature of teaching and learning, and the mission of schools in this democracy. These frameworks guide not only the nature of curriculum as manifested in individual courses but, as well, questions of scope; developmental sequence; integration of discrete disciplines, and the relationships of pedagogical knowledge to learning how to teach in various laboratory, clinical, and school settings. Programs embedded in such frameworks clearly establish priorities in terms of key dispositional attitudes and behaviors enabled and monitored in repeated structured experiences. Programs reflect consideration of ethos and culture building and the critical socialization of the prospective teacher. (1989, p. 242)

3. Varying Orientations To Teacher Education

While a common organizational tradition has remained prevalent over the years, alternative approaches in all countries have developed. These reforms push against this predominant tradition of teacher education. These tend to occur at the ground level, where individual and small groups of faculty members develop and carry out innovations. These alternatives are driven by competing conceptions of teaching and learning including progressive critical, personalistic, competency, traditional, and academic orientations. For example, the RATE (Research About Teacher Education) study in the United States in 1990 polled teachers and students and found that about two-thirds of both groups identified a discernible orientation guiding the program they were engaged with at that time. Context greatly affected responses, as liberal arts institutions were disposed toward content knowledge, early childhood and elementary preparation programs were driven by views of child development, and programs placing students in schools populated by the underclass tended toward a critical posture. No prevalent orientation appeared, but hybrids were common and inquiry into and reflection on practice represented a common programmatic theme.

Initiatives from different countries illustrate this plurality of orientations. At the University of Melbourne, Australia, an innovative program based on constructivist principles has been ongoing for a number of years. Building on the needs of the students, the program emphasizes group collaboration and a unique organizational structure that combines campus coursework and school experience (Gunstone et al. 1993). Similar constructivist programs incorporating a personalistic approach can be found in several Western countries.

Nigel (1995) examine efforts in European countries to increase the professionalization of teacher training. He reports that France had recently elevated the status of teachers to civil servants hence increasing their prestige and that Germany had strengthened efforts to retain a high degree of academic excellence in its professional training.

In Canada, alternative approaches to the traditional organization of teacher preparation have been occurring for several years. At the University of Simon Fraser, the Faculty of Education has had over 30 years of experience with an alternative model of teacher preparation where initial coursework has been replaced by combined seminar and school activity and where much of the teaching has been undertaken by seconded teachers (Ellis 1968). The orientation in these programs integrates a clinical practical and personalistic stance.

Brower and colleagues (1987) report an integrated curriculum of alternating college based seminars and school experience at the University of Utrecht. What began and was studied over time in one institution later became adopted in most Universities in the Netherlands and became endorsed as official government policy. Their work illustrates how ground level reform can be supported by research and influence national policy.

Increasingly, in the USA formalized interinstitutional relationships between schools of education and surrounding school districts appear in the form of professional development schools or partner schools. Seventy-five major institutions working in partnership with local schools and school districts form part of a national reform network known as the Holmes Partnership. Within this confederation, 31 partnerships address the challenges of preparing and retaining teachers in urban settings in a reform effort known as the Urban Network to Improve Teacher Education (UNITE).

The United States, Great Britain and Australia have also been characterized by ‘blue ribbon’ commissions convened regularly to share their collective wisdom about what they perceive as needed future directions for teacher education. Two examples from the USA illustrate these types of reports. A recent report was prepared by a group with the auspicious designation of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) titled What Matters Most: Investing In Quality Teaching (1996). RennertAriev and Valli (1999) examined nine other reform documents disseminated since 1985 against the NCTAF recommendations and found considerable variability across these reports. What these groups, comprised of leaders in education, government, business and industry, have consistently recommended is more rigorous content preparation and increased and improved clinical experiences. A high level of agreement also existed for improving the awareness of multiculturalism and increasing the competence of beginning teachers to deal with students of diversity.

4. Teacher Educators

While the role of teacher educators has attracted little research they do shape programs and their delivery. Just who is involved in preparing teachers, what do they tend to do and why? In addition to the school of education professoriate, clinical faculty and professors in the arts, sciences and humanities also play significant roles in shaping the beliefs and practices of beginning teachers.

Ducharme and Ducharme’s (1996) research, corroborated by other studies, revealed the following general portrayal of the teacher education professor:

—–He is a white male in his late forties or early fifties, tenured at either the full or associate professor level. He acquired his doctorate while studying part-time, and has been at his current place of employment for more than 15 years, during which time he has published six or seven articles in refereed publications. Nearly 80 percent of elementary and secondary (teacher education) faculty had several years of prior work in elementary and secondary schools. (Ducharme and Ducharme 1996, p. 698.)

