Sonia Hernandez: A View on Teacher Preparation

Sonia Hernandez

Sonia Hernandez, president and CEO of the Los Angeles County Alliance for Student Achievement, discusses effective teacher preparation.

  1. How can teacher preparation programs do their best to ensure that their graduates will become good teachers and stay in the profession?
  2. How would you describe the quality of teachers who come through alternative programs?
  3. What can be done to attract well-prepared teachers to schools that serve students with the greatest needs?
  4. What are some of the differences in how well teachers are prepared when they attend five-year programs rather than four-year programs?
  5. What is the relationship of quality teaching and student achievement?
  6. What can policymakers do to address the challenge of a well-prepared teaching force?

1. How can teacher preparation programs do their best to ensure that their graduates will become good teachers and stay in the profession?

When candidates really understand the teaching profession and the level of competency and skills that's required of them, I've seen people transformed by the notion that what they know and what they do can really make a difference in the lives of children. Moving it from theory to practice is what a good program can do. And again, there is that notion that we're not just thinking about it and we're not just talking about teachers and teaching, but rather that they're actually participating in seeing how it's made a difference in the lives of children. There're very few people who have ever gone into the profession and stayed who didn't see that as their most important, their most critical role.

A good teacher preparation program prepares folks to understand what they're going to be up against, and helps them understand what it will take for them to be successful. I think this is really important in the retention of teachers. In very poor programs, on the other hand, I've seen teachers challenged by walking into the classroom for the first time when they're the actual teacher of record. And they are literally scared of the children, the parents, and the community. Why would anybody want to stay in a job like that? No one with any kind of common sense would stick around.

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2. How would you describe the quality of teachers who come through alternative programs?

I can tell you that some of the very best teachers I ever had were teachers that came out of the alternative program, because among other things they were more experienced with life in general, they were successful in other kinds of careers, and when they came to teaching it was because they chose it. They carefully thought about it. They were very deliberate. So when they entered the profession they were at a very different point than someone fresh out of college who thought this was kind of a pretty neat thing to do and that's why they went into teaching, or they're thinking about going into teaching for a couple of years and maybe dropping out. These are folks who have taken that decision extremely seriously. And so the result is an extraordinarily good teacher -- some of the best I've ever seen.

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3. What can be done to attract well-prepared teachers to schools that serve students with the greatest needs?

The greatest need when it comes to attracting accomplished teachers to special areas is with the under-performing schools. When you look at where those under-performing schools are, they're invariably either in rural areas or in very economically poor and disadvantaged areas, and areas with a high minority concentration of students. And it seems to me that we're going to have to do something pretty dramatic. A lot of us call it "combat pay." But it seems to me that if you're going to want very good people to come there, you're going to have to address the issue of salaries. It can't be the same amount of pay that teachers are getting in more affluent suburban areas in the country.

The other issue is working conditions. We've got to be able to address the working conditions so that teachers will find it safe to come into some of these schools -- that they would find it welcoming and would find parental engagement going on. There's got to be something more than just increased pay or increased fiscal incentives to bring folks into those classrooms and into those schools. And I think we can do that.

I think there are exemplars across the country where this has actually happened. But in terms of real policy that has affected an entire state or region -- that hasn't happened yet. But we're at the point where we've got to do something; where we've got to be serious about what we're doing. And it seems to me that again, the whole notion of investing in this kind of a program to support teachers to come into under-performing schools is absolutely critical.

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4. What are some of the differences in how well teachers are prepared when they attend five-year programs rather than four-year programs?

The difference in the five-year teacher preparation programs versus the four year I think is pretty dramatic. Having been a teacher who went through the four-year program, I can tell you I was great when it came to pedagogy. But by and large when it comes to the actual content, four-year programs have a tendency to be really light.

The best teachers I've ever worked with were the ones who knew their content. The best math teacher I ever worked with could go into a sixth-grade classroom and turn a lesson around, could turn it on its head, knew how to work the content because she knew the discipline of mathematics so well that she had the skill and the knowledge to be able to do some very interesting things to get all children to learn the content that they needed to learn.

It seems to me that if you think about focusing seriously for four years on content and then giving that fifth year the real emphasis that's necessary in the development of pedagogy and teaching skills, I think you've got a much better design for producing a high-level and a highly accomplished teacher.

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5. What is the relationship of quality teaching and student achievement?

When the majority of children in school have teachers that are highly accomplished, you see that the entire school performance is higher than that of schools where there's a very large percentage of teachers on emergency certificates. That's very telling. We've always known that what really makes a difference when it comes to student achievement is high-quality instruction. But you've got to be able to unpack high-quality instruction down to a different level of specificity and say kids have got to have a very rigorous curriculum, but they've got to have someone who knows how to teach that curriculum.

When those two things are combined, then you really see kids being able to perform at very high levels, regardless of what the parent incomes may be, regardless of whether they come in speaking a language other than English. It really doesn't matter, because a highly accomplished teacher with a rigorous curriculum can make a big difference in the academic lives of children. And, by the same token, teachers who are ill-prepared cannot teach a very difficult curriculum, and in fact spend most of their time trying to figure out discipline. They don't have the kind of control, they don't have the kind of pacing, and the skill that's really necessary for children with the greatest needs. Highly accomplished teachers definitely make a difference in the lives of children.

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6. What can policymakers do to address the challenge of a well-prepared teaching force?

The role of policymakers in addressing the teacher shortage is an absolutely critical one. First of all, make no mistake it's going to take some money, it's going to take some serious investments by states, so they shouldn't shy away from that. Secondly, I think they need to think very seriously about what it costs to actually prepare an excellent teacher, and begin to think about what kinds of incentive or support programs at the local level they can create to be able to assist with those costs. And I think the tried-and-true issue of providing scholarships for those college students who want to be teachers -- I don't think they ought to shy away from that. Scholarships make a big difference in all levels when it comes to students being able to finish a college degree. If we're going to focus on five-year programs, then I think the issue of scholarships is an important one.

Another kind of program that they ought to consider, that's not new, is also the forgiveness programs. If you make it all the way through and you've paid for it, and you've had to get loans -- state loans, federal loans -- to support your development and your classroom experiences, then they ought to be able to forgive them after you've been teaching for a year -- or even before you begin teaching.

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This article originally published on 9/1/2001

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