The Fall and Rise of Field Experiences in Teacher Education

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Historical and Personal Perspective on Laboratory Schools

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In the 1970s, the college administration attempted to close the Antioch School rather than continue to support it financially. Adamant support from education majors, parents, and alumni resulted in the school becoming independent of the college while receiving a subsidy for working with student teachers (Mullins 1996). Finally, in 1979, the school became totally independent from the college. It continues today as a private school with little connection to the college’s teacher education program.

This story is typical of many laboratory schools. Most laboratory schools began as campus schools for normal or teachers’ colleges (Nielsen 1986). As early as the 1820s, students were practicing in “model” schools, with 47 of 67 state normal schools operating such schools by 1874 (Bonar 1992). The late 1800s saw the model school concept expanded as a place to train beginning teachers. It was during this time that John Dewey developed the laboratory school at the University of Chicago, a school emphasizing testing theory and knowledge of teaching and learning (Bonar 1992).

Dewey’s laboratory school is undoubtedly the most famous of such experimental schools. Dewey viewed his school as a laboratory for researching and verifying new educational theories and principles (Tanner 1997). Just as universities need laboratories for their natural science departments, Dewey envisioned a laboratory school in which discoveries would be made about the education of the child by putting theory into practice in an experimental setting. Connection to the university setting was essential for the freedom of inquiry it could provide. As Tanner (1997, 21) argued, “Discovery cannot be carried forward in an atmosphere shackled by tradition.” In his laboratory school, Dewey was able to test ideas that eventually became the core of his writings throughout his life. As influential as his ideas have been, the practices of his laboratory school continue to be mainly disregarded a century later (Tanner 1997).

In the early 1900s, model schools became important centers of education for teachers. These schools began to be called laboratory schools after Dewey’s efforts in Chicago (Cremin 1988). Consciously modeled after the teaching hospital, laboratory schools emphasized systematic research, joint faculty appointments with the university, and careful attention to preservice teacher education. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, laboratory schools expanded in colleges and universities. Between 1920 and 1940, significant increases in their scope resulted from the pressure put on student teaching by professional organizations (Lange 1993). In the 1950s, laboratory schools found themselves trapped in operational and philosophical dilemmas (Nielsen 1986). Between 1960 and 1980, one half of the nation’s laboratory schools either closed or were reduced in scope, falling from 212 in the mid 1960s to less than 100 surviving today (Bonar 1992).

In 1991, I accepted a teaching position at Berry College Laboratory School while pursuing my dissertation research. Patterned after the British infant school, the school was established in 1977 as a demonstration center for the preparation of teachers, developing models for early childhood education through research, experimentation, testing, and evaluation. Today, the Berry College Laboratory School brims with preservice teachers involved in early field experiences, student teaching, and college work-study jobs. The laboratory school remains an important component in the education of preservice teachers, providing a view of the possible to complement the sometimes less-than-ideal realities of field experiences in public schools and PDSs. Yet the school has struggled to exist through the years, dealing with uncertainties of personnel, funding, and purpose. Issues of survival of laboratory schools can provide important lessons as we move toward the proliferation of PDSs.

From Laboratory School to PDS

Laboratory schools represent the earliest forms of PDSs. Beginning with John Dewey’s efforts around the turn of the century, laboratory schools attached to schools of education aimed to provide best-practice classroom environments focused on researching and implementing educational theory (Stallings and Kowalski 1990). Early laboratory schools provided sites for extensive research on new models of education, through collaboration with university faculty members. Since their peak in 1964, laboratory schools have been on the decline, as public schools became the focus of student teaching and participation (Buck and Miller 1991). Many laboratory schools closed as teacher education budgets shrank and public schools gained credence as “realistic” placements for student teachers. Many were too small to serve expanding teacher education programs or were no longer performing useful functions and were unwilling to change (Buck and Miller 1991).

The reason for the demise of laboratory schools is more complex than simply a cloistered atmosphere or an unfulfilled research promise, as some have stated (Lange 1993). The operational and philosophical dilemmas that threatened laboratory schools are similar to the challenges faced by their heir apparent, PDSs. As Van Til (1969, p. 8) noted, “The burden of multiple purposes and variant perceptions was heavy for many laboratory schools.” He outlined areas in which conflicting perceptions challenged the continuing existence of laboratory schools. Many researchers have addressed the tendency of laboratory schools to become favored institutions for the education of faculty children (Cremin 1988). Trends in enrollment reinforce the perception that laboratory school students do not represent the norm. Though only 24 percent of schools charged tuition in 1942, 45 percent charged tuition in 1964 (Van Til 1969). Similar issues of equity exist in PDSs as the commitment to at-risk students is sometimes unfulfilled (Abdal-Haqq 1998). Parents of laboratory school students are often at cross-purposes with college goals, wanting traditional academic programs over innovation. Negotiating these issues provides a major challenge facing PDSs, taking into account the needs of teachers, districts, unions, parents, and the community (Teitel 1998b).

