America’s education crisis cannot be solved if we don’t improve the quality of instruction in our schools. And this is as true for children in our suburban schools — where one out of every four fourth-graders are functionally illiterate — as it is for our poorest and minority kids in urban and rural communities. Yet the way we recruit, train and help teachers improve their skills is abysmal and shameful. The $7 billion a year on spent on training aspiring teachers is often wasted as far too many newly-minted teachers walk into classrooms ill-equipped for the work. And the problem starts with the nation’s university schools of education, which train nearly all of the 200,000 new teachers who enter classrooms.
Former Teachers College president Arthur Levine and longtime teaching guru Martin Haberman have long ago shown that ed schools do an abysmal job of recruiting aspiring teachers who have strong subject-matter competency, the strong entrepreneurial and self-starting drive to work in classrooms and the empathy and care for children needed to be successful in the classroom. As Levine noted in his 2006 study of ed school, 54 percent of teachers are trained at schools with low admissions requirements. And within the past two decades, evidence has shown that ed schools also do a terrible job of training teachers in reading and math instruction; far too many professors spend more time filling the heads of aspiring teachers with unproven theories on how to teach children — or in some cases, on the claptrap of Paulo Freire, whose pedagogy has almost nothing to do with education — than on training them how to help kids memorize, retain and build upon knowledge.
So it isn’t surprising that the National Council on Teacher Quality’s latest report on ed schools reveals that ed schools are doing a poor job in the final stage of teacher training: Providing aspiring teachers with work in actual classrooms needed to set them up for future success as full-time instructors.
While all of the ed schools surveyed by NCTQ required aspiring teachers to spend at least 10 weeks in classrooms, one out of every four of them didn’t require them to spend time with mentoring teachers and others handling all of the work teachers must do (including engaging parents) once they leave for full-time employment. One out of every three ed schools surveyed didn’t align those student teaching courses with the schedules of the districts in which aspiring teachers are training; essentially, those training teachers miss out on the full experience of classroom instruction, including meeting students on the first day of school (the day when teachers must begin building important connections with the kids in their care). And with one out of every four ed schools allowing students to practice their teaching abroad or across country far away from local classrooms, far too many aspiring teachers aren’t getting the supervision they need to either stay on course or get additional tips for improvement.
Meanwhile ed schools and the researchers who work within them are doing little to actually determine the impact of student teaching on the achievement of students in care of apprenticing teachers. Just three of the 34 studies looking at the clinical development of aspiring teachers actually focus on outcomes. Essentially, ed schools and education researchers are turning blind eyes to the effectiveness of teacher training at the end stage.
Again, none of this is shocking. It is only this past November when the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, which is supposed to oversee the quality of ed school offerings, finally offered up a report proposing that ed schools move away from their traditional training models to a medical school model that gets aspiring teachers into classrooms earlier. For most of the past decade, NCATE, the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education and the ed schools they represent have spent more time criticizing school reformers, decrying the presence of alternative outfits such as Teach For America, and defending their shoddy offerings, than on improving the quality of their teacher training.
This isn’t just the fault of ed schools alone. State teacher credentialing agencies, which oversee ed schools, have done an abysmal job of overseeing ed schools and holding them accountable for ensuring that teachers are capable of improving student achievement. Just 39 states set minimum standards for student teaching programs, with only half of them requiring that aspiring teachers spend 10 weeks or more in the classroom. The fact that these agencies operate separately from education departments charged with overseeing schools is one more consequence of the mess that is education governance in most states; state education departments should oversee and regulate all aspects of elementary and secondary education systems. The federal government has also failed in holding ed schools and states accountable; the fact that ed schools are regulated through the Higher Education Act instead of the No Child Left Behind Act means that a critical part of American public education isn’t held accountable for student achievement.
School districts also haven’t helped solve this mess. Because they have spent little on developing robust data systems that can monitor student achievement and teacher performance means (and thanks to state laws that had banned the use of student test score data in teacher evaluations), districts haven’t been able to help those aspiring teachers by pairing them with good-to-great instructors who can show them the ropes. That the current system of teacher compensation doesn’t reward those high-quality teachers with opportunities to become master teachers or even start their own teacher training programs means that aspiring teachers are poorly trained, abysmally served, and, often, left to flounder.
The results of our abysmal teacher training system can be seen in the fact that half of all newly-hired teachers leave the profession within five years, not because they want to start programs to address the dropout crisis or to launch their own schools, but because they have not been properly prepared to teach (and, in many cases, probably shouldn’t have been allowed into ed schools in the first place). The consequences are evident in the low quality of instruction among those who have managed to gain tenure in three years in spite of their laggard performance. And, most importantly, the cost of shoddy teacher training can be seen every hour, when 150 teens drop out of school and into poverty and prison.
For the sake of children and teachers, this state of affairs cannot continue.