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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

On Educating Educators: Top Training Is the Bottom Line

A veteran administrator says it's irrelevant whether teacher preparation is traditional or alternative -- we just need to make it better.
By Larry Leverett
Credit: Larry Leverett

The battle lines between fans and foes of alternative teacher-preparation programs are drawn hard. Educators on one side argue that only a traditional, university-based regimen can prepare people for the demands of teaching. The other side contends that teaching skills are best learned on the job, not through an extended stay in academia.

Beneath the battle lies this truth: A good teacher is the most important asset in a child's education. This axiom is especially true for children with the fewest other resources, such as those in the poor, urban areas where I worked. Sadly, most teacher-preparation programs, whatever their variety, are in serious need of improvement.

So, if alternative and university-based programs are here to stay -- and they are -- we must set aside the debate and work to ensure that both pathways succeed. Teachers-to-be need hands-on practice, good mentoring, and, above all, experiences designed to help them serve the poor children of color teacher-education programs have ignored for so long.

A Poor Pipeline for Urban Schools

Alternative routes, typically less intensive than degree programs at schools of education, evolved because struggling schools needed the teachers these new programs would produce -- and the need is still there. However, neither alternative programs nor traditional ones have always done a good job of preparing teachers for these schools.

I experienced this challenge firsthand when I worked as an instructional leader in urban schools and districts from 1986 to 2003. Attracting and retaining highly effective teachers was a constant front-burner challenge there. Race and class mattered.

From my interactions with teacher-educators and student teachers, I could sense that certain university-based programs shunned urban education. I encountered professors and supervisors who, fearing for their safety, resisted or refused assignments to work in city schools. I had to deal with requests for preferential parking, concerns about attending evening events, and other coded-language messages intended to communicate a lack of comfort with working, or having their students work, in urban schools.

Prospective teachers in these "gated" universities generally had little knowledge of urban schoolchildren and were not prepared to serve them well. Clearly, providing good teachers for all children was not the focus of these programs.

I remember how grateful my colleagues and I were for the few preparation programs that didn't fear our schools, our children, and their families. Unfortunately, there were not enough "all"-means-"all" schools of education to supply the demands in "hard-to-staff" schools and districts -- "hard to staff" being proxy language for schools that serve a high concentration of poor children of color and struggle to eliminate historically low rates of performance.

Staffing problems in schools such as ours spurred states to advance alternate routes for teaching certification, and these paths became the regularly traveled ones for teachers at urban school districts across my home state of New Jersey. The majority of teachers who completed alternative programs and had no teaching experience found their way to our urban classrooms.

In the early years, alternate-route preparation was painfully inadequate. Teachers-to-be received little or no coaching. Adjunct instructors or whoever was available to make a few extra dollars would teach them. Many of the graduates struggled with such essential tasks as classroom management and preparation for high-stakes testing. Children with the greatest need for good teachers did not receive the instruction they required to flourish. The alternate-route solution provided quantity but failed on quality.

Fortunately, professional and advocacy groups have campaigned to raise standards and focus attention on the crucial induction phase for new teachers, and both alternative and traditional programs are the better for it.

Signs of Progress

Wheelock College, in Boston, Massachusetts, for one, links preparation with what teachers in today's classrooms are expected to know and do. The undergraduate program reinforces that link each year and culminates with a two-semester practicum. At least one of the student-teaching experiences is in an urban school with diverse students. Rigorous programs such as Wheelock's, which embrace the responsibility to prepare teachers to serve all students, are making a difference. Still, too many schools of education maintain the old "gated" ways. We need to keep working to spread better practices to more universities.

I'm also encouraged to see changes in alternative programs in some states and large urban districts. The NYC Teaching Fellows program, for example, emphasizes expert knowledge by helping fellows pay for master's degrees in the content area in which they teach; participants also get opportunities to work with, observe, and learn from experienced teachers. Another model program, the Boston Teacher Residency (which Edutopia has profiled), places residents with mentor teachers for an entire school year. These programs stand out because they combine course work with hands-on training by veteran teachers in real schools.

The debate over the merits of university-based teacher preparation versus alternative programs will go on in perpetuity among researchers, advocates, and critics. The reality is that pathways for teacher candidates will continue to be diverse, and many teachers entering through alternative routes will keep finding their way to urban classrooms. We are challenged to act on this knowledge by improving both types of preparation programs. The pathway should ultimately become less important than the ability of new teachers to begin their work with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.

Larry Leverett is executive director of the Panasonic Foundation and former superintendent of schools in Greenwich, Connecticut, and in Englewood and Plainfield, New Jersey. He is a member of The George Lucas Educational Foundation's national advisory board.

Comments (11)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Leslie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The new teacher should spend a year teamed with a mentor teacher before they have to be in a classroom by themselves, and be paid as a 1st year teacher. In doing this might actually provide professional development for the career teacher and well as classroom management and positive discipline strategies for the new teacher. With the technology hardware and software changing daily, different teacher roles and instructional strategies that are required for the digital students continuing professional development is key but even more key is when we do this and the support in place for the teacher to take it back to the classroom and apply it. It should also be done by paying the teachers their salaries not expecting them to get all of this on their planning period, or for a limited stipend during the summer. Extending the school year to 200 days and then providing another 20 days at full pay for daily professional development might be a start. I would love to hear some comments on this.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a silly and uninformed thing for a commentator to say. Studies show again and again, that alternative approaches have many problems that result in high dropout rates for it's graduates, lower rates of effectiveness, and more. It is like him saying that social workers should get a summer course and then use their basic intuitive skills and get a job while having a "mentor" down the hall.
Mr. Leverett and others who share his opinion need to read reputable research on this before adding to the problem.