As the number of students enrolling in teacher education programs increased, student teaching moved to the plentiful public school classrooms in communities surrounding colleges and universities. Teacher education professors spent more time in these public school placements, creating a widening gap between the college education faculty and the laboratory school. PDSs likewise often serve a small percentage of the teacher education student body, leaving the rest of the teacher education faculty as outsiders uninvolved in the PDS process. Laboratory schoolteachers, though often holding joint appointments in the university, found themselves treated as second-class citizens. Their daily life demanded attention to their students above preservice teachers, widening the gap they perceived with the university. The role of clinical faculty members in PDSs is still evolving, but similar pressures appear in the role and status differences felt by PDS faculty members (Darling-Hammond 1994). Finally, funding was a constant struggle. The uncertainty of laboratory schools’ continued existence happened at the same time that federal funding increased for innovation within public schools. Long-term funding of PDSs, many begun through one-time grants, presents similar challenges (Abdal-Haqq 1998).

A spate of reform reports in the 1980s revived interest in collaborative efforts between colleges of education and schools (Stallings and Kowalski 1990). The Carnegie Forum (1986), the Holmes Group (1986), and Goodlad (1990) issued reports recommending establishing schools analogous to teaching hospitals, linking school and college faculties through goals similar to those undertaken by laboratory schools. Goals for PDSs included the cooperative supervision of prospective teachers, mutual deliberation on student learning, collaborative research on problems in education, and shared teaching in college and schools. The Holmes Group (1990) proposed a new organizational structure involving the institutional coalition of teacher education programs and public schools as a focus for professional preparation, research, and the improvement of teaching. These PDSs were envisioned as laboratories in which solutions could be anticipated to the emerging concerns of education.

Colleges of education have proceeded to plan and implement professional-development relationships with schools throughout the country (Stallings and Kowalski 1990; Book 1996). Stories of individual efforts and pronouncements of the promises of PDSs abound (Darling-Hammond 1994; Levine and Trachtman 1997; Osguthorpe, Harris, Harris, and Black 1995). Though much descriptive research has been published, there remains little systematic research on the outcomes of PDSs (Book 1996). In-depth reviews of research by Abdal-Haqq (1998) and Teitel (1998b) provide analyses of our current knowledge of benefits and challenges.

Reviews of PDS literature found uneven development within the movement, with much emphasis on preservice and in-service teacher education and little attention to teaching, learning, and equity issues (Abdal-Haqq 1998). PDS field experiences tend to be longer, more structured, and earlier than traditional field experiences, with students often working in cohort groups. Professional-development opportunities in PDSs appear more enabling and empowering for participating teachers (Teitel 1998b). School-based faculty members tend to be involved in the design and implementation of university courses. Evidence suggests that beginning teachers with experiences in PDS settings are somewhat better prepared for classroom teaching than traditionally prepared graduates. However, challenges are apparent in these reviews as well. There is little evidence that improvement in student learning is occurring as a result of PDS efforts. Though inquiry is taking place in PDSs, little evidence has been published of its nature or outcomes (Abdal-Haqq 1998; Book 1996; Teitel 1998b). Inflexible and counterproductive schedules of many schools have made it difficult for professional-development time to be found for preservice and in-service teachers. Financing, when found, is temporary and insufficient, dooming PDSs to transient status within both the university and the school district. Innovations remain slow to implement, with technology and integrated services still rarely a significant part of PDS efforts. Finally, equity and diversity, components that could clearly differentiate PDSs from laboratory schools, remain largely unfulfilled despite much rhetoric (Abdal-Haqq 1998; Teitel 1998b).

Informing PDS Challenges with Laboratory School Lessons

As part of the redesign of a college teacher education program, I have assumed the role of PDS coordinator, charged with establishing relationships with elementary, middle, and high schools in our area. These long-term projects are made possible by the personal commitments of individual college faculty members, classroom teachers, and school principals. Collaboration takes time, with few incentives from either institution (Darling-Hammond 1994). The process begins with the creation of relationships that develop through close collaborative work and progresses only as far as trust and equity can continue between partners (Osguthorpe et al. 1995). The teacher education community is just learning how to support the development of PDSs. Recent guidelines from the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE 1997; Sykes 1998) have outlined steps in the creation and support of PDSs. New structures for PDS governance are being created and shared (Teitel 1998a). In this process, we can not forget the lessons faced by laboratory schools that have traversed similar landscapes many times.

