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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Confronting the Crisis in Teacher Training

Innovative schools of education invent better ways to prep educators for the classroom.
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
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Credit: Thomas Reis

Melissa Zipper needs less than a second to tally the value of her teacher-preparation experience: "Nothing."

Looking back on the nine-month master's degree program, she elaborates, "I was reading about all these theories and creating hypothetical lessons and seating charts, but they had no real-world application. Every class I had was based on this utopian group of kids who all spoke English and functioned at the same level. I never learned how to modify or accommodate the diverse needs that I would find in my room."

Unprepared, Zipper began her first day as an intern sixth-grade teacher in a high-poverty neighborhood in East Palo Alto, California, fully responsible, with next to no support from her university. Sound scary? This is scarier: Zipper's alma mater (which she requested not be identified) is one of the largest producers of teachers in California, credentialing about 2,700 people a year.

Cut to Boston, where Maria Fenwick spent a full year working alongside a mentor teacher through the district-sponsored Boston Teacher Residency. By the time she became a full-fledged fourth-grade teacher, she knew the local curriculum, the community, and the daily demands of education, and she was hungry for her own classroom. She recalls, "I knew what to expect every step of the way."

The crisis confronting teacher education is that, across the country, Fenwick's experience is the exception and Zipper's is the rule. Though there are some leading lights, far too many of America's 1,200-plus schools of education are mired in methods that isolate education from the arts and sciences, segregate the theory and practice of teaching, and provide insufficient time and support for future teachers to learn to work in real classrooms. Far too many universities, for their part, run education programs on the cheap.

The consequences are painfully clear: Half of all new educators abandon the profession within five years, costing schools an estimated $2.6 billion annually and leaving children in the neediest areas with the highest number of inexperienced teachers.

The delinquency in teacher preparation is nothing new, of course -- but it's growing more dire as we ask teachers to perform increasingly challenging tasks: to teach more complex skills to high and measurable standards, and to ensure that every child in an incredibly diverse generation learns these skills equally well. The three R's are not enough anymore.

Based on scientific research, good teaching is one thing we know makes a big difference in children's learning. (Researchers at the University of Tennessee in 1996 found that elementary school students who had three highly effective teachers in a row achieved math scores more than fifty percentile points higher than those who had three ineffective teachers in a row.) The challenge now is to figure out how to make a good teacher -- or, as Thomas Carroll, president of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF), puts it, "to close the gap between the way we prepare teachers and the way teachers actually teach in the classroom."

Nadirah Muhammad, Boston Teacher Residency:

"My mentor teacher is an amazing woman. She has a very strong presence in the classroom, and the students know that she means business and that she cares."

Credit: Gregory Cherin

Dozens of education schools -- and a few independent agencies, such as the Boston Public Schools -- are pioneering ways to do that. The research on how well these new methods work ranges from nascent to nonexistent so far, but these early models provide a compass for how to begin building better programs -- changes that hold the promise to better equip would-be teachers and, by extension, their future students for success.

Devil's Bargain

So-called normal schools, the precursors to today's schools of education, emerged in the mid-1800s to staff a growing number of classrooms, reports Stanford University historian David Labaree. To meet demands for more accessible higher education, they evolved into four-year teachers' colleges and then state colleges and universities by about 1960. In the late 1900s, some universities that didn't have colleges of education grew them.

From the outset, teacher-training programs faced what Labaree calls a "devil's bargain" between quantity and quality: producing enough teachers to meet demand, or preparing fewer teachers to high standards. Under pressure, he says, they chose quantity.

The sheer numbers of education students (who earn more than 7 percent of the bachelor's degrees and 29 percent of the master's degrees granted nationwide), combined with a focus "more on adequacy than on quality," Labaree says, turned education schools into moneymakers for many universities. "The ed school is the Rodney Dangerfield of higher education," he adds. "It don't get no respect."

No respect doesn't mean no expectations, however, especially not in the past fifteen years or so. A cry for better education programs is rising as the scrutiny on K-12 schools' performance under the No Child Left Behind Act flows upstream to the institutions that prepare teachers. Calls for change have come from both outside and inside teacher education. Add to that the growing competition from alternative certification pathways and homegrown programs like Boston's -- such avenues produced about 41,000 of the 220,000 graduates of teacher-preparation programs in 2004 -- and education schools are feeling the pressure.

"Criticisms of the teacher-education establishment have been so incessant and persistent that the work of that establishment is changing," says Suzanne Wilson, chairwoman of the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University's College of Education. "People are not ignoring the critiques anymore."

Prep Gets Real

At the heart of reform in teacher preparation are innovations that provide extensive field experience and link theory more closely with practice.

