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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
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

Ann Snider's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Based on what evidence, etc. were these 10 schools of education selected?

Grace Rubenstein's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Ann. We collected nominations of innovative ed schools from teachers, professors, and other education experts around the country. Then we researched the education programs and outcomes at all of these schools. We selected a handful of program strengths that we believe are most important for preparing the teachers of today and tomorrow, such as hands-on experience, mentoring, technology integration, and preparation for serving students with diverse backgrounds and needs. The ten schools we chose represent some of the strongest examples of these and other innovations.

Hope that's helpful!

Grace Rubenstein

Meghan Selway's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

1. No consistent standards of teacher preparation. Schools of Education are not held as accountable by the state (at least in CA) as they need to be. While general curriculum requirements must be met by the teacher education programs, the substance of the courses is not evaluated. Ex: a content methods course should not just be a discussion of what experiences student teachers have had in the classroom. It should be based on specific strategies for teaching the subject. And, even the general curriculum requirements are minimal or ineffective per below.

2. Theory not practicum. Yes, there exists student teaching in CA where teachers spend time with a master teacher in the classroom, and this is by far what teachers say was the valuable part of their teacher preparation. If this doesn't exist in other states, it must.

3. Theory isn't Taught As It's Preached. Theory is important, but most times, those teaching the theory don't practice what they preach. Basic teaching theory is to model, guide, and provide independent practice/application. Theory should be presented, then the professor should apply it to a school setting and guide potential teachers through the implementation of the theory. Finally, the potential teachers should develop a lesson utilizing the theory and implement it in a classroom with the professor observing and debriefing with comments. Theory in lecture format but not applied is a waste of time.

4. Educators in Teacher Preparation Programs Lack Recent Experience in the Classroom and thus aren't as Effective as Mentor Teachers. Unless professors have had to teach for an extended period of time recently, education professors and their practices have no meaning to the teacher in the program. Education professors in Teacher preparation programs should be required to teach part time in a school or be a guest teacher for a month. Also, mentor teachers who may not have a MA or PHD in Education, should be allowed to be guest lecturers Teacher Preparation programsor better yet, co-teach with a professor.

5. Theories on Teaching Strategies but Not on Resources. Again, while theory is important, it needs to supplemented with instruction on the resources available to teachers in their subject areas - or multiple subject areas. There exists numerous resources, such as Edutopia, that teachers can use to assist in their classroom teaching. Also, many organizations offer amazing lesson plans that teachers can use as a base. Furthermore, teacher programs should initiate a professor or graduate student resource center for subject matter teachers so if a teacher can't find an resource to answer a question about content, they have a place to go to.

6. Teacher Preparation in Content More of a Priority than Teacher Preparation in Teaching. NCLB's main focus is on teachers high qualifications within their specfic content area. While this is important, what programs who recruit experts from the business world have been finding is something most of us teachers know - you may be an expert in your subject area, but conveying the information to children is an entirely different thing. This is one area that is similar to the business world. A good CEO or manager is one whom can be placed in that position in any company no matter what the product or service industry. A good CEO or manager will learn the product or service of that industry. The same can be said for teaching. A teacher needs to know how to teach. A teacher who is a good teacher, should be able to teach many things. Not that we should expect teachers to teach five subjects (as lesson quality with that much preparation would suffer), but a good teacher would know how to read the content, digest it, identify the important points associated with the standards that must be taught, identify challenges students may have in understanding the information, and develop and find strategies to help teach the content to students.

7. Psychology of Children, Adolescents, and Learning and Memory is Paramount but Minimal in Teacher Preparation programs. As a mentor teacher, a colleague sitting in on a co-workers class, a professional development trainer and coach, one of the things I've witnessed is the inability of some teachers to comprehend when a student is not being defiant but crying out for help and how to deal with that or when a student isn't doing work out of laziness but because they lack the skill ability to complete the assignment. Teachers who don't have the innate ability to do this, or didn't have the psychology classes to prepare them, lose their students - emotionally (a straight-A student who has hit the breaking point and acts out in class), sometimes physically (I pulled a student aside due to a change in his demeanor and it turned out he had not been eating to meet his weight requirement for wrestling), or academically (the realization that a student refuses to do work because they can't read the assignment).

All this being said, I wish policymakers read feedback from teachers on sites such as Edutopia and realize that we teachers actually have the answers to improve education.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The more the State of California regulates teaching, the worse it gets. State content standards, P.A.C.T., CAHSEE Testing,and STAR Testing are turning our schools into dumbed down widget factories. Creativity is dead. Electives and practical skills are dead. If it wasn't illegal to bypass school, it would be amazing if anyone showed up at all.

The Business model that's being applied by politicians and their select academia is poisoning learning. One has to wonder if the dumbing down process is intentional.