Grants and redesign efforts propel teacher education toward the creation of PDSs. The great challenge for teacher education programs lies in the long-term commitment and maintenance of PDS relationships. The public schools are wary of the ebb and flow of university involvement in schools. They have seen university commitments come and go as funding and research agendas are obtained and then completed. Schools must continue their basic responsibility despite the comings and goings of university or college partners. For PDSs truly to affect change in both teacher education programs and schools, the connection between college or university and school must stay alive. Laboratory schools failed when they lost the clear sense of purpose and connection with their schools of education. We must learn from both the failings of laboratory schools and their continuing successes if we are to maintain new partnerships with schools.

The differences between laboratory schools and PDSs are real (Weber 1996), yet their purposes are so similar that telling them apart is often difficult for educators (Tibbetts 1997–98). They share the goals of educating K–12 students, preparing future teachers, and reforming education. Reviewing issues in the survival of PDSs allows a view of both the similarities and differences with laboratory schools, teaching important lessons in the process.

PDSs begin and develop slowly, yet they face great pressure to change quickly. College professors and students are impatient for cutting-edge models of practice within which to work. Research results are expected within a year or two to allow for publication and dissemination, yet neither college professors nor teachers have time to spare. Few teachers receive release time to fulfill new roles and responsibilities (Abdal-Haqq 1998). Change and developing relationships takes time. We cannot rush teachers into change (Green, Baldini, and Stack 1993). If change is to be longstanding, it must result from a developing coherence in perspectives between school and college faculty members (Stoddart 1993). This shift will take time, energy, and commitment. Laboratory school faculty members generally are hired with the understanding that collaborating with college students and professors is part of their job (Tibbetts 1997–98). They relish interaction with preservice teachers and college faculty. The history of laboratory schools reinforces the need to support the dual focus of school faculty members on both their own students and their PDS roles. Schools must establish support systems that specifically give time and training for the complex roles involved in interacting with multiple stakeholders.

Most PDS efforts have been aimed at only one of the goals delineated by the Holmes Group (1986): the cooperative supervision of prospective teachers (Abdal-Haqq 1998). Still ahead is the really hard work: collaborating to change schooling itself (Teitel 1998b). The assumption that preservice teachers are immersed in schools committed to reform is supposed to be fundamental to PDSs (Zeichner and Miller 1997), yet the road to true school change is filled with obstacles. Colleges cannot impose their own agenda on schools, an approach ineffective in promoting change (MacNaughton and Johns 1993). Yet bottom-up approaches to collaboration can be as problematic as top-down ones (Stoddart 1993). Most teachers have little desire to create the research base that university researchers view as important. The educational theories taught in college classrooms are not widely accepted nor easily adopted in the public schools. Teachers holding conflicting views of instruction and patterns of practice resist an emphasis on constructivism (Stoddart 1993). The organizational structure of schools supports classroom management, control, and covering the curriculum over teaching for understanding (Popkewitz and Lind 1989).

Schools of education worry that getting their students too far ahead of traditional practices will affect their ability to interact with “real” schools (Darling-Hammond 1994). Our widely differing beliefs about learning and teaching make establishing a collaborative relationship toward school change difficult. Laboratory schools, while criticized for not being “real,” can respond more quickly and effectively to the need for change and innovation (Kochan 1997). Like charter schools, they are not bound by the normal rules of schooling. The role of laboratory schools should be to push the limits of what is possible (Tanner 1997). Yet many have reverted to traditional practices (Weber 1996). Can PDSs keep a focus on innovation where laboratory schools failed? PDSs must explore carefully their ability to attain charter-like status. In negotiating governance structures for PDSs, change processes and openness to innovation must be clearly stated (Teitel 1998a). The history of laboratory schools illustrates how easily schools revert to traditional modes.

