Teacher Preparation: Who's Doing it Right, and What Can We Learn from Them?

July 22nd, 2013 No Comments Features


Illustration by Maxwell Holyoke-Hirsch

“Teaching is the only profession where a first-time practitioner is expected to have the same skill set as a 10-year veteran.” –April Stout, New Teacher Center mentor, Oakland, CA

In March, the New South Wales Government released what Minister of Education Adrian Piccoli calls “the most significant reform around quality teaching ever undertaken in Australia by any jurisdiction.”

The reform consists of 16 recommendations to improve the quality of teaching in NSW schools, and covers four dimensions: Initial Teacher Education, Entry into the Profession, Developing and Maintaining Professional Practice, and Recognizing and Sharing Outstanding Practice.

Currently, the NSW Institute of Teachers assesses the quality of initial teacher education (ITE) programs in NSW against requirements introduced progressively between 2007 and 2009, as well as nationally agreed Standards and Procedures added in 2012.

These requirements include standards for entry into ITE, subject content, discipline-specific pedagogy and curriculum knowledge, nationally agreed priority areas of study, and professional experience.

There is no mandatory government minimum Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) for entry into ITE. ATAR cut-offs are determined by academic achievement, the demand for a program and the number of places available, with cut-offs for the same program often varying across different campuses. Applicants who fail to meet the prescribed benchmarks can still be admitted to programs, but only after completing study during their program that demonstrates that they have equivalent skill levels.

The vast majority of teaching graduates are employed as teachers for the first time on a casual basis and are allowed five years to gain accreditation at Proficient Teacher (Professional Competence). Currently there is no formal refresher course or program that returning teachers are required to complete before recommencing teaching after an extended absence from the profession.

In addition, NSW is the only jurisdiction which does not currently require accreditation of all teachers. Teachers appointed prior to October 2004 are not required to maintain accreditation through professional learning and do not have their own professional practice and professional learning structured around the Professional Teaching Standards.

Lastly, most NSW teachers are paid according to how long they have been teaching. Teachers identify that effective teaching is recognized locally within schools, but that high performing teachers do not currently receive wider recognition or benefit for their excellent practice. Teachers also identify that the most valid forms of recognition of outstanding teaching practice are centered on the classroom and include lesson observation and the assessment of student progress.

The new reforms will ensure that all teachers are prepared and accredited before entering a classroom, and receive ongoing professional development throughout their careers. In addition, the quality of the teaching workforce in NSW will be informed by a strong evidence base, and all teachers will be supported by high quality performance and development processes.

Few would deny that the United States could benefit from similarly monumental reforms.

The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) came out with a report earlier in 2013 exposing the shameful state of teacher preparation programs in the United States. The report has been criticized by the education community for various research methodology flaws: This is not a peer-reviewed, journal-quality analysis of teacher preparation programs. The methods used (reviewing syllabi and analyzing selectivity of recruits) have been compared to a “professional restaurant reviewer judging eateries by looking at menus found online.” A truly rigorous study would involve visits to universities and colleges across the country, interviews, focus groups, and more.

But Stanford professor of education Linda Darling-Hammond says the NCTQ accurately focused on the most important aspects of teacher education — candidate selection, preparation for teaching reading and math, and student teaching. The report ranked only four out of 1,130 programs as being worthy of their highest rating, concluding that poor quality teacher education programs are to blame for new, underperforming teachers and students.

Today, nearly half of new teachers leave the profession within five years, and surveys such as the 2011 MetLife Teacher Survey show that teachers are unhappier in their jobs than they have been in decades. No one would claim that better training alone will fix all that—but it’s a crucial element. In a seminal 2006 study by Arthur Levine, more than three in five teachers said their training left them unprepared for the classroom—and principals agreed.

So what’s the issue? Why are teachers entering schools unprepared to engage students? And can we learn something from the nations that are doing it right?

What’s Wrong With Teacher Preparation in the U.S.?

In his piece for the Stanford Social Innovation Review earlier this year, Jonathan Schorr outlined two major deterrents to effective teacher preparation in the U.S, and how several more innovative programs are igniting a revolution in teacher training:

Teacher prep programs lack a feedback loop that informs their practice with the actual impact their trainees have on students in the classroom.

They are not particularly selective on the way in. Nearly half of teachers come from the bottom third of their college classes, with worse numbers for teachers in low-income neighborhoods. Nor are they sufficiently selective on the way out. Ed schools lack the tools and the mandate to screen out candidates who are ineffective teachers.

