In my most recent column, I addressed the immense value of teachers as well as the increasing need to attract high-quality graduates into the profession. Improving student outcomes involves not only drawing new teachers into the profession, but better preparing them for the demands of the profession. Amidst an environment of mediocre (or worse) math and reading proficiency in many parts of the country, schools of education are under increasing scrutiny. As Michelle Rhee, the highly publicized former D.C. schools chancellor recently stated, “We’re going to back-map where they (teachers) came from, which schools produced these people. And if you are producing ineffective or minimally effective teachers, we’re going to send them back to you.” Her comments, alongside the results of a recent survey in which more than 60 percent of teachers stated that teacher preparation programs did not adequately prepare them for the realities of the profession, highlight the need to increase the rigor and accountability of schools of education.
While many teacher preparation programs — both traditional and alternative — aid in the development of effective teachers, many do not. Some even certify students who have met minimal graduation standards but do not have a degree in the content area in which they teach. Since there is such a strong correlation between a teacher’s subject area of knowledge and student learning, we must require new teachers to have a content degree in the area they teach. But unfortunately, approximately two-thirds of students studying chemistry and physics in U.S. high schools are taught by teachers with no major or certificate in the subject. Similarly, a significant number of middle school and high school math classes are taught by teachers without a major or certificate in math.
Equally important in pre-service teacher education is developing the link between theory and practice, a skill dependent on time spent in classrooms working directly with students. A recent report released this month by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education affirms that teacher education programs must transition to a greater focus on classroom experience, modeled after the clinical experience within the medical profession. Pre-service teachers need to spend more time in classrooms, preferably throughout their college education rather than merely during the last semester. And the hands-on experiences should be with diverse learners and under the mentorship of effective teachers so that pre-service teachers can develop a deep understanding of best practices.
Student teaching, the pinnacle of a formal teacher preparation program, should be modeled in a similar manner: creating a process through which a team of individuals — including teachers and mentors — work together to support the development of pre-service teachers. Creating a team of effective practitioners (similar to clinical teams in the medical profession) to mentor new teachers will require schools of education and school districts to partner more deeply to ensure that the student teaching experience best supports teacher learning and student achievement.
By more fully embedding teaching preparation with the K-12 classroom, pre-service teachers gain an increased ability to authentically develop their practice. Within this context, the process of assessing and mentoring pre-service teachers also becomes more reliable.
Finally, to both recognize the need for talented individuals and content area knowledge, we must expand the pathways to become an educator. Alternative programs across the country are a testament to the ability to develop high-quality teachers who enter education from other fields of employment. Many of these programs highlight the identification and use of best practices in teaching as the foundation for teacher development. The New Teacher Project, which has received acclaim for its ability to train high-quality teachers, has shaped this process by developing pre-service training grounded in an understanding of the experiences of teachers in high-need schools and effective classroom instruction. We can better utilize our growing understandings of best practices in the classroom to drive the effectiveness of pre-service and beginning teachers.
Without a focus on teacher preparation and development within the dialogue on improving public education and student outcomes, we fail to fully capitalize on and support one of the greatest resources we have: our teachers.
This post is part of an ongoing series of data-driven commentary on current events. It was originally published in the Deseret News.