Retraining Teacher Training

Big to-dos this afternoon up at Columbia University, Teachers College.  Speaking before a packed house of students, teacher educators, and reps from the education policy community, EdSec Arne Duncan continued his push for improving teacher preparation in the United States.  Duncan challenged education schools to “make better outcomes for students the overarching mission” of today’s teacher preparation programs.

Clearly, today’s remarks at TC were “good cop,” compared with Duncan’s “bad cop” words a few weeks ago at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.  Duncan praises AACTE and NCATE for their efforts to improve the quality of teacher preparation and the assessment and evaluation of prospective and new teachers.  He recognized the good works going on in states like Louisiana and New York.  And he applauds the innovations happening at institutions such as Emporia State University, Alverno College, and Black Hills State University.  He honored the good work of teachers, while calling for a common level of quality and effectiveness at schools of education across the United States.  The EdSec’s full remarks can be found here.
As Duncan embarks on his national effort to retrain our models of teacher training, he raises some essential issues.  With so much new money soon funneling into school districts for teacher training, hiring, retention, and reward, teacher quality is a must-discuss topic.  If we want tomorrow’s teachers to succeed (particularly if we are going to measure them based on student assessment data), we need to prepare today’s education students for these new paradigms and expectations.
One of the logical next questions coming out of Duncan’s TC speech is which are the IHEs that are failing to live up to these new expectations?  One would be hard-pressed to find a teacher’s college that would say they are failing at their mission.  This is particularly true when we think about their actual job description.  For decades now, the task before our colleges of education has been simple.  The taught the cores of both content and pedagogy.  They were expected to graduate a significant number of their students (at grad rates similar to the institution as a whole).  Their graduates were expected to pass state licensure exams.  And those graduates were expected to find employment with local school districts (or at least districts somewhere in the state).  These were our expectations of our ed schools, and based on these standards, most were indeed living up to the expectations.
Through his rhetoric, though, Duncan is looking to dramatically change the rubric by which we measure teachers.  Teacher quality measures are all about using student test data to determine teacher effectiveness.  We are no longer seeking “highly qualified” teachers, as mandated in NCLB, but are now seeking highly effective ones.  Clearly, the teaching profession is facing major changes.
But we need to learn to walk before we can truly run this race.  Through years of research, we know the components of effective teacher training, including strong content and pedagogical training, intense clinical experience, and mentoring and ongoing development once one hits the classroom.  This is particularly true of hard-to-staff schools and those being targeted by Duncan for school turnaround efforts, where quick-and-easy, low-impact teacher training efforts simply leave new teachers unprepared for the challenges of the modern-day classroom.
How do we make these components of a high-quality teacher education program the norm, particularly for those schools serving historically disadvantaged communities?  How do we find the balance between the inputs that go into building an effective teacher and the outcomes that prove it?  How do we ensure that teachers are the primary drivers of school innovation and improvement, and not merely stakeholders to whom new changes happen to?
And just as important, how do we build the data systems to prove it?  Across the nation, we have doubts about the power of our current collection methods.  We want to use student data to evaluate and incentivize teachers, but need to make sure we have the collection mechanisms in place to do so.  We need to break down firewalls and strengthen our connections.  But Duncan’s charge forces us to take it a big step further.  We collect student performance data.  We are to use that data to evaluate the performance of current teachers.  And now we want to use that data to determine those teachers colleges and alternative certification programs that are doing the job (along with those who are not).  A noble goal, but not one we are equipped to deal with, at least not with our current data systems.  
Before we start calling out individual schools of education for failing to live up to the expectations set by the EdSec (and Eduflack will admit there are quite a number that would make that list), we need to first set a clear rubric for how we are measuring effective teacher education.  Until then, we will simply be assembling a hit list of “laggard” colleges based on personal opinion, anecdotes, bias, or wild conjecture.  And while that may make good fodder for the blogs and faculty senate meetings, it is hardly the stuff that a new renaissance in teacher education should be based.
The EdSec is definitely on the right track.  But we must be sure we are making decisions based on good data and even better expectations.  We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve the quality and effectiveness of teacher preparation.  That means one chance to get it right.  Before we start asking colleges and universities to make changes to drive innovation and improvement, we need to be clear on what we are asking for and how we will measure it.  It is the only way to ensure we are truly improving, and not merely changing.

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