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Jennifer O'Donoghue Carr
Garfield, KY

I am a second year middle school mathematics teacher and I am currently working on my Masters degree in middle school education with a specialization in mathematics. I agree that to help prepare teachers they need to be in a classroom with an effective teacher to see how the classroom really works. Too many times I have heard from fellow college students that they would not have become a teacher if they would have known it was going to be this hard. This usually arises after student teaching directly before graduation. Until this time you spend most of your time listening to professors speak about strategies but you do not get to see them in action.

I am one of the lucky ones. I worked as an after school teacher the entire time I was in college. I worked with elementary level and middle school level students. I knew then that I did not want to teach elementary, but I enjoyed the middle school students. I learned how to deal with student behaviors and teaching new aspects long before I graduated with my Bachelors degree. I believe this truly helped me.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is evident that quality teacher shortages are more common in struggling or urban schools. I think that if teachers can be trained successfully by using alternative methods for different placement situations, then great. It doesn't matter to me, as a university trained educator, if someone receives training that differs from mine. My hope is that we all become that critical person in children's lives no matter how we get there. With appropriate systems of accountability in place, I don't see a problem.

Melissa Yeager's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Intriguing comment.
What do you think teacher training should look like, exactly?

Abby Roberts's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree 100% with Jennifer. I teach with some of those teachers who would have not chosen teaching as their profession if they had know then what they know now. I think it is very important for students who are entering the field of education to experience "the real world". My mother and sister are teachers, so I feel lucky. I knew what teaching was all about. I think it would be a good idea for colleges to place their students in an actual school so they get to see what goes on in the day to day lives of a real teacher. Most college students don't know what teaching is all about until the do their student teaching. Teaching is a calling. We don't do it for the fame or money. We do it for the love of the children and wanting to make a differnce in their lives. To some its just a job, to me it's a way of life.

Emily's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There may be some teacher prep. programs that don't teach diversity and don't allow their preservice teachers into urban schools, but the school I graduated from most certainly did. I attended Georgia College & State University's school of education for two years and it is the best teacher prep. program in the state. Our mentors placed us in schools that were outside the norm, those that challenged the things we were being taught. You may be right in assuming that some prep. programs are inadequate, but I assure you, there are definitely some great ones out there... and I know that for a fact.

Nina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you and Jenifer! I also had a good amount of experience in the classroom with my program. We were interns several days a week for a couple of hours for the whole two years. Even that, I don't think, was enough. I really think that future teachers need to spend whole days in the classroom throughout their program of study. It was still somewhat of a shock to me to have my own classroom and I did not expect half of the situations I had to face my first year because I didn't see it during college. Really, I had to handle them the way I saw fit, and then hoped it was the right way. In no class that I took in college did it teach me how to be an effective teacher. The classes are based on making effective lesson plans and trying to teach to all the different intelligences. There was no class on classroom management, how to correct behavior, how to be a mom and a teacher at one time, how to show care and compassion, etc... So I was not an effective teacher because half the time I couldn't teach the effective lessons I planned! We need to train teachers on how to be teachers, not just lesson plan designers.

George Goins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I like the idea of teaming a new teacher with a mentor teacher before they have to be in a classroom by themselves. That mentor teacher would definitely have to be one that has proven to be an effective teacher, not just one that has put their time in. It can be a frightening for someone fresh out of college to take over a classroom without having any real experience of the day to day expectations. My student teaching experience spanned 3 months; but I would not have minded if it was longer, especially if I was being paid and did not have to work another job just to survive.

Extending the school year and providing 20 days at full pay for daily professional development sounds fine to me. As professional educators, it is our responsibility to improve in our teaching practices so we can facilitate higher student achievement. It would be nice to have the 20 days paid, but regardless of whether we are compensated our not, we are obligated to perfect our craft.

Patricia Tomlinson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I entered the teaching profession through a teacher education program. However, I had spent three years working in classrooms as an instructional assistant. This prepared me for the reality of classrooms. It matters little to me also how a person gets into the classroom whether it be the normal teacher education program or some other alternative route. I do believe there are a lot of people teaching today who are not prepared for the diversity within our classrooms, particularly those who are second language learners. I don't think becoming trained as an ESOL instructor should be an option for teachers today. I think it should be part of the package if we want to produce successful students. I also believe inexperienced teachers need full time mentors. I like Leslie's idea of pairing up a first year teacher with a mentor for their first year. Georgia is doing a much better job of preparing teachers, but again the university approach somewhat buffers the student from the reality of being the one actually responsible. The real world of the classroom whether it be a rural one or an urban one needs highly qualified teachers. I think one semester of student teaching really does not prepare one for the reality of teaching. I mean we don't ask that of our physicians.

Patricia Tomlinson
Howell, Georgia

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