A week after a California judge ruled on a case involving teacher tenure, dismissals, and layoffs, the National Council for Teacher Quality released its annual report on another fundamental problem: the poor quality of teacher preparation programs.
“Teacher preparation is something that’s often overlooked, but very important,” said Alix Freeze, senior director of communications and advocacy at the Association of American Educators. “Study after study dictates that the most important thing is to make sure there’s a great teacher in front of students. Great teachers are the key to student success.”
Those concerned with education reform ought to look more closely at improvements to teacher training programs, said Arthur McKee, director of teacher preparation studies at NCTQ.
“It’s potentially a game-changer,” he said. “We know teacher quality is the most important in-school impact in student learning. If you look at reforms that have to do with teacher quality—tenure reform, evaluations—they’re very important, and we support many as an organization, but we’re increasingly asking more of our teachers than before. If we’re going to say they have to do better to earn tenure or earn higher pay, or whatever consequences are attached to evaluations, we have to train them.”
Poor Academic Preparation
Teacher preparation programs, as a whole, need improvement, the report states. Only a quarter of the programs expect aspiring teachers to be in the top half of their college’s academic pool. Out of 836 programs studied, only 26 elementary programs and 81 secondary programs made the top-ranked list.
On the report’s 125-point scale, most programs earned fewer than 50 points.
“We’re not drawing from the top half of the population. Teachers are not getting instruction in teaching children how to read,” said McKee. “Just like we want to have well-trained doctors taking care of patients, we need to have really well-trained teachers so our students can learn.”
McKee suggests drawing teachers from more elite academic backgrounds and making sure prospective teachers have the skills required to teach students.
“[Many teaching programs] are not giving enough feedback to those candidates or making sure those candidates are paired with an effective teacher to be a mentor,” he said.
Paper Credentials Largely Worthless
States and local districts should remove barriers to entry into the profession, including many paper credentials, which have little, if any, correlation with teacher effectiveness in the classroom, said Lindsey Burke, an education fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Instead, teachers ought to be held to high standards once they’re in the classroom, she said.
“Enabling aspiring teachers and mid-career professionals an easier route to the classroom—but rigorously measuring teacher performance once hired—is a promising path to improve the teacher workforce,” she said.
For all the worthless or onerous regulations, some do help ensure quality teachers, said Kate Walsh, NCTQ president.
In Tennessee, for example, candidates must demonstrate knowledge of the subject matter on a test before they can begin teaching high school, and student teachers can only be assigned to effective teachers.
Rough First Year
Most teachers see a dramatic increase in their ability after their first year, but a good teacher preparation program can raise the bar for first-year teachers and close that gap, Walsh said.
“We’ve polled our membership in terms of teacher prep, and they’re definitely supportive of more rigorous standards for entering the profession,” Freeze said. “Many have reported feeling underprepared.”
Larry Sand, a retired California teacher of 24 years and president of California Teachers Empowerment Network, said he learned more in his first two days as a substitute teacher than he did in his two-year teacher preparation program in the 1980s. Teacher prep programs should include more on-the-job training and classes in classroom management, he said.
“You can sit in ed school for 10 years. You can sit in there for 20 years. Your first day in the classroom is going to be an education,” he said. “You’ll have 20 different kids with 20 different needs. Smart kids and not-so-smart kids, special ed kids, brilliant kids, all in the same class.”
He recommended a system in which aspiring teachers intern or apprentice with “master teachers.”
“Let them sit in the classroom with a master teacher, a couple days a week for a year, and just sit and watch and ask questions and then eventually the student teacher will teach the class a few times and eventually they’ll become a teacher,” he said.
The review is intended to serve as a consumer guide, helping prospective teachers select quality programs and guiding superintendents and principals in hiring decisions. Walsh said she hopes this will pressure higher education and teacher preparation programs to improve.
Walsh said NCTQ has seen some improvement in teacher prep programs in recent years, but substantial improvements are needed for the United States to become internationally competitive.
“We’ve been trying to get the word out, initially with not much interest, but that’s changing,” Walsh said. “Teacher prep must be addressed for us to solve the problem of a substandard education system.”
“Teacher Prep Review 2014 Report,” National Council on Teacher Quality, June 2014: http://www.nctq.org/dmsStage/Teacher_Prep_Review_2014_Report.
This article is reprinted with permission. Image by Wonderlane.