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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Do We Have a Teacher-Prep Problem?

By Peter DeWitt — December 26, 2013 6 min read
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This is not meant to slam new teachers by stating they are unprepared. It’s much more complicated than that. The reality is that there are pre-service teachers who come out of teacher prep programs highly prepared for the job, and others who are not prepared at all. Our students need great teachers, as much as they need great school leaders.

Recently, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released a report, which you can read here, called the Teacher Prep Review: A Review of the Nation’s Teacher Preparation Programs. I have mixed feelings about NCTQ, and do not normally focus on their reports. My issues with NCTQ are not new. Diane Ravitch, who I admire and respect, has focused on them before.

In a June 2013 blog, Diane wrote,

NCTQ is not a professional association. It did not make site visits. It made its harsh judgments by reviewing course syllabi and catalogs. The criteria that it rated as most important was the institution's fidelity to the Common Core standards."

In November 2013 Ravitch wrote,

NCTQ was created in 2000 by the rightwing Thomas B. Fordham Foundation at a time when I was a member of the board. It was created specifically to harass teacher-education institutions and to advance an agenda in which untrained teachers could win certification by passing a test."

She went on to write,

NCTQ floundered about, seeking a strategy and was rescued in 2001 when George W. Bush's secretary of education Rod Paige gave NCTQ an unrestricted grant of $5 million to keep it alive. The teacher test it created, called the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, eventually was turned over to another company that sells online certification for only $1995.00. Is that a high-quality way to prepare teachers for the nation's children?"

If you read the first few pages of the report you will notice that NCTQ thanks the Technical Board. Ravitch wrote about them before as well.

The board of NCTQ is dominated by corporate reformers. It may have members from both parties, but it is certainly NOT non-partisan. It is hostile to teacher education and infatuated with the idea that test scores are both the measure and the outcome of education."

I would like to just point out two of the names on the Technical Board, and they are Tony Bennett and Doug Lemov. Where Tony Bennett is concerned, in September of this year the Tampa Bay Times reported that, “The former Florida education commissioner, who quit in August amid allegations that he fixed a school grade in Indiana for an influential supporter, now faces allegations that he misused his Indiana staff for campaign work.”

Bennett, having done a bang-up job as a state education leader is now helping ACT. According to the Miami Herald,

ACT spokesman Ed Colby said Friday that Bennett will help the company pitch its Aspire test throughout the states, but deferred specific questions to Aspire's president. ACT is more widely known for its college-entry tests administered throughout the Midwest. But it also is among many testing companies looking to sell tests to states that have adopted Common Core standards."

If NCTQ wants the respect of the profession, they may want to replace him on their technical board.

Doug Lemov is the Managing Director of the Uncommon Schools and wrote a book called Teach Like a Champion. As an adjunct professor in a Graduate School of Education in Albany, I used the book as a required text in 2011 because the New York State Education Department referenced it as a book all school personnel should read.

Although a few chapters had good ideas, my graduate students were in awe of the chapter on classroom management, which focused on passing papers across the room faster to cut down on unstructured time. As we moved from chapter to chapter it seemed to be more militant than creative.

Finding Common Ground

This may surprise you, given everything written above, but I don’t disagree with some of the findings in the report. Please understand that I do not write that as a researcher, but as an experienced elementary principal, and adjunct professor, who has worked with many schools of education.

Over the years I have been unimpressed with some of the student teachers who I have seen, and have let the education programs know where they need to improve...from the public school perspective. I would go so far as to say 6 out of 10 of them seemed as though student teaching was something they had to get through. A few of those 6 almost seemed as though student-teaching was an inconvenience, which was sad because they were placed with fantastic teachers.

I did have some amazing young student teachers who took every opportunity they could to become a part of the school community. I reached out to every pre-service teacher and asked them to set up meetings with me to get a sense of the way schools work or even to do exit interviews to answer any questions they may have. I offered to do informal observations on them so they could see that process in a transparent way. Unfortunately, about 3 out of 10 pre-service teachers took me up on that offer every year.

The NCTQ report begins by saying, “There’s no shortage of factors for America’s educational decline: budget cutbacks, entrenched poverty, crowded classrooms, shorter school years, greater diversity of students than in other countries. The list seems endless.”

They went on to write, “NCTQ’s Teacher Prep Review has uncovered another cause, one that few would suspect: the colleges and universities producing America’s traditionally prepared teachers.

NCTQ also provided some other bullets. They are:

  • It is far too easy to get into a teacher preparation program. Just over a quarter of programs restrict admissions to students in the top half of their class, compared with the highest-performing countries, which limit entry to the top third.
  • Fewer than one in nine elementary programs and just over one-third of high school programs are preparing candidates in content at the level necessary to teach the new Common Core State Standards now being implemented in classrooms in 45 states and the District of Columbia.
  • The “reading wars” are far from over. Three out of four elementary teacher preparation programs still are not teaching the methods of reading instruction that could substantially lower the number of children who never become proficient readers, from 30 percent to under 10 percent. Instead, the teacher candidate is all too often told to develop his or her “own unique approach” to teaching reading.
  • Just 7 percent of programs ensure that their student teachers will have uniformly strong experiences, such as only allowing them to be placed in classrooms taught by teachers who are themselves effective, not just willing volunteers.”

Sadly, I agree with some of these opinions, especially the last two. Many pre-service teachers seem ill-prepared to teach reading. Reading expert Dick Allington has been beating that drum for decades. Many teacher prep programs provide the base but the real hands-on experience of teaching students to read unfortunately comes after teachers are on the job.

I can’t agree with the percentage of programs that ensure that pre-service teachers will be matched with “uniformly strong” teachers, but I can say that many schools do not take student teachers because of negative past experiences or that teachers are overwhelmed dealing with the implementation of the Common Core and high accountability measures, so they are unlikely to take student teachers.

In addition, I’m torn with the findings of such a report because if the standards changed when I was a young college student, I would not have become a teacher. It wasn’t until I entered a teacher prep program, had some great professors, cooperating teachers, and found my passion that I truly began to excel in my studies. It wasn’t just one thing that inspired me but everything that came with education that inspired me to become a teacher.

In the End

I may not like the way the report was created, and have an issue with a few of the members of the technical board, but I do agree with some of the findings of the report. That’s not because of the research but more due to the fact that those of us have experienced pre-service teachers who were not prepared for the job.

In order to turn this around we ALL have work to do. Whether it’s school leaders who need to be more welcoming, cooperating teachers who have to take their role more seriously, college professors who have to challenge and inspire pre-service teachers, or pre-service teachers themselves who have to understand that teaching is more than a back-up plan. To become a teacher takes hard work, and that hard work doesn’t end after the college degree is received.

Finally, state education leaders are responsible as well. Teaching is a career choice that changes lives for both teachers and students. Bashing teachers for a variety of reasons, increasing high stakes testing which is tied to their evaluation, and other accountability measures that do not make sense will not inspire our young people to become teachers. It will, however, force them to run the other way and choose something they believe will be more rewarding.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.