Professional Learning

Teacher Preparation Research: Taking a Closer Look

Information on the status of teacher preparation.

September 1, 2001

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In a February 2001 report for the U.S. Department of Education summarizing teacher preparation research, Michigan State University scholars concluded that "overall, the research base concerning teacher preparation is pretty thin." However, studies do show "a positive connection between teachers' preparation in their subject matter and their performance and impact in the classroom."

The studies also "reinforce the view that the pedagogical aspects of teacher preparation matter" and demonstrate that "in field experiences with focused, well-structured activities, significant learning can occur." The report, titled "Teacher Preparation Research: Current Knowledge, Gaps, and Recommendations," also found that nontraditional routes to becoming a teacher "have been successful in recruiting a more diverse pool of teachers; have a mixed record in attracting the 'best and brightest' ... [and] vary in ability to prepare teachers for the exigencies of classroom life."

The State of Teacher Preparation

In a 1998 survey of 3,500 teachers prepared for the U.S. Department of Education, four out of five teachers said they felt unprepared to teach. More than one-third said they either didn't have a degree in the subject they taught or didn't spend enough time training for the subject they taught. Thirty-eight percent had bachelor's or master's degrees in a specific field, 37 percent had majored in general education, and 18 percent had degrees in such subjects as math education. A 1993-94 survey came up with similar results.

A 1996 Council for Basic Education survey provided some context for the conclusion that many teachers feel unprepared when they take their first teaching job: "Teacher education programs spend too little time preparing in the content area." "Our practices are now watered down in the content area so that preservice teachers feel good." "It is ludicrous to expect elementary teachers to teach science or math on [the basis of] one course in each of these disciplines."

Teachers described education methods and theory as "the shabbiest psychobabble imaginable," "an abject waste of time," "watered-down courses," and "simplistic, make-work, seat-time." Sixty-two percent of the teachers advocated more time in the classroom, and most of the survey comments had to do with the need for more school-based experiences accompanied with on-site supervision from university professors.

Teachers' Influence

In a 1998 study, William Sanders, director of the Value-Added Research and Assessment Center at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, found that a good teacher has a greater impact on student achievement than such variables as ethnicity and poverty, which often have been considered overpowering barriers to academic success. Sanders determines the effectiveness of a teacher by a complex statistical model that measures the "value" a teacher adds to his or her students based on test scores.

Sanders, who conducted the study, "Cumulative and Residual Effects of Teachers on Future Student Academic Achievement," with June C. Rivers, has said flatly, "The single biggest factor affecting academic growth of any population of youngsters is the effectiveness of the individual classroom teacher." Students whose initial achievement levels are comparable have "vastly different academic outcomes as a result of the sequence of teachers to which they are assigned." The difference can be as much as 50 percentile points on standardized tests.

In a 1998 survey conducted by pollster Louis Harris for Recruiting New Teachers, Inc., nine out of ten Americans said they believed the best way to raise student achievement was to put a qualified teacher in every classroom. Teacher quality was second only to school safety as the most important ingredient in improving education, according to the survey. Teacher quality ranked over standards, tests, vouchers, privatization, and school uniforms. Ninety-two percent of those surveyed said excellent teachers need to be "well-trained and knowledgeable about how to teach effectively," and 91 percent said they need to be "thoroughly educated in the subjects they will teach."

Field Experience

A 2000 survey of teachers and school administrators by Public Agenda found that teachers are generally satisfied with what is taught in terms of content, but they want more practical experience in managing a classroom, making learning exciting, and ensuring that students actually learn. In the survey titled, "A Sense of Calling," 56 percent of those polled said the balance was too much in favor of theory over the practical challenges of teaching. Only 30 percent of teachers said they had received a sufficient amount of experience in front of real classrooms while in teacher preparation programs.

A 1998 study by University of Texas researcher C. E. Fleener of 1,959 Texas elementary teachers found that teacher candidates who receive more field experience remain in teaching longer. Half the candidates had graduated from a traditional teacher-preparation program that saved classroom practice for the end of the program, and half had graduated from programs with more field-based opportunities early on. Three years after they started teaching, 12 percent of those in more traditional programs had left the profession compared to 4.8 percent of those from the field-based programs.