Barbara Simon, mentor, Boston Teacher Residency:

"Some people have the philosophy that teachers should go right into the fire, and I disagree with that. There's some in-between that's good -- to gradually take on the role with some thought behind it, getting to observe before doing."

Credit: Gregory Cherin

Programs such as Boston's go the furthest by transporting the locus of training almost entirely from the university to the K-12 school. Through the four-year-old residency, supported jointly by the school district and local philanthropies, candidates take summer courses geared toward Boston's history and curriculum, then undergo a yearlong mentorship. The financial package -- an $11,000 stipend plus a forgivable tuition loan -- is designed to attract educators from diverse backgrounds. (Melissa Zipper, who survived her first year with help from an outside mentoring program and is still a teacher, had to shell out $19,000 for her degree.)

In between the stale old university methods and the urban teaching residencies is a practical and promising model that's gaining in reach: the professional-development school. As described by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), these programs are partnerships between teacher-preparation programs and K-12 schools that provide settings for student teaching, faculty development, and field-based research -- unions so intimate that they form a hybrid institution. A typical field placement in these school-university teams -- which, as does the Boston program, liken themselves to medical residencies in teaching hospitals -- lasts a semester or two.

Kansas's Emporia State University was an early adopter of the model. Its Teachers College provides training and ongoing support to mentor educators in its thirty-four professional-development schools. In turn, mentors commit to give student teachers weekly evaluations and opportunities to do everything from individual tutoring to whole-class teaching. University staff visit classrooms regularly to assess candidates' progress and provide feedback. All the while, the educators-in-training reconvene in university classes to debrief and draw connections to theories of education.

"The key to the success of these programs is that no matter what theory students are learning about, they get to see it in practice immediately," says Dean Tes Mehring.

The payoff: The attrition rate of ESU graduates from teaching is a low 7.2 percent after three years, and principals rate alumni highly on a wide range of knowledge and skills.

Measure This

Besides the theory-practice bond, assessment -- the watchword in K-12 schools -- is catching on in teacher preparation. Education schools at the forefront of this change are creating and using various assessments to measure candidates' skills and identify and improve weaknesses in their programs. ESU, for instance, evaluates candidates via tests, observations, and performance tasks at regular intervals; those who perform below par -- about 4 to 5 percent of students per semester -- get dropped from the teaching program.

Pablo Aguilera, Stanford University:

"You can make people go to school for five years and tell them to read any number of books, but they won't really learn anything until they're in an actual classroom."

Credit: Bart Nagel

It may sound odd in this assessment-happy age, but no, education schools have not always done this. Some impetus for change comes from the NCATE, which accredits 632 of the nation's education schools. In 2001, the organization reinvented its standards to demand more evidence of program outcomes ("what candidates know and can do"), not simply inputs such as coursework and field experience.

Two teams of universities have created teaching-performance assessments that could be used more broadly. The Performance Assessment for California Teachers (PACT), developed by thirty public and private universities, embeds various assessments in candidates' coursework and demands a capstone documentation of three to five teaching hours, including lesson plans, videotapes, and student work. Teacher Work Samples, an assessment methodology adopted by eleven schools nationwide in a coalition called the Renaissance Group, use detailed standards and a rubric to evaluate how well candidates teach a four-week unit.

Raymond Pecheone, co-executive director of Stanford University's School Redesign Network and PACT's project director, draws this analogy: "Back in the early '90s, we used to evaluate people's writing by giving them a multiple-choice exam. This is not rocket science, but if you want to test how well people write, you've got to ask them to write. These tests are sorely needed."

Two even more neglected but emerging education-school adaptations are training in how to use technology for learning, and induction support for beginning teachers after graduation.

Road Not Traveled

One problem in the quest for quality is that accountability measures so far have been mainly quantitative, not qualitative. The federal government, via NCLB, demands that, to be "highly qualified," teachers possess expertise in their subject matter and certification from their state. This requirement assumes that certification ensures skill. In reality, states generally focus more on the number and type of candidates' training experiences than the quality.

A state might require 300 hours of student teaching for licensure, for instance, but "rotten schools of education can place bad students in failing K-12 schools with weak teachers" and still meet the requirement, says Arthur Levine, former president of Columbia University's Teachers College and author of the 2006 report "Educating School Teachers."

Further obscuring the best practices, hardly any education schools have ever followed up with alumni to measure their effectiveness on the job -- until now.

"Historically, a school of education could claim to be strong and be recognized around the country with no evidence about how its teachers perform in the classroom," says the NCTAF's Thomas Carroll. "That day is over."

