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Does Preservice Course Work Make a Difference in Teacher Practice? One Study Says Yes


Have you seen the JTE Insider blog managed by the Journal of Teacher Education (JTE) editorial team? Check out the following interview with the authors of a recent article. This blog is available to the public, and AACTE members have free access to the articles themselves in the full JTE archives online – just log in with your AACTE profile here.

In the January/February 2018 issue of JTE, Susan D. Martin and Sherry Dismuke of Boise State University (ID) published an article titled “Investigating Differences in Teacher Practices Through a Complexity Theory Lens: The Influence of Teacher Education.” The article is summarized in the following abstract:

How to prepare teachers to be effective in our nation’s classrooms seems to get increasingly complex, yet the links between teacher education and teachers’ eventual practices are little understood. Using complexity theory as a theoretical framework, this mixed-methods study investigated writing teacher practices of 23 elementary teachers. Twelve teachers had participated in a comprehensive course focused on writing, either at in-service or preservice levels. The other teachers had not taken any course focused on writing and had little to no writing professional development. Despite the small number of participants in our study, quantitative analysis demonstrated significant differences on multiple effective-practice indicators. These findings were borne out in qualitative analyses as well. Clear connections of teachers’ practices and understandings and the course were noted. These findings contribute to understandings of the ways in which teacher education course work makes a difference in optimizing candidate learning and reducing the variability across teacher practices and subsequent student learning opportunities. Findings suggest implications for policy makers, teacher education programs, as well as for teacher educators and researchers.

The authors provided the following reflection on their article and research for the JTE Insider blog:

Preparing for and engaging in research in school settings can be frustrating, challenging, and time-consuming work. Just finding willing participants and garnering all the necessary IRB consents on several levels can wear one out. Analytic processes aren’t easy either, especially when large amounts of data are involved. Despite the challenges of this research, we saw an opportunity for investigation that we couldn’t pass up. As teacher educators and scholars of teacher education, we are passionate about issues to do with teacher education practices, as well as those to do with teaching and learning to write. We want our work to make a difference for teachers and students in classrooms.

Our passion for conducting research in the field of teacher education arises from several factors, including our histories as elementary classroom teachers, engagement in research with this focus as doctoral students, and our work as teacher educators. As teacher educators, we see our students in both college and elementary classroom settings on a regular basis. Being in schools with student teachers also allows us to interact with and observe the experienced teachers who serve as school-based teacher educators. As reflective practitioners, the links we see or do not see between these two settings are ever at the forefront of our thinking. We, individually and in collaboration with others, are constantly striving to figure out how we can better affect teaching practices in schools that will effectively support and guide children’s learning. These efforts have extended into our research projects.

Investigation of links between teacher education and teacher practices is certainly of interest to the research community. However, as noted in our article, we have found that actual studies focused on this area were few and far between, especially in the area of literacy. We agree with Christine Sleeter, that the dearth of studies investigating such linkages has led to a vacuum in an area of research that could affect policy decisions. We were struck by that fact that while teacher education was under attack, we could see for ourselves, albeit anecdotally, the impact of our program and course work on our students’ teaching practices. We also worked on or knew of studies that suggest the impact of teacher education upon teacher practices, especially the transitions into teaching work of Pam Grossman, Sheila Valencia, and colleagues. Building upon this research to help create a body of literature focused on links between teacher education and teacher practices is important to us.

The impetus for this particular research topic actually began several years ago and started with investigations of the writing methods course for preservice teachers. In line with national interests and policies focused on reading, few literacy researchers were investigating either writing or literacy teacher education at the time. Susan remembers presenting writing instruction research at a national literacy conference in 2003, in which only that one session was focused on writing and writing instruction. Of course, with the advent of the Common Core State Standards’ more holistic focus on literacy, this has changed. Not surprisingly, at that time neither our institution nor the state required a writing methods course for our elementary education students. Likewise, our master’s degree students were not required to take a course in writing. We began to hear from teachers, both former and current students, about the value of having course work focused on writing and writing instruction. Our first inquiries, focused on preservice teachers’ understandings during and at the end in this course, provided data to generate several scholarly works. These findings also helped to foster change in our elementary certification program and requirements for literacy at the state level. Although these changes were gratifying, we felt compelled to go further in our work. Just what was happening out in schools was still pretty unclear to us. We had to find out if the course was really making differences in ways that were reported back to us or that we had glimpsed periodically when we saw students teaching writing lessons.

Additionally, we were both personally familiar with the challenges of writing and teaching writing effectively to children. Like our non-course teachers, neither of us had teacher education course work focused on writing and very little professional development as teachers. We understood that our own elementary teaching could have been far stronger if we knew then what we know now. Our understandings about writing and writing instruction grew through course work as doctoral students and being involved in our own writing processes, as well as through research centered on observations of strong writing teachers. We both saw and felt the power and purpose of writing. The potential of writing to empower all students’ voices and advocacy was particularly important for us. Furthermore, what we did manage to accomplish in our students’ writing development was due to our efforts to be responsible to our students’ needs the best way we knew how. For this study, we therefore worked to find a strong and committed group of non-course teachers for the study. Our findings pertinent to non-course teachers in the study were especially intriguing to us, as we saw how hard they worked to do a good job by their students’ writing instruction with their limited understandings of writing processes and written products.

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