Shaking Foundations

Education professors fight Virginia's proposed changes to teacher preparation

By Kristan Morrison

Illustrator: Richard Downs

As a university foundations of education professor, I try to show my pre-service teachers one can promote a progressive and social justice-oriented vision of education even in these times of heavy teach-to-the-test deskilling. My approach to teaching foundations, which I learned in my doctoral program, and which is an approach echoed at countless other universities, is to help preservice teachers understand the connections between education and democracy, and see education as a moral and liberating undertaking. However, I recently discovered just how much my ideals differ from Virginia’s Department of Education (VDE).

Two years ago, the state education department’s Advisory Board on Teacher Education and Licensure proposed to summarily delete the current professional course work requirement of three semester hours in the “Social Foundations of Education” and replace it with three semester hours in “Instructional Design Based on Assessment Data” and three semester hours in “Classroom Management.” No formal rationale was given for this change.

Many of us in the foundations field were at a loss to explain this sudden and arbitrary proposal. In the foundations course, preservice teachers typically learn about such things as the impact of social class, gender, sexual identity, and race/ethnicity on student learning, about the inequities in school funding, about school governance issues, about different and competing philosophies of education, and about the history of American education including the various efforts for equity in school settings. Were we to conclude that the VDE believed such a course and approach superfluous and irrelevant? Or were we to infer that the social foundations course challenges the present climate of school reform efforts that emphasize standards, control, and accountability through high-stakes standardized tests?    

One can only speculate on this question, but there seems to be a great deal of evidence that indicates the latter as being more the case.

University of Wisconsin education professor Michael W. Apple, in Educating the Right Way and elsewhere, has documented efforts to turn teaching
into a paint-by-the-numbers occupation. Education activist Susan Ohanian has written about how pacing guides, specific, uniform, and highly detailed standards statements, and high-stakes standardized tests push teachers to focus more on regurgitation of authorized material rather than on the development of active and critical lesson plans. Deleting social foundations courses adds to this juggernaut by potentially ending preservice teachers’ notions that they can be professionals and agents of social change.

Virginia’s education department’s purported dim view of social foundations is further evidenced in the proposed replacement courses — “Instructional Design Based on Assessment Data” and “Classroom Management.” While both these courses could certainly be taught with a critical lens, I’m doubtful that this was the intent of the proposed changes. The assessment course connects well to the state’s current emphasis on raising standardized test scores. One can envision that this course would teach preservice teachers how to plan ways to increase specific test scores and would lack a critical examination of the key underlying assumption — that standardized testing is the most valid way of determining student progress. Such a course might teach conformity to the status quo and never suggest to preservice teachers that better and more valid ways of assessing student progress exist. “Classroom Management” also meshes well with the current climate in schools with its overemphasis on control, obedience, and authority.

The proposal to delete the foundations course was so dangerous that many of us decided to take a stand. An online petition to oppose the proposed changes, led by Virginia Commonwealth University education foundations professor Kurt Stemhagen, garnered close to 700 signatures from university students, K-12 teachers, university teacher education staff, and others. Other forms of protest included submitting written comments to the VDE and speaking at public hearings held across the state in the fall of 2006.

Our main argument was that deleting the foundations course would be a huge mistake because the course can provide preservice teachers an opportunity to see American education in a new light—to see the familiar as strange, so to speak. Because schools are familiar to preservice teachers, they often approach American education with an uncritical mindset. Social foundations courses help preservice teachers explore vitally important questions regarding education that they may never have considered, including why we grade, why we test, how schools are funded and organized, how curriculum is decided upon, why certain traditional methods of teaching are privileged over others, the relationship between success and race, class, and gender, and, perhaps most importantly, what the overarching purpose of education seems to be versus what it ought to be in a democratic society.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, not every teacher preparation program uses its social foundations course to its full advantage. I have heard from a number of teachers that their experience with foundations was dry and soulless, and focused on the memorizations of court cases, historical factoids, and philosophers. But it does not have to be this way! A good foundations course ought to encourage students to develop well-thought-out visions of education that will become the bedrock foundation to their teaching, and inform their methods and approaches to classroom management, instructional design, and assessment practices.

In January, the state’s education Professional Licensure Committee — having compiled and considered public comments and letters written to the Virginia Department of Education — recommended that the foundations of education course remain as a requirement for teacher licensure, and that “the competencies for data-based instructional decision making would be incorporated in the foundations class and [a] curriculum and instruction class.” The Virginia Board of Education, at their March 30 meeting, approved the committee’s recommendation, but it must still undergo an executive review, be published in the Virginia Register, and meet additional timelines of the Administrative Process Act.

In many ways, I’m conflicted about this process. On one hand, it has made me hopeful. In looking at the letters and comments supporting keeping foundations, I see how this course is valued by many preservice and in-service teachers and administrators, as well as by my
colleagues. On the other hand, I am dismayed that the proposal to delete foundations, a proposal lacking any substantive rationale, was able to get so far so fast. Without the efforts of alert and interested parties, the proposal might have swiftly and easily passed.

I am also dismayed because the Virginia case is not an isolated phenomenon. According to the American Educational Studies Association, the major foundations organization, the process of eliminating or reorienting foundations courses has begun or has occurred already at teacher education programs in many states, including Connecticut, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona, Maine, Missouri, Ohio, California, Tennessee, Texas, Michigan, Illinois, and Georgia. 

The most disturbing reason for the decline of foundations courses has been the emphasis on aligning teacher education programs with the professional standards of two powerful accrediting agencies: the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council.

These standards are closely aligned with No Child Left Behind and other national reform efforts focused on quantitative analyses of learning. The quest to align with accrediting agency standards has also led state teacher licensing boards to require other, and oftentimes new, courses that seem to better meet these standards. When more courses are required, teacher education programs, which are allowed to mandate only a certain number of credit hours for teacher candidates, must then make the difficult decision to eliminate or reorient courses that do not seem to explicitly meet the professional standards.

Sadly, in 2006, NCATE, under pressure from conservative organizations and right wing think tanks such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the National Association of Scholars, and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, announced that it would remove all mention of “social justice” as an example of possible dispositions teacher education programs should help develop in their students. This recent removal bodes ill for foundations courses across the nation. By NCATE removing social justice as a teacher disposition — a major emphasis in many foundations courses — the door opens for state teacher licensing boards and then teacher education programs to further devalue the foundations in teacher preparation.

The foundations field continues its struggle to make a case for the value of this course. In Virginia, we have newly committed ourselves to protect a course so essential to creating questioning, thoughtful, justice-minded educators.

Kristan Morrison ( is an assistant professor of education at Radford University in Radford, Va.