A College Reinvents Teacher Education

In 2007, Michigan’s Department of Education changed its policy to require national accreditation for all teacher certification programs in the state. Hillsdale’s program had been certified by the state for decades, but administrators concluded that it would be wasteful to dedicate precious resources to an accreditation process that lacked both value and credibility.

(Additional background on Hillsdale’s accreditation decision can be found in this Pope Center article.)

Instead of closing the school’s Education Department, Hillsdale’s administration recognized that teacher certification is not the same as teacher education. The college could still produce smart, dedicated teachers for America’s classrooms, even if the students wouldn’t have an immediate path to certification. Hillsdale decided to continue its program and invite schools unrestricted by the burden of certification requirements to hire its graduates.

The professors in the Education Department embraced this new freedom and began to think about what teacher education could be without the ideological straightjacket (i.e., “standards”) from the state. We began our revision by identifying what kind of preparation was truly important for future teachers.  

First, we concluded that teachers need a broad liberal arts education.  Hillsdale is a liberal arts college and its education faculty takes this identity seriously. We believe that it’s not enough for a teacher to be a specialist in one subject area or to be a pedagogical technician. The best teachers are liberally educated and know how numerous subjects fit together to form a coherent picture of reality. Such an image can only develop if future teachers have a rigorous core curriculum that addresses the sciences, language, history, art, etc.  

Second, we decided that future teachers need to know the subjects they will teach very well. Deep understanding of a subject can only develop from extensive study in the subject.  Unlike some institutions that offer a major in Education, Hillsdale requires all students to complete a major in an academic discipline.  This means that those students who wish to pursue a career in teaching—even those who will teach at the elementary level—will have an undergraduate degree in an academic field. Coupled with Hillsdale’s strong core curriculum, we believe the in-depth study associated with an academic major will prepare the future teacher to model and provide a quality education for K-12 students.

Third, we determined that the most important aspects of pedagogy—the function and work of a teacher—are best learned in a real classroom with real students under the tutelage of a master teacher. This means that future teachers are best prepared for their careers by observing and working with real classroom teachers. 

In light of those principles, we realized that many of our existing courses had been developed only to meet the state’s onerous standards, which had tightly controlled what was taught in teacher education courses. With those requirements no longer binding, we were free to keep what was useful, eliminate that which was not, and create new courses to address whatever was being overlooked.

We decided to eliminate methods classes and courses in educational psychology and technology. Because the state had such a heavy hand in dictating these classes (enforcing their “standards”), much of the content was irrelevant or antithetical to the mission of both the college and the department. We believe that our students’ undergraduate experience will be much richer if they take more courses in their major or work with a teacher in a real classroom than if they have to slog through low-information courses.

We revised a number of existing courses (e.g., Philosophy of Education, Explicit Phonics Reading Instruction, and Children’s Literature) that addressed important ideas and topics that were consistent with the mission of the College. In an effort to match the rigor of courses in other departments across the campus, education professors made those courses much more content-driven and more demanding in terms of reading, discussion, and writing. 

The Education Department also recognized a need for a new course in English grammar and, with consultation from the college’s English Department, designed a comprehensive course in English grammar for future teachers. Language is the most important tool of the teacher’s trade.  As Richard Mitchell (“the Underground Grammarian”) once said, “’Good grammar’…is the Law by which meaning is found and made.” 

Yet as David Mulroy showed in his book The War Against Grammar (2003), most educators do not know how the English language works. He concluded, “Unfortunately, few…teachers now have the necessary educational background to teach grammar or to integrate it within their lesson plans. There is only one way for them to obtain this knowledge: it has to be taught explicitly in the college curriculum.” At Hillsdale, we recognize that language is the vehicle for thinking, learning, and teaching and the Education Department decided to make sure that the future teachers who graduate from our college have a solid understanding of how the English language works.

Finally, we partnered with a well-respected private school in the community to develop a new teacher apprenticeship program. This semester-long internship requires college students to work closely with experienced classroom educators to learn the craft of teaching. 

As the semester moves along, the apprentices gradually increase their responsibility—from observation to lead teaching—as the master teachers deem appropriate. We concluded that school personnel (i.e., administrators and teachers) were in a much better position to make decisions about the apprentices’ progress and level of responsibility, and therefore we shifted most of the day-to-day responsibilities of the apprenticeship to the school.

The standard teacher preparation program requires the student to dedicate an entire semester (and sometimes two semesters) exclusively to the student-teaching experience, but Hillsdale offers both part-time and full-time placements depending on how much time students have in their schedules.  Most of our students choose a part-time (about 10 hours a week) apprenticeship so that they can continue to take a full load of classes.

Unlike most teacher education programs, which see themselves as gatekeepers to the teaching profession, Hillsdale sees itself as offering advice and supplementary services for students who want to pursue teaching. Our education faculty is available to advise students on what opportunities are available for students who want to teach.

Fully informed about the wide variety of options, Hillsdale students are free to choose which opportunities—including education courses—they think they will need if they want to teach. Some of our graduates find teaching positions at private and charter schools without having a single education course on their transcript, although we have heard from graduates (and their employers) that the revised curriculum is worth the time and effort.

Many private or charter schools have hired our smart, dedicated, well-prepared graduates. Leaders from these schools have often found the standard ed school certification to be a poor indicator of teacher quality. Because they are free to hire the most talented applicants available, regardless of certification status, they have flocked to Hillsdale for teacher candidates. 

Since 2009, Hillsdale College has hosted a job fair for schools that are interested in hiring Hillsdale graduates. In 2012, the job fair drew representatives from 30 schools in states as far away as Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and North Carolina.

The impact of the changes we have made has been very encouraging, both to the department and the college as a whole. As the department changed its focus and increased the academic rigor of its coursework, we have seen more academically gifted students taking education classes and pursuing careers in teaching. No longer are education classes viewed as trivial “hoops” through which future teachers must jump. Students now see these courses—especially the teacher apprenticeship—as pivotal to their future success.