Institutional thinking in schools often acts as an impediment to real change. In institutions with purposely disempowered teachers, is there room for the empowerment of teachers suggested by collaboration with colleges (Neufeld and McGowan 1993)? Because new ideas, such as those posited in PDS relationships, threaten the institutional habits of schools, they are often relegated to the periphery (Darling-Hammond 1994). New organizational structures must be created to give institutional credibility to PDSs within both school districts and universities. This challenge has consistently been a problem for laboratory schools. Their continued existence has depended on their credible usefulness to schools of education. The connection to the university is essential for the freedom of inquiry so important to innovation (Tanner 1997). PDSs must leverage their connection to the university to their advantage, in the process gaining support for innovative practices, resources, and a powerful voice unavailable to many in the public school community. PDSs must learn how to take advantage of the environment of inquiry laboratory schools can possess. Laboratory schools have not taken advantage of research opportunities to the extent they could (Bonar 1992; Weber 1996). The impediments to teachers and researchers are many when the school goal is first and foremost the immediate education of the child. Laboratory schools, supposedly in the best of possible environments to accomplish classroom research, illustrate just how difficult the pursuit of ongoing research can be. Qualitative methods now available that give greater voice to the teacher’s perspective can allow for research to proceed more easily in schools (Weber 1996). Yet, “for many PDSs, real collaborative inquiry is not yet taking place” (Teitel 1998b, 48). Only through strong support for collaborative research will inquiry become a viable aspect of PDS work.

The reward structure in both schools and colleges runs counter to supporting collaboration. Teachers need the time and support to reflect and develop, and college faculty members need institutional recognition for their work together. From where will this support come? Clearly, most colleges and universities emphasize publishing and presentations over service to the schools (Lange 1993), and major changes to this incentive structure do not occur as college faculty members take on the additional work involved in PDS relationships (Zeichner and Miller 1997). Few PDSs are able to provide release time for classroom teachers already burdened with inflexible and counterproductive schedules. As Abdal-Haqq (1998, 49), noted, “In general, there appears to be either a precarious reliance on purchasing time with grant funds or an apologetic and resigned acceptance that PDS work is an add-on that requires sacrifices of personal and professional time by school and university teachers.” As classroom teachers and college faculty members overextend themselves and burn out, the institutional and human investments in PDSs could be squandered. Laboratory schools can provide a model for other schools as they seek to restructure teacher workload and responsibilities (Kochan 1997). Laboratory schoolteachers’ roles as clinical faculty members included broader definitions of their responsibilities, with concomitant rewards of the larger resources available in the university environment. College faculty work in laboratory schools was often recognized as service within the college. A long-term reallocation of rewards is necessary if PDSs are to survive (Snyder 1998). A recognition structure shared with the college must focus on narrowing the gap between the college and the PDS through long-term investments.

Assembling resources has not been easy for either laboratory schools or PDSs. Funding problems led to the demise of many laboratory schools. The labor-intensive nature of collaborations likewise challenges PDSs. Like laboratory schools, without more financial support and reallocated personnel, PDSs will not succeed (Lange 1993). Teacher education, already funded below many programs in universities, has few resources or incentives to invest in PDSs (Darling-Hammond 1994). Given the history of the relationship between schools and colleges, why should schools commit their meager resources toward collaboration with colleges? The consensus in PDS literature is that these schools “are doomed to early extinction as long as they are regarded as add-ons to regular school or university programming” (Abdal-Haqq 1998, 52). Many laboratory schools have struggled to establish and maintain a clearly necessary role in teacher-preparation programs as their insurance of continued college financial support. Numerous institutional links have allowed some laboratory schools to survive over a long period. Constant attention to the relationship should include committee structures, shared faculty, ongoing grant activity, resource sharing, and innovations in curriculum, instruction, and technology. PDS leaders must learn this hard lesson from colleagues already familiar with the struggle for resources.

Facing Familiar Challenges

PDSs are becoming both expected and mandated in teacher education programs. Many PDSs established throughout the country are now struggling with the hard work of becoming institutionalized parts of teacher education. The history of laboratory schools provides lessons from which PDSs can learn. Laboratory schools have struggled to balance innovation with tradition, research with practice, and teacher education with pre-K–12 teaching. Their downfall reinforces the necessity of strong connections among school, college, and community. Laboratory schools fell from grace when they no longer were seen as research laboratories for innovative practices or practical arms of college teacher education programs. PDSs have risen in their place, committed to similar goals yet haunted by familiar challenges.

Like laboratory schools, PDSs face pressures to produce change, differing perspectives on innovative practice, institutional impediments, counterproductive reward structures, and inadequate resources. Laboratory schools have a long and honored tradition dealing with similar challenges as they connected college and school, theory and practice (Kochan 1997). Their history should inform current development of PDSs. Those working to establish long-term PDS relationships can use laboratory schools’ experiences as a resource. PDSs and laboratory schools should collaborate to shape teacher preparation and K–12 education (Tibbetts 1997–98). Laboratory schools must also continue to develop their role as a place to test new ideas and methods, challenging conceptions of what is possible in schools (Miller and Editors 1997a; 1997b; Tanner 1997). PDSs must learn from the successes and failures of laboratory schools if teacher education in the United States is to fulfill the promise of providing competent, caring, and qualified teachers for all students in our country (National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future 1996).


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