In a 1996 survey of 600 top U.S. teachers by the Council for Basic Education, 62 percent of teachers advocated more time in the classroom while still a student. In their comments, the teachers said what would have been most valuable to them was time to both observe and participate in teaching with on-site supervision from university professors as well as from the classroom.

Subject Matter Knowledge

In a 2000 study called "Teaching the Teachers," Educational Testing Service researcher Harold Wenglinsky drew on data from 39,140 prospective teachers who took the Praxis II examinations for teacher licensure, which are currently used in thirty-four states. He compared individual scores on the test to information about the 152 colleges and universities attended by the test-takers. One of the findings was that prospective teachers in institutions with high proportions of education majors and minors perform less well than prospective teachers in institutions with less emphasis on educational theory, child development, and teaching methods. Wenglinsky wrote of the "need to place greater emphasis on preparation in content areas and less on preparation in professional knowledge.

A 1999 study by Dan Goldhaber and Dominic Brewer found that math students with teachers holding bachelor's or master's degrees in mathematics did better on math tests than those students with teachers who lacked such expertise in math. The researchers used data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS) of 1988, a national survey of about 24,000 eighth-grade students conducted in the spring of 1988. Some of those students were surveyed again in 1990 and 1992, and they also took one or more subject-based tests.

In a 1994 Cornell University study, David Monk, currently dean of the College of Education at Penn State, studied a sample of 2,829 students and their teachers and found that both subject matter and knowledge of teaching theory affected student achievement in math and science. While having a major in math in college had little bearing on the performance of the teacher's students, the number of undergraduate courses in a teacher's background -- up to about five -- had a positive impact on pupil performance. Monk also found that courses in both science and math teaching theories and methods had a positive impact on student achievement.

Five-Year Programs

In a 2000 report entitled, "Solving the Dilemmas of Teacher Supply, Demand, and Standard," published by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond found that teachers trained in a five-year program stay in the profession longer than their counterparts who've gone through a shorter program. According to her research, 60 percent of individuals who enter teaching through what Darling-Hammond described as "back-door" routes leave the profession by their third year of teaching. In comparison, 30 percent of all traditionally trained teachers leave the profession by the third year, and just 10 to 15 percent of teachers prepared in extended five-year programs leave the profession by the third year.

In a 1990 study reported in the Journal of Teacher Education, Michael Andrew, professor of education at the University of New Hampshire, found that graduates of five-year teaching programs had a higher retention rate (74 percent compared to 56 percent) than that of students in four-year education programs. Of more than 300 students surveyed, 82 percent of students in five-year programs said they would choose teaching as a career again compared to 56 percent of four-year students.


The 2000 Campus Computing Project survey found that education schools on college and university campuses were among the least technologically sophisticated among departments. Chief technology officers gave their education departments low marks in use of Internet and Web sources, and use of technology for instruction, and about average in preparing students with the technology skills needed over the next decade. Colleges and universities generally do not have a strategic plan for electronic commerce, distance education, campus portal services, or financing information technology.

A 1999 Milken Family Foundation study, "Will New Teachers be Ready to Teach in a Digital Age?," found a large gap between what K-12 students need to know about technology and what teacher education schools are teaching. Conducted by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), the survey of leaders at 416 teacher-preparation institutions confirmed findings of earlier studies that education school technology programs have not been able to keep up with the rapid increases and changes in technology infrastructure in schools.

The reason for the failure, the study found, has little to do with the availability of technology. Most schools report having "adequate" hardware and software. But both in the university classroom and in K-12 classrooms used for practice-teaching, most students neither routinely use technology nor receive advice and guidance on its use by their university instructors or classroom mentors. The study also found that stand-alone courses on technology did not translate into skill in incorporating technology into daily teaching.

A 1994 study by University of Michigan researcher James Kulik analyzing 500 individual research studies found that students taught with computer-based instruction scored 14 percentile points more on achievement tests than students without computer-based instruction. Kulik also found that students learned faster and had a more positive attitude towards school when computers were used to teach them.

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