Last year the Relay Graduate School of Education became the first such program in New York state to be recognized as a freestanding institution of higher education. Its graduation requirements are unique: measurable student outcomes make up half of the points required for graduation; the remainder come from successful completion of course “modules,” classroom observations, and the candidate’s defense of her master’s thesis.

The program is designed to take two years, but Relay encourages students to proceed through it “as fast as you can, but as slow as you must.” Contrast that to typical ed programs, where success depends on mostly receiving passing grades during a program of set length, and where the institutions that train teachers are unlikely ever to receive any information about their impact on children.

Although they specialize in pedagogy, ed schools put much of their energy into theory, at the cost of preparing teachers for the daily realities of the classroom.

“Most of the preparation continues to be theoretical in nature, provided by folks who have not been in the classroom for some time, so the coursework doesn’t feel especially relevant,” says Jason Kamras, the 2005 National Teacher of the Year who now leads the Office of Human Capital at the District of Columbia Public Schools. Kamras has been disappointed by the varying skills of teachers entering the school district, and in part blames the ed school curriculum: “They know who Dewey is, and they know Piaget … but do they know how to teach reading, and how to apply those skills in a setting where kids are three or four levels behind? No.”

This shortfall should come as no surprise, writes Schorr, because the people who run and teach in university-based training programs generally don’t see preparing teachers for those gritty realities as their main job. In a revealing 2010 Fordham Institute survey of education school professors, the large majority saw the main task as preparing future teachers “to be change agents who will reshape education,” whereas only about a quarter defined the chief task as preparing future teachers “to work effectively within the realities of today’s public schools.”

If much of teacher preparation leans too heavily toward the theoretical, the roots of the problem run a century deep. Organized teacher preparation in the United States dates back to the 1830s— almost as far back as compulsory public schooling itself. As the American public school system took shape, independent institutions to prepare teachers, called “normal schools,” quickly sprang up as a way of ensuring quality instruction.

Yet, to stay competitive, the normal schools were forced to broaden their offerings to more closely resemble liberal arts colleges—and by the 1920s were calling themselves “teachers’ colleges.” As Stanford University School of Education Professor David Labaree writes, “This process of institutional evolution reached its culmination in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, when one after another of these former normal schools took the last step by seeking and winning the title ‘university.’ ” Meanwhile, established universities got into the act, creating education chairs.

Both trends created a durable (and often lucrative) teacher preparation industry in the provinces of higher education—but one that, increasingly, bore the trappings of a research institution, whose vitality stems from theory, not practice.

Who’s Doing It Right?

Singapore’s teacher preparation programs are a huge part of its educational success. High-quality teachers in Singapore are not an accident but rather the result of ‘”deliberate policy actions,” said a report from the OECD.

Like many other countries, Singapore once faced a shortage of good teachers, due in part to the lack of prestige and respect for the profession, said National Institute of Education director Lee Sing Kong. This changed after concerted efforts were made from the mid-1990s to raise the image, providing training and better working conditions for teachers, he told a global round table discussion in March.

“But it does take time to really evolve the quality teaching force,” he said.

Singapore enhances its strong initial preparation and induction programs with a sophisticated performance management system that articulates the knowledge, skills, and attitudes expected at each stage of a teacher’s career and, based on careful evaluation and intensive supports, provides a series of career tracks that teachers can pursue. This allows teachers to become mentor teachers, curriculum specialists, or principals, thereby developing talent in every component of the education system.

In addition, beginning teachers in Singapore receive two years of coaching from expert senior teachers who are trained by the National Institute of Education as mentors and are given released time to help beginners learn their craft.

“In Singapore,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, an education specialist at Stanford University, “one of the things that is very impressive there is the ongoing professional learning and development of the career.”

The story is similar in Melbourne and Toronto, she says, where education leaders believe that getting the right people into teaching, coupled with ongoing teacher training, is essential to improving student performance.

In Melbourne, the Victoria Department of Education and Early Childhood Development has launched a variety of partnerships with universities to transform pre-service preparation, focusing on longer-term clinical preparation around a set of Common Standards set out by the Victoria Institute of Teaching. “They’re really deepening the preparation of teachers for the diverse learners that they have in Melbourne and in Victoria as a state,” Darling-Hammond adds.

