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.

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 comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Dave Powers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi, Anne ...

First, let me say I admire your willingness to move into education, a field where we desperately need people like you who really want to invest in the work and help kids. However, I can't offer much on "curing" the very common ills you've had with principals. A difficult boss cannot usually take criticism well, and in fact will likely develop more hostility when you begin confronting them. You called it in your comment: "insecure principals." Many of these people are in that job due to a number of factors. Some want the increase in salary without really grasping what the position demands. They almost have to fake it in order to present themselves in this leadership role. Others have lousy school memories of their own childhoods, and so decide to get into a role in which they have a "captive audience." They have a serious need for power over others, and they use it to control kids and staff. This malady is almost impossible to cure.

I've taught over 20 years mostly in private schools, but I do have a couple of ideas I learned the hard way during my four years in public systems.

One approach is to try visiting teachers in the school that has the opening you're applying for. If you can get by the school at day's end and talk to a couple of staff about the school's leadership, you may get an honest report from one of them.
This is of course a gamble. Another approach is to listen carefully to how the principal discusses the school environment during your interview. Your prospective boss will ask you about your teaching philosophy; why don't you ask the principal the same question? It's certainly appropriate to check out the leadership style in use; to determine what kind of discplinary support you'd have as a staff member; to assess what kind of school-parent connectino exists. That last item can answer this question: Is this principal reasonably secure in handling parents? This may seem secondary, but it isn't. Sooner or later during your teaching year, some parent may challenge your methods, let's say regarding some kind of behavioral problem. Will your principal back you up -- or just cave in to the parent? Your careful obsertvation during that interview will bring out indications of this important feature of being a good leader. Some principals are also scared of kids -- of the very population their schools are serving!

OK, hope this helps. I always wondered what motivates someone to be a principal. It can bring up some interesting discussion among your teacher buddies. Try it out. Good luck in your career.

Dave Powers

Ronald Fischman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have now worked for six different administrations in three years, divided between public and charter schools. In all cases, the motivation of the executive (principal, head of C&I, CEO/COO, yadayada) was not to help students have great lives, it was to show that their particular position produced better standardized test scores. Since the people we work for don't care about children as much as they do their career paths, how can we expect them to offer venues for collaboration, reflection, and experimentation as the article attributes to good teacher training experiences?

Laura R's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Adequately preparing students for a teaching career is a tough area. There is so much of teaching knowledge that comes from experience rather than from textbooks. This said, however, the teacher education program and student teacher/ mentor teacher match does make a difference. As part of my teacher development, I did have to complete a couple of teaching apprenticeships. These were helpful, but only to a point. For the most part they involved observing classrooms and serving as a teacher's aid. Each of the apprenticeships involved developing and teaching just one lesson to the students in the classroom they were assigned to. Looking back these experiences may have been more useful had they involved developing and teaching a unit and then also being involved in the assessment for the unit. The teacher prep courses I had were very useful and interesting and included some role playing activities, yet like many prep programs I have heard about limited classroom management training to one unit of one course. It seems that most of the classroom management courses out there are focused on graduate level students. Even though classroom management is something one tends to develop more through experience, it would have been useful to have an undergraduate course that focused on it and also put us in various classroom settings to observe and analyze different management methods being used by several teachers. One of the mentor teachers I had during my student teaching tried doing this with me, but I really had no background to understand even what she wanted me to look for. This is one area in which I really needed the right mentor teacher for me. Classroom management was a really big weakness for me as I began to get into the classroom setting and resulted in my being moved around between mentors and even failing student teaching my first time through it. My first mentor put me in front of the classroom to teach the students, but then because I was having issues controlling them took back over and started sending me all over the school to watch different teachers teach, and well that was basically the instructions she gave me was "watch" how so and so teaches which left me with a "huh?" feeling. When I still didn't "get it" she had me removed from her classroom. I was then assigned to another school and another mentor, and this time an even less supportive student teaching assignment. Here again it was get up and teach these kids, but then instead of any attempt to give me guidance after only two weeks in this assignment, I was once again dismissed because I couldn't control the kids and this time I was given a fail for student teaching. My University did not give up on me yet at this point though. My University advisors had seen a lot of potential in my teaching if I could just get past my classroom management hurdle so I was placed on a contract that included successfully completing some additional coursework in communications and then another round of student teaching. My third student teaching assignment was much more successful for me. This time I had a great mentor teacher who was much more patient with me and better at providing me feedback and guidance. There was also a change in the type of students I was working with. My first couple assignments were with 7th grade classes, the second of which was a really large class. My third student teaching assignment was with 11th and 12th graders, most of the classes were also honors classes so the students themselves were willing to be more patient with me as I worked on developing my classroom skills. I do agree with the above post in the student teaching program being better monitored, but primarily in the area of checking the skill sets and expertise level of the mentoring teachers as an expert teacher is going to be better able to identify and provide meaningful feedback for the areas a novice teacher is struggling with. Of course the training colleges are often facing the dilema that my University was in that in the vicinity of the University they have more student teachers to place than they have expert teachers to place them with. This was further compounded by the community I did my first couple of student teaching assignments with having Three Universities with teaching programs even though this was not a large metro area. For my third assignment where I was matched up with a truly expert mentor teacher, I was student teaching in a global placement program instead of a local program and my placement was in an area which had no colleges with teaching programs, so very few student teachers to place.

