Disciplinary Content Needs for Teachers

March 22, 2023

[Note: This blog entry critiques SXU’s proposal to reduce content area requirements in several of its secondary education programs. The SXU proposal justifies its move in terms of a recent State rule change that reduced the minimum number of semester hours in a secondary-level content area from 32 to 18 hours. The blog entry below presents the example of the English program, but the critiques relevant to English apply to all secondary programs at SXU, which, as of 2019, must align to national disciplinary standards.] 

Secondary education programs may be housed, typically, in content areas (English, math, history, science, and the like), where there is a focus on disciplinary knowledge and methods along with pedagogy courses, or in education departments, where there is a focus on pedagogical principles and practices with a “concentration” on the disciplinary content.

I argue that, given current standards in Illinois—and the reality of program structures across the state—this dichotomy is a “distinction without a difference.” That is, the amount of discipline-based course work that is required by pretty much every program is more or less the same whether the program is “owned” by the disciplinary department or the education department. Programs housed in education departments do sometimes have fewer required disciplinary courses, but not that many fewer

An institution at the lower end, for instance, would be National Louis University, whose requirement in English courses (beyond first-year composition) totals 45 quarter hours, a number which converts to 30 semester hours. This allotment of hours is in the ballpark of a “major in English,” even though the program characterizes the English portion of the program as a “minor.” The bottom line is that to support the program, the university has to fund and supply instruction in English at essentially the same level that a major requires. While National Louis does not call their teacher preparation program a “double major,” it essentially is a double major. SXU’s current program is not called a “double major” either, but it essentially is one. So, let’s not get lost in semantics on this key question, and let us be wary of the damage that might be caused by framing the current proposal as a move away from a double major—the proposal’s key selling point.

Here is where SXU’s proposal is critically misleading. The proposal cites the State minimum of 18 hours as justification for eliminating the English major—but the reality is that no approved program in Illinois comes close to such a low number of required content area courses. In meetings, the provost has brushed aside discipline experts’ concerns for the dearth of content coverage by claiming that “the number, 18 hours, is not settled on; the education and disciplinary colleagues will work together to find the right number of content hours—it may be 21 or 24; that will be discussed and the number agreed to.” [I’m paraphrasing Dr. Othman; those weren’t his exact words, but they do reflect the spirit of his comments at our March 15, 2023 meeting.]

But 24 seems to be the upper limit in the provost’s comments to date. In former times 24 hours was a minimum for an endorsement in a secondary area of endorsement (secondary in the sense of “subsequent to an initial license,” not “secondary” in terms of educational level; please note that up until the recent change, the content area requirement for the initial license was 32 hours). To judge from the new state (i.e., national) standards, 24 is too low a number; 30 may be too low a number—but the current discussion would be more comfortable from a disciplinary perspective, if the provost’s angle of “we’ll work out the details collegially” were framed in a range of 30-45 semester hours.

Our current program is 45 semester hours in content. While we could provide arguments attesting to the leanness and efficiencies of those 45 hours, we should also be willing, I’d maintain, to entertain new configurations that cut down some of those hours—but not to 18 or 24 or 27. However we proceed, let’s adjust the parameters for content to the range of 30-45 as a starting point.

Why does our program consist of 45 hours? The short answer is “to be compliant with national standards.” Our national standards have been developed by our “Specialized Professional Organization” (SPA)—the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)—and they are quite rigorous. As of the recent (2019) change in State law, all secondary teacher preparation programs must now be aligned to national (i.e., SPA) standards. The State’s reduction of disciplinary content to a minimum of 18 was made possible by its prior tethering of all secondary programs to national SPA standards. The two changes happened close in time, but it’s noteworthy that the standards change—that is, the holding of programs to rigorous national standards—came first, by a year or so, thus protecting teacher education in the state, presumably, from a misguided approach of drastically reducing content coverage under the banner of the allowable reduction to 18 hours.

At Saint Xavier, it is important for us to be as efficient and as productive as possible. The “18 hours—no major needed” framing of the current proposal opens a door to the cancelation of the entire English program, in a way that misses the efficiency and synergies that currently characterize our three English tracks (secondary education, literature, and writing).  The number of English majors has ranged over the past decade or so from a low of about 40 to a high of about 80. Currently the numbers are growing, primarily in secondary education—but we have also experienced growth in our writing track. The characterizing of majors in terms of “tracks” is misleading because all three tracks are seamlessly interrelated, and each is mutually supportive of the others. The requirements for the tracks are essentially the same, and so it would be more accurate to characterize the major as one major, rather than in terms of its tracks.

Currently we have 54 majors, 35 of whom are English Secondary Education and 19 of whom are literature/writing majors. If SXU reassigns the 35 English Secondary Education students to be Education majors, the remaining 19 English majors may be too small a number to support a program. Hence there is talk of/justification for eliminating the English major. But the 35 newly-minted Education majors will still need, essentially, an English major. Without an English program, that major will not be available. So, 19 students will be cut off from pursuing a major that meets their needs, and 35 students will be left scrambling to complete program requirements and licensure needs in ways as yet undetermined, and not at all foreseeable.

Talk of cutting programs is both premature and reckless. It represents a movement away from the mission of SXU as a liberal arts institution—a movement that might be necessary or possibly desirable—but not at this extreme and destabilizing pace. The programs currently under consideration for cutting are all large enough, efficient enough, flexible enough, and diverse enough to have growth potential—especially if we could collectively engage in program design or re-design, something that has been talked about endlessly, but in a top-down and reactive way—often a threatening way—and without support, without collegiality—all in an environment where shared governance has been spotty at best. 

No compelling evidence has been produced that justifies such a radical departure from studies in English, Spanish, history, sociology, math—and even religious studies and philosophy (these latter two being programs, now cut, that were highly efficient in structure and synergy with general education and outside program interdependence). In so drastically eliminating majors in these areas, the university will be losing a critical mass in humanistic options in teaching and learning that, in the opinion of many, provide a foundation for all degree programs, and in highly cost-effective ways, and with demonstrated excellent outcomes for students—in both professional and academic arenas.

One thought on “Disciplinary Content Needs for Teachers”

  1. Thank you Angelo. This helps clarify what is being proposed and how it is being justified from what our secondary ed. students will actually need.

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