In Toronto, Darling-Hammond points to the very intensive work being done around the induction of beginning teachers. In addition to supporting the mentorship benefits put forward by Ontario as a province, the city of Toronto is providing training for beginning teachers for four years, including demonstration teaching, mentoring, and additional coursework geared toward customized instruction. These initiatives have resulted in a 99% retention rate of beginning teachers.

What all three cities have in common is that they “take the systemic approach,” Darling-Hammond says. “They try to look at everything from recruitment through development, and so on.”

One of the most significant aspects of the educator development systems in Melbourne, Toronto, and Singapore is their investment in leadership development and support. These systems recognize that high-quality leadership strengthens teaching by providing skillful guidance and creating a school vision that teachers share. These career-ladder programs help to create a strong profession, as well as a strong education system in general.

“If you get better as a teacher, as you should in a system that’s designed to support you,” Darling-Hammond says, “the goal should be to share that.”

How Can We Improve Our Teacher Prep Programs?

“The solution is not incremental improvement on the traditional model,” says Schorr, “but an entirely new one.”

First, teaching should be recognized as a professional skill and craft, like medicine or law, and should be elevated as such, in part through rigorous selection and training of candidates.

“The new version springs not from the ivory tower, but from strong K-12 classrooms,” Schorr says. “In its clinical focus, it looks more like med school than ed school.”

Unlike the traditional model, the new wave of teacher preparation programs seeks to be held accountable for the results that teachers achieve in the classroom, takes an urgent interest in teachers’ impact on student learning, and offers a hands-on, clinical approach to developing teachers’ skills.

Here are some of the important features that characterize much of this new class of organizations, in Schorr’s words:

  1. The emphasis is on practice | Much of the learning takes place in real schools. The programs look constantly and seriously at data in coaching teachers and in determining their progress. Theory still informs the program deeply—but it’s less direct. Jean Piaget’s ideas, for example, may inform program design, but students are unlikely to closely study, discuss, and write about those ideas. (Critics of this new generation of teacher prep, such as Diane Ravitch,6 have taken aim at the lack of specific courses in more theoretical disciplines.) Yet these are not vocational programs—on the contrary, they aim to raise the status of teaching as a profession of intellectual skill, not a technical one.

  2. Accomplished teachers serve as models, coaches, and mentors | For the instructors of these incipient teachers, cachet comes from current or very recent accomplishments in the classroom—not from a beefy list of research publications. Many of these programs call themselves residencies, modeled on the training of physicians—meaning lots of opportunities to observe, and then practice, in real-life situations under the tutelage of an accomplished veteran.

  3. Progress and success in the program are dependent on performance in the classroom | Professional practice-based programs often tie completion—and diplomas or credentials—to the success teachers have in the classroom, based on test scores as well as observations and other data. This seemingly common-sense approach represents one of the most revolutionary elements of these programs. Both teachers and the program as a whole expect to be held accountable for student achievement, and most programs anticipate that the least successful candidate teachers will be counseled to exit the program and the profession.

  4. Rigor matters | Mike Goldstein, the former journalist who founded Boston’s Match Teacher Residency, says the new class of teacher preparation programs stands out for pushing teachers vastly harder than typical programs do. “Few people would describe their preparation for teaching as the hardest thing they’ve ever done,” he says. “Many would say their rookie year of teaching is the hardest thing they’ve done.”

Most policies that would allow this new class of program to exist are in their infancy. (One such bill, the GREAT [Growing Excellent Achievement Training Academies] Teachers and Principals Act, has been introduced in the US House and Senate.) It took years for Relay to win its status as an independent institution of higher education—the first new one in decades in New York. If traditional higher education institutions feel threatened by these upstarts, they may act to make it harder for new ones to get started and to grow.

“Yet if this new generation of teacher prep institutions flourishes,” writes Schorr, “the benefits are exciting to contemplate.”

For U.S. school systems, it would mean, for the first time, the ability to hire teachers on the basis of their demonstrated skill—from programs based on their record. For training programs, a feedback loop from the classroom would allow new understanding of what it means to teach well, and of how to help early-career teachers attain those skills. For teachers, it would mean shortening or eliminating the grueling early experiences that drive so many of them from the profession. And for schools and students, a faster path to skilled teaching could create a generation of teachers who don’t spend two, three, or five years offering mixed value to students as they learn on the job.

Recognizing the problem is not enough. We have to work from the bottom up, and we have to start now.


Saga Briggs is Managing Editor of InformED. You can follow her on Google+ or @sagamilena

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