The scholarly productivity of teacher educators varies widely depending upon the type of institution in which they are located and when they entered the professoriate. For example, those faculty in research institutions tend to publish as frequently as other faculty across the academy and teacher education research has in fact mushroomed in recent years. Division K, Teaching and Teacher Education, of the American Educational Research Association now has the largest membership in this organization and reflects the greatest number of scholarly presentations. Contrary to the claims of critics, the RATE studies revealed that prospective teachers report that teacher educators on the whole are both competent and accessible. Further, work in Canada (Weber 1990) reveals a professoriate committed to high ideals and to a reformist agenda in teacher education, but a context in which they are frustrated by the institution.

Teacher educators reported 55 hours a week on the average devoted to their various tasks and the demands on faculty in recent years have increased as many struggle to straddle the diverse cultures of higher education and elementary and secondary schooling. Teacher educators report spending more time in schools and especially in the growing movement of Partner or Professional Development Schools. However while these teacher educators generally spend increasing time in schools, they tend to do so largely engaged in traditional functions; that is supervising prospective teachers and providing some school-based professional development for veteran teachers. They rarely, if ever, teach youngsters themselves and since it has often been a considerable number of years since they did so, they are often unaware of many of the problems teachers face.

Increasingly, clinical faculty, teachers seconded from the schools to work in Schools and Faculties of Education, play a significant role in teacher education. They typically bring to the university a strong connection with the field, but often represent the unheralded, forgotten workers in teacher education. Teachers in elementary and secondary schools have always played a significant role in educating beginning teachers by acting as cooperating teachers. However, they typically receive little compensation for assisting novices in the complexities of learning to teach while apprenticing at their schools. Current changes in Great Britain propose that the locus for teacher education shift to the school. If this signals the future, then the role of teachers as teacher educators will become even more significant. It should also be recalled that the attitudes and perceptions of future generations of teachers are being shaped through what is termed an ‘apprenticeship of observation’ as they go through school themselves.

Obviously, the professors of Arts, Science, and Humanities also have considerable influence on those learning to teach. Seldom mentioned in the literature, their influence remains relatively unstudied and understood.

5. Prospective Teachers

An understanding of the large and diverse enterprise of teacher preparation in Western countries must also include an examination of the prospective teachers seeking a teaching license. The context in which they teach adds to that understanding.

Criticism of teacher education derives not only from perceptions of the quality of faculty and programs but that of the education students as well. The prevailing perception is that schooling in general is severely constrained by the pedestrian nature of those who choose to teach or, as has been opined by many, those who have no other choice. The RATE data counter these common assertions. Almost 4 in 10 prospective teachers maintained an A average in high school, the great majority had at least a B average and six of seven teacher candidates reported that they were in the top third of their class. In several Canadian provinces entry standards for prospective teachers have risen steadily to the point that an ‘A’ standing is typically required to enter teaching.

Prospective teachers are somewhat evenly divided in the structure of programs in which they are enrolled. Some begin in their freshman year continually interfacing with their liberal studies and finish with a baccalaureate. Others begin in their junior or even senior year. In many instances the program of preparation is extended to a fifth and in a few instances even a sixth year. Most teachers take at least 5 years to finish their program of teacher preparation. Other teacher preparation programs are strictly at the postbaccalaureate level and some result in a master’s degree which is a requirement in some American States, including California.

The research on the ‘beginning teacher’ reveals a great deal about teacher education programs and confirms many of the points we identified earlier. Where beginning teachers have been asked to assess their programs of teacher preparation, they typically take a critical stance reporting that their real understanding of teaching began when they entered the school. Wideen et al. (1998) cite several reports showing that the first year of teaching for most beginning teachers became a ‘sink or swim’ proposition for which they felt poorly prepared. Nonetheless upon graduation the vast majority of teachers report they have acquired entry-level skills and are confident they will succeed at least in traditional teaching settings (RATE 1992).

6. The Future

Thus, what can we say about the future of teacher education? Depending on the data one decides to emphasize, the future could be the best of times or it could be the worst of times. Those who see the best of times emphasize and believe in the potential of the ground level efforts occurring in all western countries; the university based research efforts, producing new ways of thinking about teaching and teacher education; and the widespread effort that is being made to reform the schools and prepare teachers differently to teach in these new schools. Those on the optimistic side typically ask, what could be more important then the preparation of those who will teach our young?

On the other hand, if the simplistic solutions of many policymakers win the day, if the weak and diffuse institutional base for teacher education remains, if many in the professoriate remain interested in everything other than teacher preparation, and if the public continues to believe that teaching is a relatively simple activity, which can be done by anyone, then it could be the worst of times.

Achieving the best of future times requires that the collective teacher education community work to move beyond the mandates of policymakers, reduce isolationism, and avoid simple solutions to complex problems. Moving beyond mandates requires a reconceptualization process that sets out improved designs for teacher preparation.

Isolationism, whether it involves research, program initiatives, or policy making, will have little impact if it ignores the holistic nature of teacher education. The tendency has been to offer simple solutions to complex problems. Teacher education is a complex phenomenon; future solutions to problems and policy initiatives must reflect this.


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