Reshaping the teacher preparation debate

It’s time that our nation’s education leaders learn that teacher education and licensing is not about dichotomous choices, but inventive approaches that can support student learning today and tomorrow.

A few days ago, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a shout-out to the University of Michigan for serving as a national model for “reinventing” education schools. Indeed, the UM education school, led by Dean Deborah Ball, has done much to recalibrate university-based preparation programs by focusing on the practical how-tos of teaching specific curricular content and drawing on new research about how students learn. And though Secretary Duncan has often called for more student teaching, not less, his Race to the Top policies continue to embrace shortcut alternative-certification programs. Such routes, like Teach for America, can’t come close to offering new recruits the kind of preparation provided by UM’s education school (or by the many other university preparation programs that have also overhauled their approaches).

Secretary Duncan’s contradictory stances on teacher training are difficult to reconcile.

I keep thinking back to a terrific conversation captured by Education Next a few years ago. Arthur Wise, a champion for professionalizing teaching, and Julie Mikuta, a TFA alum and partner in the NewSchools Venture Fund, discussed the merits of university-based and alternative-certification approaches to teacher preparation. The three-year-old piece brings to light a number of issues surrounding TFA and whether it’s a “valuable strategy for recruiting the best and brightest into education and energizing school improvement, or a distraction and a device for sending ill-prepared neophytes to serve some of the nation’s neediest students.”

Federal policymakers have much to learn from the Education Next conversation – especially from Dr. Wise, who points to the false dichotomies often promoted in the current policy debates over teacher education. Rather than demonizing TFA or claiming teacher education programs have it all figured out, he calls for a strategy that scaffolds learning for all novices, whether they are TFA members or university-based recruits. He envisions a “teaching team strategy” in which experienced teachers are ultimately responsible for students, “but in multiple classrooms and with the assistance of the novices.”

Both TFA and traditional recruits have much to contribute to the process of improving teaching and learning. No teacher, however, should teach independently until he or she has passed muster on performance metrics, including teaching diverse learners (such as ELL students) and using sophisticated assessment tools to determine student progress toward 21st-century academic standards. It’s time that our nation’s education leaders learn that teacher education and licensing is not about dichotomous choices, but inventive approaches that can support student learning today and tomorrow.