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Published in Print: November 29, 2000, as A Prescription for Improving Teacher Preparation

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A Prescription for Improving Teacher Preparation

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None of us would send our children to a surgeon who was educated in the shallow manner that many of our teachers are.

A few years ago, I visited the oldest living schoolteacher in the United States. She was 107 years old. When I asked her about the quality of teachers, she responded this way: "Since I can remember, there have always been three kinds of teachers. One group was just born to teach. A second group was born and should not teach. A third group should never have been born at all."

We all can remember at least one teacher of each type, no doubt.

The key issue for teacher-educators then becomes how to identify and assist people who were "just born to teach." And how do we keep out of the classroom those who were "born but should not teach"? Further, how can we develop the skills of effective teaching in those who have the potential to be good teachers?

For too long, we have operated our teacher education programs like an assembly line for the production of a car. As teachers move through the line, one professor adds the foundation of education. Another rivets on the foundation of learning, followed by multicultural education, special education, and methods of teaching math, English, and social studies.

Finally, the student is given a test drive called "student teaching." And after a very brief test period, the student is proclaimed ready for the market, to be employed by a school district as a new teacher.

For too long we have operated our teacher education programs like an assembly line for the production of a car.

This test drive, however, is more like a parachute drop. Student-teachers drop in to the classrooms of the most available and willing teachers. Some are lucky. They get a good test drive. Others are not so fortunate.

A convincing body of research suggests that future teachers teach the way their supervising teacher teaches. They model that behavior, and it appears to be more influential than any teaching methods they learn back in the college classroom. Student teachers lucky enough to get mentors who were "just born to teach" learn how to model the best teaching practices. Those who get the others model bad teaching.

How can we improve this situation? First, we must get rid of the teacher-training assembly line and replace it with collegial teams responsible for the total product. Teams should be made up of teacher education faculty members cutting across the disciplines—special education, educational psychology, and learning technologies—as well as exemplary teachers working in K-12 classrooms. Together, they should integrate new knowledge about how to teach with real-world experience.

Second, we should put student-teachers in highly screened partner schools. Such schools would be selected from districts that have made a commitment to change the education of educators and to create excellent schools where renewal can take place.

Teachers must master their subject, learn how to teach that subject, and learn how to teach it in diverse settings.

Third, we must replace the piecemeal assembly of educational knowledge and develop larger chunks of expected knowledge and skills to be mastered in an integrated fashion. We should, for example, have students take biology and attach a seminar on how to teach biology to public school kids, then add a clinical experience for them to apply it to a real classroom.

Teachers need three kinds of knowledge: They must master their subject, learn how to teach that subject, and learn how to teach it in diverse settings. Teaching in an inner-city school, for example, can be very different from teaching in a rural or suburban school.


Finally, we must get rid of progress based on grades. Replace it with demonstrated mastery of knowledge and skills. Instead of grades, we need a performance-based system that will demonstrate the skills acquired and understanding achieved. One way to do this would be to pair the novices with recognized teaching experts to reflect on the teaching experience and deepen the novice's understanding. In this way, developing teachers would be learning in action, not in abstraction.

None of us would send our children to a surgeon who was educated in the shallow manner that many of our teachers are educated. We should demand higher standards for those who would do surgical procedures on our children's minds.

Richard Andrews is the dean of the college of education at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Vol. 20, Issue 13, Page 37

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