K.L.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Right now, many teachers with three or fewer years are being laid off due to budget cuts all over Washington state; so much so, that there are no districts in which they can even apply. The market is flooded with qualified teacher, but no where to place them. So what happens to these dedicated, energetic professionals that cannot find work? They must sub or leave the profession. And "Riffing" (Reduction In Force) decisions such as this are based on years of experience in the district, or state, not teacher quality.
If this continues, what will happen to the many new graduates? As you mentioned, no one wants to retire, because teachers have such poor retirement benefits! There will be no place for new teachers. It's very frustrating and time to make changes. I agree with a previous post that offered that perhaps if politicians read our blogs, they might gain some real insight.

KL's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"...our student teachers spend hours upon hours documenting, filming, and writing "reflections" on single lessons (called teaching events) that detract from their focus on becoming familiar with the curriculum, lesson planning, and interacting with and getting to know their master teachers and public school students. Then part-time and full time faculty spend hours upon hours reading and scoring these documents. This is maximally inefficient and ineffective way to assess student teachers' abilities because it is decontextualized from what really is happening (or has happened) in their real-time teaching"

I could not agree more. When I went through the teacher education program five years ago, I could not believe the pages and pages of documentation required for a single lesson plan. While colleges believe this forces students to think about all aspects of a lesson, I disagree. It forces students to do a great deal of creative writing to fill in requirements and boxes in a template; ideas which often do not even enter into the lesson when it is finally presented. Classroom teachers would never have the time to create such elaborate lesson plans. Instead, colleges should be encouraging students to get to know curriculum and standards, teaching students the purpose of and strategies for doing scholarly and action research, and having students complete extensive student teaching experiences. Learning from master teachers in the context of the classroom is the best education one could have.

Kristie Whitcomb's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the artcile where it stated that federal regulations, particularly NCLB, is responsible for states creating teacher training programs that have a quanitity versus quality mentality. As a teacher in the state of Connecticut, I was subjected to go through the CT BEST (Beginning Educator Support and Training Program). It started in 1986, as a part of the Education Enhancement Act to increase the quality of teachers. The good intentions of this program have definitely fallen short of its goal.

In the first year of teaching, you are assigned a mentor teacher in your building (hopefully, or at least one in the district) and you attend a few meetings learning how to put together your BEST portfolio that will be scored by the state. In the second year, you develop your unit, video tape your lessons and collect and assess student work. It all sounds helpful, but it is also very stressful.

Unlike the Boston NCATE program mentioned in this article, the CT BEST does not provide the ongoing support and mentoring that new teachers need. Most second year teachers are left "holding the bag", often having to scramble for assistance and guidance. I know when I was going through it, I felt like I had to perform a dog and pony show to impress the evaluators. My portfolio was not the best I could do, but it was enough to pass. I have learned more from seeking out the advice and guidance of expert teachers in my building. Eventhough I have been teaching for 6 years, I still think of myself as a beginning or novice teacher, but I pride myself on developing from all of my experiences in the classroom and from learning from my students.

L.G.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I graduated from a 7-12 teacher education program five years ago this spring and when I look back if it wasnt for the 4+ months I spent student teaching, I dont think I would have stayed in education beyond my first year.
Many of my education classes were not centered around actual issues in education and instead discussed ideas and philosophies for a 'utopian' classroom. Not only that, they tested us on the different philosophies of education. The only one adminstrators in my district are pushing down our throats: Bloom's Taxonomy.
Although student teaching was stressful,I think education programs need to make it longer and it needs to span the entire age group that they are certifiing someone in. I had no time/experience with middle school aged students; likewise many of my friends who were elementary education majors were only placed on one end of the K-6 spectrum, leaving us unprepared in those areas.
Even student teaching cant prepare new, young, inexperienced teachers for all hidden issues/agendas that go on district.
Actual teaching is disillusioning and jading.

Jennie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that the best preparation is real life experience. When I pursued my degree I was already in a school environment. I found little of what was taught to be of any real help for what I was already doing. My frustration with the education system is that there really is no monetary benefit to being a great teacher. Unlike other professions you are compensated when you perform well. For teachers you are paid based on a scale. The teacher next door can be considerably less effective, motivated etc. but as long as she isn't violating some written rule, she will earn her pay. In some cases she will earn more than you if she has been there longer. The incentive to grow and progress is lacking and until districts work around this they will continue to loose qualified candidates to other professions.

Tammy Ruff's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It has been about fifteen years since I graduated college with my bachelor's degree in elementary education. While I do agree that my four years spent in the program did not prepare me for everything that was needed in the classroom, at that time I was not that scared to enter and begin. I think I felt most prepared in writing lesson plans and executing them, but as educators we know that teaching is so much more. Where I think there needs to be more training is in policies, communication with parents, the record keeping and paperwork. When it came to these items I felt a little shorted. As I now have student teachers in my classroom, I see that the demands are much higher for them. I know that the regulations in colleges and universities must make the educational programs more true to life and put the students through more classroom experience. The world itself is becoming a more difficult place to be, and we need great, well prepared teachers who are ready to teach our future leaders.

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