Early efforts at this kind of accountability have used simple surveys -- not the most rigorous form of research, but they're a start.

Another problem: There is little scientific evidence to guide the way. The small pool of research on what works in teacher preparation generally lacks rigor, and it dates to the days before many of these reforms came about. Education researchers have taken notice of the vacuum and have begun working to fill it, but evidence will take years to build.

Click to enlarge picture

Source: Educational Policy, January and March 2000

More challenges lie ahead. To fully commit to a model of professional-development schools, for one, requires money. Emporia State University's Teachers College has managed it through permanent state allocations and strong commitment by the university, as well as by holding vacant some faculty positions and asking students to pay half of their mentor teachers' $500 annual stipends.

Marshall "Mike" Smith, education-program director at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and a former education official in the Clinton and Carter administrations, says broad reform will come only if states revise their standards to demand more field experience with good supervision. According to data compiled by the Education Commission of the States, minimum requirements for student teaching now range from 180 hours in Louisiana to 100 days in Maryland. (The most common figure is about twelve weeks.)

States also must commit more money to preparation programs, Smith says, and teachers themselves must demand better training. What could incite that kind of demand? "Evidence that something else worked clearly better," he responds, "which we don't have."

The need is urgent; teachers work at the frontier of everything education is meant to do. Public education itself grapples intimately with big changes in America, from new languages to health epidemics to economic imperatives. Our answer to the challenge of improving teachers' training will influence the experience children have in classrooms -- and the skills with which children enter adult life -- for years to come. It's a question of what kind of future we want to create.

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.
Teacher Development Overview

Comments (58)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Missy Engquist's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a veteran teacher, I can recall how unprepared I was as a first year teacher. The experience was frightening and brought me to a place where I felt it necessary to leave the profession after less than five years. After a five-year hiatus; however, I felt compelled to return to the job I had sought with much passion. I have been back in the classroom for four years, and can honestly say that returning to education was the best move I made. Today, I act as a mentor to our new teachers, and when they or others become discouraged by the pressures of our day to day tasks, I tell them my story. Things do get easier with more experience, but sometimes you need to step back from your job as an educator to really appreciate it.

Our state is beginning to cater their collegiate and graduate programs to a new breed of prospects - those they call the career switchers. These are people who have had another career, some have even retired from that career, and they are now seeking to become educators. The programs, while great in theory, also struggle to produce quality educators. As stated in the article above, by Ms. Rubenstein, teaching theory to prospective teachers is not enough to prepare them for the realities of the classroom. Teachers, like their students, work best through their experiences in the classroom.

Melissa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was so unprepared coming out of college just 6 years ago. I especially felt that I had not learned how to communicate with students, parents, staff and others in my school. I remember wishing that I had taken some sort of communication course.

Rita's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I do agree with the article, that in some aspects of teacher education we are lacking. I don't think that schools are ignoring this, however. I went to Purdue University for my degree and teaching certification and I believe that I was well prepared for the classroom, or as much as could be expected. One aspect of the education I truly appreciate is that they assign practicums, where you are in the field with real teachers, talking about the real thing. I can say, though, that Purdue was redoing the curriculum for teachers in training; they noticed that the teachers they were producing were il-prepared and decided to do something about it. Props to them. I am sure that programs exist that do not cater so much to the knowledge of the students (soon to be teachers) and are only worried about the tuition each student is paying, therefore provides the minimum required to produce "teachers." These kinds of school should not be allowed to have education programs. In the true process of becoming a teacher, or going from a novice teacher to an expert, there is much trial by error involved. A lot of it has to do with getting into the classroom and finding out what works for you and what doesn't. I do believe that the student teaching aspect of teacher education should be monitored more. Not saying that the student teachers should be required to do more, but that the sponsoring teachers should be required to provide some type of credentials; the current "you must have three years teaching" does not promise that the student teacher learn anything at all from their mentor. I, fortunately, was paired with a true expert teacher with 20 years of teaching under her belt. She taught me so many methods, and had been able to keep up with current methodology in her content area. She was amazing. I believe that has a lot to do with what type of teacher is produced, as well. I understand feeling overwhelmed during that first year teaching, but perhaps many of those that leave the profession that have been provided with a good education were simply not called to the profession at all.

Yolanda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Michele,
I hope you are still surviving out there. We teachers need a lot of patience to deal with all kinds of behaviors, don't we? I feel like you sometimes, but when my students show me that they are learning something new everyday that encourages me to continue. Because I know that for some of my students I might be the only positive role model they might have, I try to be more understanding and loving. Sometimes we teachers don't know about all the baggage our students bring to school. We live in our "middle class" world and sometimes we don't take the time to understand their own world. I know that once you get to know your students better your feelings will change. Good luck.


