Lower-Middle Classroom

The Education of American Teachers

by James B. Conant
McGraw Hill, 228 pp., $5.00

Dr. Conant’s new book sets a high stylistic standard for administrative documents. It is bland, slightly tart, and absolutely clear; at times lightly personal, never contentious, often convincing. Its calm and precision are surgical; the surgery proposed, however, is not radical, but extensive and superficial.

This superficiality is a consequence of Dr. Conant’s conception of the subject as an administrative problem, rather than a moral and social one. Indeed, within this framework he could not have done more, nor done it more scrupulously. He and his collaborators spent a year of a two-year study visiting seventy-seven colleges and universities in twenty-two states. These schools graduated in 1962 27 per cent of the teachers granted degrees in those states, or about one-fifth of all the teachers graduated in the country. Dr. Conant himself visited fifty-two of these institutions, including the one in whose Department of Education I was teaching at the time. I remember very clearly the care with which those of my colleagues who were to confer with him were selected, and the satisfaction with which they later reported their encounter. What Dr. Conant knows about the preparation of teachers, he learned at the horse’s mouth. It was probably the safest place to stand.

This is, above all, a practical book devoted to shrewd observation of the structure and content of the teacher-training process and pragmatic recommendations for improving it. Dr. Conant manages to avoid both theoretical insight and social controversy with traditional American good-humored disdain. By focusing sharply on teacher training, to the exclusion of any consideration of the way students, schools, and society are related to one another, he manages to avoid scholarship: he cites none of the significant social, anthropological, psychological, or economic studies bearing on the schools and their function, but uses only descriptive and demographic data.

This is paradoxical, because Dr. Conant’s book is much more than just a survey. Its neglect of social dynamics is matched by a contrasting perception of, and sensitivity to, the political dynamics of American education. Thus, one of the best things in the book is the clarity with which it describes the complex relations among the various self-appointed accrediting agencies linked to the National Education Association, which compose the American educational establishment. Conant traces the precise pattern of their influence on state educational policy. This is a very important matter: Those who protest most against NCATE1 and TEPS2 seldom say exactly what they do and how they do it. Dr. Conant, who protests too little, completely dissects the power structure which controls the accreditation of teacher-training programs, in about three strokes. Similarly, his analysis of the consequences of the “approved program” approach, by which state departments of education grant or withhold approval to an institution for teacher-training without stipulating its program in terms of credits and hours, is masterly. The “approved program” approach is generally accepted as giving the institution more freedom than do licence requirements that specify particular courses. Conant shows that in fact it often…

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