Preparing Teachers: A Tale of 2 Nations

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Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a nation that believed that sound schooling was crucial to its economic growth and the strength of its culture. As the nation's economy generated more and more well-paying jobs for the brightest college graduates, the number and quality of people entering the teaching profession began to decline.

This development worried the nation's leaders, who believed that excellent teachers were essential to high-caliber schools. To try to remedy the situation, they made four changes in the teacher-education process. First, they reduced the costs of entry to the profession by cutting the number of preservice requirements for teacher certification and by ensuring that the most selective colleges would play a role in teacher preparation. At the same time, they sought to maintain high standards by requiring rigorous pre-entry interviews and tests. Second, they substantially increased teacher salaries and required by law, for both symbolic and political reasons, that such salaries be higher than those of other government workers. Third, they decided to increase funding for the continuing professional development of teachers. Opportunities would include an intensive preservice training program after graduation and before classroom teaching. Fourth, they sought to provide leadership roles for teachers within each school.

These strategies improved the quality and increased the quantity of those entering teaching. There were five or six teachers prepared for every opening, and those hired were typically brighter than young professionals entering other fields. At some leading universities, for example, prospective teachers scored higher on college-entry tests than did engineering students. However, after several years of experience with these policies, educational leaders recognized that, while these bright new teachers knew their subjects well, they often lacked the understanding of student behavior and the practical skills required for effective instruction. Some teacher educators proposed to remedy this problem by requiring a master's degree for new teachers. But the nation's leaders advocated instead a year-long internship for new teachers, with the assignment of primary responsibility for this phase of preparation to outstanding senior teachers. The leaders also urged that more emphasis be given to existing opportunities for continuing education. Such opportunities included in-residence workshops during the school year, foreign travel, and fully paid advanced study for teachers demonstrating competence and commitment.

This tale is no fable but rather an oversimplified summary of the last 15 years of efforts to reform teacher preparation in Japan. Not all of these efforts have been fully implemented, but the directions in which the country is moving are clear.

Given the growing awareness that the strengths of Japanese education cannot and, in many cases, should not be closely replicated in the United States, it would be understandable if the Japanese approach to attracting and educating teachers were dismissed as irrelevant. Understandable, but unwise. Rather, a contrast of the assumptions undergirding Japanese policy with some of the proposed reforms in teacher recruitment and preparation being discussed in the United States might help put our own deliberations in perspective.

The reforms being advocated most forcefully in the United States involve the extension of teacher preparation to at least one year of postbaccalaureate study, greater emphasis on liberal-arts education, disciplinary majors (rather than education majors) for elementary-school teachers, and an extensive paid internship before a prospective teacher is given full responsibility for teaching. These proposals for reforming the way we train teachers in the United States seem to assume that:

The added costs of becoming a teacher will not reduce the quality and quantity of teacher candidates, because either those who really want to teach or the taxpayers will bear the cost of an additional year of preservice preparation, including the cost of earnings foregone.

Extensive coursework in an academic discipline and a strong liberal-arts education are essential to effective teaching and professional status.

The requirement of added preservice education will increase the status of teaching and thus lead to higher teacher salaries, which, in turn, will attract better-qualified candidates.

If candidates learn more about teaching before they enter the field, they will become more effective teachers.

Without a carefully guided period of induction that bridges college and classroom performance, the lessons teachers learn in preservice teacher education will not be applied in practice and built upon.

Most of those concerned with improving teacher preparation in Japan would share only the last of these assumptions. First, the Japanese seem to believe that the size and quality of the teacher-candidate pool will be maximized if the entry costs, in time and money, are minimized. The quality of the candidate pool is controlled largely by screening based on academic performance, scores on written examinations, and interviews. The Japanese are finding, however, that this strategy does not by itself produce teaching competence. That task is to be assumed by school systems and local governments (prefectures), just as the task of job training for Japanese businesses is assumed by private companies.

Second, the Japanese favor a broad liberal-arts education (one less disciplined--pun intended--than our own), but they appear to be unconcerned about any need to increase teachers' knowledge of the subjects they will teach beyond that point. High-school teachers are required to major in a subject but not to meet certification requirements as we know them. No doubt Japanese planners assume that smart people who have survived the rigors of the typical high-school curriculum in Japan will know what they are teaching. Indeed, with an ample supply of teacher candidates, school systems in Japan need not employ teachers who do notknow their subjects well. The talent level of the teacher labor market obviates the need for extensive regulation.

Third, the Japanese do not tie occupational status to the completion of advanced degrees (it is questionable whether the American public makes such a connection, since teachers already are twice as likely as other college graduates to have master's degrees). In fact, only recently have most Japanese teachers held baccalaureate degrees when they started their careers. They have enjoyed high prestige because they have performed a role that is seen as essential to the national welfare.

Fourth, in rejecting the idea that candidates should be required to undertake postbaccalaureate training before they teach, the Japanese not only are trying to increase the size and improve the quality of the teacher-candidate pool, but also are making a judgment about how best to allocate the resources available to foster teacher learning. The decision to place more emphasis on post-entry professional development than on preservice teacher education appears to rest on two beliefs: that teachers will more efficiently learn to teach once they have taught, and that, since teaching is a lifelong commitment and things change rapidly in education, continuing education for teachers is a high-return public investment.

To be sure, the United States and Japan are so different from each other in their cultures and their systems of educational finance and governance that we should apply the lessons of each country's experiences to the other with considerable caution. Too, there are weaknesses in the ways the Japanese prepare teachers that I have not noted.

We might, nonetheless, draw some lessons from the Japanese experience. To attract and prepare teachers, we should increase the benefits of being a teacher and avoid "reforms" that raise the costs of becoming a teacher (high standards are not a cost). We should place high priority on creating postbaccalaureate internships that continue the preparation of prospective teachers, and we should invest much more heavily in the continuing education of teachers than we do now. These conclusions fit the evidence we have about the negative effects of costly pre-entry programs on the supply of academically able candidates, about the weak transfer of college-learned knowledge and skills to actual classroom teaching, about the improved ability of people to master complex information and skills after they have relevant job experience, and about the importance to teachers of opportunities for continuing professional development.

Vol. 7, Issue 2, Page 32

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