Ms. Lewis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a first year teacher, last year, in elementary, when my field is orignially secondary, things were not easy. I believe the main topics I had difficulty with was classroom mangement and parents. Classroom management ranged from time teaching, time grading, time meeting all standards before testing, time planning, time dealing with discipline and time for everything else. Dealing with parents have been better this year, however last year I was not prepared as I thought I would be. I was taught how to conduct parent conferences and how to deal with them during some situations. The problem is that there is no way to prepare for some of the situations that actually accuire in a real classroom setting. Everytime I think I am ready to deal with a situation that invloves parents, I always learn something new. In addition, parent involvement to me is different from elemenatry to secondary. During my intership, I had parent conferences at a high school level and the parents seemed to be more supprotive of me. This is just an observation. Therfore, I do agree that some things we learn in a classroom setting as studnets are not really prearing us for the real world. I believe undergrate students should be required to spend more time in the classroom to receive better experience in the teaching field.

Yvonne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can relate to your experience. I also finished my first year of teaching and it was extremely difficult. I am now in my second year, same school, urban Pre-K and it is much easier. I think the children are much easier to deal with. It is probably a combination of past experience and the fact that I don't have any children with severe behavioral issues. Once you get classroom management down you are able to apply strategies that you have learned about in college. I have to deal with teaching them to walk in line and sometimes just not tripping over their own feet. I don't think any class can prepare you for that. You just have to find the right resources to help you choose a routine or activity to get them to listen. If you establish a consistent routine with consistent reward and reprimand they will follow. I teach in a community based school funded by the local school district. I have no mentor, no principal, no nurse, I am everything including registering and coordinating disability services. I know what it is to be overwhelmed, but when you hear from parents that the students repeat what you say in class at home and sing the songs that you teach in school you know you are doing a good job. It will get better, good luck!

April's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I truly believe that the best preparation for teaching is an incredible student teaching experience. I am certified in Early Childhood. Half of my student teaching was in kindergarten and the other half in first grade. Both experiences were wonderful. However, during my second placement in first grade, my confidence and knowledge soared. I was placed with a team of two master teachers. They pushed me right from the start. They showed me not only what they did each day, but told me why they were doing what they did. If I felt I wanted to change something they allowed me to do so. If it didn't work, they were there to help me figure out what needed to be changed. I learned many theories, created many portfolios and projects, but nothing will replace the student teaching experience. It truly prepared me for having my own classroom. I love the idea that Boston is using. An entire year in the classroom with an experienced mentor as an intern is priceless and I hope we will see all schools of education move to that.

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After reading this article, I feel very blessed to have gone through the teacher education program at Otterbein College. I feel that I was more prepared than numerous other teachers that were entering the profession at the same time I was. I do know that teaching can be overwhelming at times, but I wasn't shocked my first year. This is my third year of teaching 6th grade language arts, and I feel that I learn more and more each and every year. I honestly feel that I was extremely prepared. I know that there may be many factors in this though. First, I know I was surrounded by excellent colleagues and administration. I also know that we have a fantastic mentoring system at my middle school. I do give much of the credit to my college, however I know these things made it easier on me. The one area that I was truly not prepared for was the paperwork. I just felt myself drowning in papers my first year, and even though I am getting better, I still struggle in this area at times. I do think teaching is a lot of trial and error, and it is difficult to be prepared for everything, everyday, but overall I believe it does get easier. I have found much quicker ways of doing things that I used to sit at the school doing until 5-6:00pm everynight.

Anne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My first year of teaching was frightening - I was on a "vertical learning curve" and I spent countless afterschool and weekend hours prepping, scoring, planning, and generally organizing the classroom and the paperwork. I made it through that first year successfully; however, and after 5 years, I am frustrated with the merry-go-round principals, the politics of the administration and the seeming power struggles/control issues of seemingly "insecure" principals. I have been unlucky with two principals in a row who were unappreciative of the hard work I put into the job, tried to give me a combo class early in my years of teaching, and gave me a lot of "behavior problem" students. This is a second career for me so I expected there to be much more appreciation for the hard work we all put in to do a great job for our kids. Perhaps there should be better training for the new and experienced principals. I wish there were more classes available or coaching on how the "political heirarchy" works and how to handle their requests and expectations more effectively and without resentments. :o(

Matt Robinson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I had a similarly bad experience and left teaching but am now hoping to go back
I tried to geting into BTR but was rejected as I later found out they were only accepting math and science teachers
I hope the program I end up in works better than those in my past
Thanks for the encouragement
If you need a writer in Boston...

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