Teacher Development

Linda Darling-Hammond: Thoughts on Teacher Preparation

September 1, 2001

Linda Darling-Hammond, an expert on education and teaching, describes effective teacher preparation practices.

  1. What are the most important aspects of a teacher education program?
  2. What is the value of combining theory and practice?
  3. What is the importance of classroom experience as a part of teacher education?
  4. Why are professional development schools important places for student teachers to study?
  5. What effect does the teacher have on how well students do in school?
  6. What is the role of policymakers to ensure that every child is taught by a qualified teacher?
  7. What do parents need to know about teacher preparation?
  8. What does the research say about the relationship of well-prepared teachers to the length of time teachers stay in the profession?

1. What are the most important aspects of a teacher education program?

A good teacher education program, first of all, is coherent. That is, it has an idea about what good teaching is and then it organizes all of its course work, all of the clinical experiences, around that vision. It's not just a random assortment of courses and experiences for people. The courses are very much connected to practice as well as to theory. They say, in fact, that there's nothing as practical as a good theory, and in fact there is nothing as theoretical as good practice. And good teacher education programs have students in the classroom working constantly with expert master teachers while they're also teaching students about how students learn, about how to assess their learning, about effective teaching strategies that will allow them to build a repertoire.

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2. What is the value of combining theory and practice?

Students find that the combination of practice and course work at the same time is very important. It's hard to learn theoretical ideas in isolation, try to remember them for two years until you get to student teaching, and then all of sudden be put in a situation where you're supposed to implement something you've never seen in practice. That doesn't work. That's the old model of teacher education.

Now what you see are models that really put the two together and have a strong relationship between the university and the school so that the kind of practice that's very student-centered, that really takes into account how students learn and how different students learn differently, is something that can be worked on while you're also learning about the many knowledge bases that have to come together to produce that.

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3. What is the importance of classroom experience as a part of teacher education?

I think there are several things about the clinical training of teachers that are important. One is that you need to be in the classroom of an expert teacher. It is not true that you can learn how to practice by being told not to do what you've seen people doing, so that's very important.

We need expert teachers mentoring beginning teachers. The beginning teacher needs to be taking on graduated responsibility. They need gradually to take on more and more independent practice -- to start by co-planning and co-teaching and observing and looking for how various kinds of problems are handled, having lots of opportunities to see and think about what they see. And then by some months later to be able to take on more independence and take on classrooms for themselves with the mentors still there, giving advice and counsel and helping to problem solve. In those settings, you want the problem solving to be about the learning of students, not just the implementation of teaching routines. It's one thing to say, "I did this." It's another thing to say, "Did the students learn?"

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4. Why are professional development schools important places for student teachers to study?

We're now at a place where we realize we can't just say, "I taught it and the students didn't learn it," as though that constitutes teaching. It's like saying, "The operation was a success, but the patient died." We are aware now that looking at what works for different students -- and there will be different things that work for different students -- is part of learning to teach, and critiquing one's practice and reflecting on what's working and what's not working.

This should be going on in the clinical setting with the mentor teacher. Ideally, you're in a setting where lots of beginning teachers are being trained together and where veteran teachers are engaged in a lot of professional development and peer coaching and continual learning themselves. And that's one of the goals of professional development schools -- that the whole environment is organized around teacher learning as much as it's organized around student learning.

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5. What effect does the teacher have on how well students do in school?

In the last ten years there's been a lot of research done about what makes a difference for student achievement, and it's now clear that the single most important determinant of what students learn is what their teachers know. Teacher qualifications, teacher's knowledge and skills, make more difference for student learning than any other single factor.

Clearly, this means if we want to improve student learning, what we have to do is invest in teachers' learning. We have to be sure that teachers understand not only their content area, which is very important, but also, how do students learn? How do different students learn differently? How do students acquire language? How do second language learners need to be taught? How do we organize curriculum in ways that are effective? Almost every study that's done that looks at these factors sees significant substantial effects on what students learn. Interestingly, well-qualified teachers make more difference for students who have struggled more. It's the most important for the students who have had the most difficulty in school in the past.

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6. What is the role of policymakers to ensure that every child is taught by a qualified teacher?

Policymakers have a huge role to play in this arena. First of all, it's because of policy that we set standards and salaries for teachers that we regulate the labor market. So policymakers need to assure that we have competitive wages for teachers, that districts can pay equitable wages so that poor districts can compete for well-qualified teachers, that there are high standards for teacher education, for the content and teaching knowledge that teachers will have, that there are scholarships and loans to get people into teaching and into good programs. This is true particularly in shortage fields like math, science, special education, bilingual education, and particularly to recruit teachers to high-need districts, urban districts, and poor rural districts.

The states that have really focused on getting and keeping high-quality teachers, setting high standards for teacher education, ensuring that teachers get lots of access to professional knowledge have the highest achievement. The single biggest difference among the high-scoring states in this country and those that do much less well is the extent to which they've invested in well-qualified teachers.

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7. What do parents need to know about teacher preparation?

What parents ought to be finding out when they are choosing a school system, a school, or a classroom is whether their child's teacher has solid training in the content areas they're teaching, as well as a credential for teaching, which means they have learned about how to teach and how to teach kids with different needs.

They ought to care about whether that teacher is active in their ongoing learning. I'd certainly ask teachers, "What kind of professional development are you engaged in? What are you working on?" They ought to be asking those questions of principals and superintendents. They ought to ask the question, "How many fully credentialed teachers are there in the school that my child will be attending? How many have master's degrees? How many are engaged in professional development? What does the district do to encourage that?"

I think that educated consumers are a really important part of improving the policy system. When you go into a doctor's office and you're getting treatment for some major illness, you want to know if they're board-certified in that field. You look on the wall -- at least I do -- to see what kind of diplomas are up there. And we ought to look for the same kind of professional indicators about teachers.

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8. What does the research say about the relationship of well-prepared teachers to the length of time teachers stay in the profession?

An interesting and little-known fact is that the better prepared teachers are, the longer they're likely to stay in teaching and the more likely they are actually to enter teaching. So, teachers who are coming through these new five-year teacher-education models that give a bachelor's degree in a content area, plus a master's in teaching and a full year of student teaching are very rigorous and very tightly coupled, often with the training in a professional development school. A very high rate of these folks go into teaching and stay. Usually, more than 90 percent enter the profession, and of those, about 90 percent are still there several years later.

Those who come through the shorter summertime "learn-to-teach" routes leave at much higher rates -- for example, 70 percent are gone within three years -- that it's actually less expensive to train a teacher more thoroughly on the front end than it is to continually replace teachers who come in and out with very little preparation. The reason is kind of obvious for anyone who's been in classrooms for any length of time: Teaching is really hard.

Think about how hard it is to manage a two-hour birthday party for thirty kids, and then imagine what you need to do to actually accomplish learning goals with those kids over a long period of time and you can begin to get a glimpse of how much skill is really needed for teaching. So many people who are under-prepared get discouraged. They want to do a good job. They care about the kids. They're often coming into teaching because they do a feel a sense of mission, and if they don't have the tools, then it's very easy to get discouraged and to feel they can't be competent and effective. Of course, the classroom then is not a very pleasant place if the kids are not learning and behaving, and that's one of the big things that drives people out of teaching.

We'd be much better off to invest in high-quality preparation and have very effective career teachers in a stable teaching force than trying to be penny-wise and pound-foolish and not invest on the front end where it's so essential to be sure that teachers have the tools they need.

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