Maja Dimitrijevic's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my fourth year teaching and I would be the 30% statistic that I have heard quitting teaching after their third year if I did not love working with children. I have had no mentoring, no constructive feedback, and very unpredictable administrations going through unseen change.
Currently I am sitting in a room full of junk waiting to find out what I will be doing this year because my technology position fell through the cracks when principals changed without much warning. We open week after next.
Of course, I ask myself, is this a litany of signs from above I am ignoring or just the norm. Reading the feedback, seems to be more the norm and makes me feel much better.
I love teaching and I get good results with kids and parents (even with standardized testing).
Perhaps I will continue to be stubborn.
Thanks for the knowledge.

Got Out's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Teaching is not a science. Teaching is an art. I went through a "research-based" program with P.A.C.T. and I have to say it made me a worse teacher. It forced me to take time and energy away from my students and it tried to make me teach in a dumbed-down way. Students respond to the teacher and their relationship to the teacher. Trying to mold teachers into a P.A.C.T. style of teaching is creating dull teachers and keeping good ones away. Unfortunately California politicians took the power of the classroom away from teachers and gave it to researchers who are disconnected from human-based education. Research is where the money is, which leaves less for the schools.

Lizzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a first year English teacher in a low income neighborhood in South Philadelphia. My current problem is that I am a secondary teacher teaching in a middle school(7 and 8). I had two classroom experiences during my college training and they were both high school. My student teaching experience was charter school and it was a completely different curriculm and structure than what I am dealing with now.
I have read books on classroom manangement, I have taken a few workshops on different areas of education. Despite all of this, along with my colllege experience I feel overwhelmed and unprepared. The things they teach you in college are good when you have an ideal classroom, however, when you have 15 students in your classroom and two of them that actually care enough to pay attention, it is hard to put theory into practice. I am also suppose to do guided reading with my students everyday for 20-30 during my 90 minute block. We have had school training before the summer on guided reading and what it should look like but no one factors that while I am working with those 5 readers, yes, they are reading, but the 10 or 11 students who are suppose to be working aren't and they are out of their seats, fighting or just distracting the guided reading groups.

Another thing that I am having difficulty with is my principal. He isn't mean, he is strictly by whatever the district says to do. He is concerned with test scores and he is pushing the teachers to add more into our already hetic schedules for PSSA training with the kids. So much is bulit into those 5 day lessons without him adding to it. Scores seem to be the only thing he cares about and its frustrating. He doesn't deal with discipline problems, he is strictly academic.

Which brings me to my last point. How can I discipline my students without the support of my principal? I give them dententions after school and/or lunch, extra homework (they don't even do the required), I talked to I don't even know how many parents, nothing is working! I am so frustrated and ready to quit. I took this field to make a difference in a child's life and inspire my students the way I was in my school years. However, as the days go on, I am getting more and more miserable and cynical and I feel like I am turning into someone I don'want to be.


Wallroom's picture
Middle and High School teacher with over 25 years of experience in New York

Try substitute teaching. I enjoyed it more than having my own classes, and you will have the opportunity to practice what you have always wanted to.

David's picture
Currently working on an MAT in Biology, Chemistry, and General Science

I'm currently working on a teaching degree after spending several years in state government. So far, I have completed 12 graduate hours (4 classes) and the only class that seems to apply to real-world situations so far is a Special Education class that I just completed. Personally, I would prefer to see for middle and high school teachers a shift to completing a content area bachelors degree in whatever they want to teach and have a one-year training/credentialing program to obtain teacher certification. Of course, I'm biased because that is essentially the route I'm taking. However, I think a one year program focused on in-class training and mentoring for students who already had a B.A. of B.S. in their content area would probably lead to better teachers. If either of my biological children or future students inquire about becoming a teacher, that will be my advice if they want to teach a specific content area in middle or high school. I feel that the undergraduate education degree still has a place for elementary education majors because they have to cover such a broad range of topics that another B.A. or B.S. degree would simply not cover. That said, there still needs to be substantially more training in the classroom. On-the-job training works great for a lot of fields, but for some reason teaching seems to be a field where they want to teach the idealized theory and then tell you "forget all that, this is how it really works". Just my two cents.

P.S. I'm not trying to disrespect elementary school teachers in any way with my degree comments. I was just trying to point out that they need to have methods for teaching a much broader range of material than, for example, a high school English or science teacher and these methods can't really be found in another existing bachelors program at most colleges. In other words, the whole system needs to be revamped.

Trish's picture

You have a difficult situation. Middle grades are I think the toughest in many ways, and dealing with a low income area where behavioral problems can loom large makes your job even harder. I would try to research and pull every resource I could on classroom management. Recognize that it isn't all about you, its where these kids are at first of all. Look into alternate forms of motivating and teaching kids..find ways to become an ally rather than the adversary (Ie, come up with classroom rules together and make social contracts as a group). I feel for you, its not easy. There are online MOOC"s for first year teachers that might help you survive, also..perhaps knowing that if this is your first year...this is the hardest part, and it should get easier.

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