What does it take to train a better, more effective teacher? If you listen to the experts, a great deal. It requires significant knowledge in the subject matter. Strong training in effective teaching methods. Clinical training, including that as student teacher working under a strong, veteran teacher. Ongoing mentoring and support, both during pre-service training and once one enters the classroom for the first time. Teaching is not for the timid or the feint of heart. Success is the classroom requires a great deal of preparation — prep in the content, the pedagogy, the research, and how to use it all effectively. And then, of course, there is how one successfully relates with and leads the students in the classroom and continuous, content-based professional development.
No one ever said that teaching, or teacher preparation, is easy. There is a lot involved in effective teacher training. There should be, when we recognize just how much is at stake. After all, it is just the future of our nation hanging in the balance.
We also recognize that most school districts get their teachers trained close to home. They typically come from local, in-state teachers colleges and public universities. All too frequently, we hear that those drawn into undergraduate education programs are some of our lower-performing students. And we unfortunately know that those traditional teacher education programs that serve some of our lowest-performing, hard-to-staff schools are among our weakest, requiring less coursework, no clinical training, and lower expectations than those programs that may be serving better-performing school districts in the suburbs?
This is the way it was, and the way it is. And many figure it is the way it will always be. That’s what makes the University of the District of Columbia (our nation’s capital’s public IHE) all the more interesting. In this morning’s Washington Post, UDC announces plans to shutter its undergraduate education program. Why? Too low graduation rates. Too few prospective teachers passing their praxis, Too little impact. The full story can be found here — www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/08/AR2009030801641.html?hpid=moreheadlines.
The statistics at UDC require a close look. Only 7 to 8 percent of those students enrolled in the program graduate within six years of starting it. The early childhood education major — with 150 students — yields only four to six graduates a year. Enrollment is down overall. Some years, the special education major yields no graduates at all.
UDC hopes to fix the problem by focusing on graduate education programs, providing current and aspiring teachers master’s and doctoral programs that build on their undergraduate educations. Current undergraduate advocates blame the problems on a praxis process that tests math proficiency after one’s sophomore year (“we’re not math educators”) and on a culturally biased system that favors white students pursuing public education careers, among other excuses.
But the UDC discussion in WaPo fails to ask a few important questions. How many UDC graduates are taking teaching jobs in DC Public Schools? And once those graduates begin teaching careers, how are they doing? How are their students performing? How are they leading their classrooms? Are they moving the needle? But we know all too well that such results-based questions are frowned on by some in education.
Unfortunately, the situation at UDC is not an isolated incident. There are teacher training programs across the nation that are not providing our prospective teachers the knowledgebase and skills they need to succeed. There are programs, particularly those that serve as pipelines into our inner-city schools, that fail to provide the content knowledge, pedagogy, and clinical training teacher need to succeed. There are those that mean well, but just are unable to hit the mark when it comes to expectations, needs, and demands of the 21st century classroom.
For quite some time now, Eduflack has believed that the teacher education community is in dire need of a Flexner-style study of our teacher training programs. For those unaware, back at the start of the 20th century, the Carnegie Foundation launched the Flexner Commission to study the quality and impact of our nation’s medical training programs. Flexner’s findings were startling — so many of those programs training our future medical doctors were a disaster, with no core curricular tenets and no quality or research behind them. The findings revolutionized medical education. A vast majority of medical colleges across the nation had their doors closed for good. Those that remained bolstered their quality, turning out a better doctor to meet the growing medical needs of our industrialized nation.
Isn’t it time for such an approach in teacher education? Don’t we need a comprehensive study of our teacher training programs, one that focuses on how we crosswalk the latest in teacher educator research with current curricula, ensure that teacher training programs are empowering our teachers with research-based instructional strategies, require clinical hours, build mentoring and support networks, use data in both instruction and intervention, and ensure graduates align with both the content and skill needs of the communities and states they are serving? Of course we do.
There is much debate these days between how alternative teacher training programs stack up to the traditional teaching pathways. This discussion has picked up steam because of far too many traditional programs that simply are not up to par. It’s not that traditional teacher ed doesn’t work, its that too many institutions are not providing the strongest program possible. And important step to remedying this is to improve our schools and departments of education. By improving quality — both of instruction and student — we improve our schools. And when we improve our schools, we boost our children’s chance to succeed.
There is no doubt the teacher is the heart and soul of a school. Getting a good teacher should not be a game of educational roulette, depending on the location of the table and how much money is in your pocket. We should never have situations like we did a decade ago in Massachusetts, where upwards of half the students graduating from some of the state’s public teachers colleges were failing the praxis after graduating from college. if a prospective teacher graduates from an accredited institution of higher education, we should have no doubt that they are equipped with the knowledgebase, skills, and ability to succeed in virtually any classroom with virtually any kids.
A sea change is coming in teacher education. We are investing too much in teacher supports, pipeline creation, instructional development, and effective modeling of best practices necessary to improve teacher practice. The stakes are just too high for us to fail. We need to ensure that every product of a traditional teacher education program is equipped to lead the classroom, knows what she is getting into, and has the support and encourage to succeed, particularly in the early years. A Flexner Commission for Teacher Education may be just what is needed if we are to move from a collection of UDC situations to the establishment of centers of teacher training excellence throughout the nation.