At last? Upgrading teacher preparation

It looks as if teacher preparation programs are about to receive some high-profile attention (again). Hopefully, this time around the results will be more productive.

Secretary Arne Duncan recently recited the well-known litany of criticisms against U.S. teacher ed programs.  Unfortunately, some of his remarks are based on outdated information (e.g.,that ed schools attract lower qualified students). To their credit, many ed schools are making important upgrades in their programs both in content and faculty qualifications. After considerable nudging from the accreditation agency and a state-level blue-ribbon commission, most of the teacher education programs in our state, for example, are extending the time teacher candidates must spend in actual school settings (clinical training) both before and during their student teaching experiences.

One still problematic area (where the the USDOE might be of some assistance) is getting schools and districts to be more cooperative with the teacher education programs in placement of teacher candidates in the field. This is an area in which traditional and alternative teacher preparation programs could use real help. There is only so much a person can learn about teaching without actually stepping into the classroom to observe and practice under the watchful eye of an effective, experienced teacher. Still, too many teacher-candidates are assigned to mediocre or weak teachers rather than those from whom they could actually learn the craft.

Some administrators reason that putting a still-in-school candidate with a weaker teacher, might help shore up what the students’ are missing. In other places, student teachers are only placed in classrooms subjects deemed less important (aka – not a state tested course or grade level, which has the same net effect since these are usually the areas to which the weaker teachers are assigned. In many high needs schools, the rate of teacher turnover is so high that there are few qualified veterans available to take on the training and mentoring of new teachers. This in turn contributes to the most common areas of weaknesses for new teachers: classroom management and cultural engagement (which often overlap). Alternate route teachers often get no practical training at all before they are placed in a school as the “teacher of record” over a classroom (their first year in the classroom serves as their “on the job training”–not good).

A better approach is to systematically and thoughtfully provide all new entrants to the teaching profession with extended experiences of observing and being observed by highly accomplished teachers.  This can be challenging in places where those master teachers are spread out, overburdened, and under-compensated. There are ways to make those connections, however, particularly given the technology now available and coming. What’s been lacking is the right combination of willpower and resources.

Perhaps now that we are beginning to finally acknowledge it is the quality of the teacher in the classroom that makes the difference in student learning, we will finally give the preparation of those teachers commensurate respect and resources.