Education Opinion

On the Outside Looking in: Teacher Training

By Peter Gow — June 21, 2013 4 min read
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Earlier this week I blogged, somewhat speculatively, on the issue of “education” coverage in the news, which often seems to be more about things that happen in schools than about education policy or the latest ideas in curriculum and assessment. I wondered what outsiders think when they read this news.

Blog manna from heaven! About half an hour after that post went up, I received this email from a close relative, not (I’m pretty sure) a regular reader of this blog: “The National Council on Teacher Quality has a new report out--discouraging.”

Well, I had already been discouraged myself by this news item earlier in the week when it showed up in the Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, and of course Education Week. By now the National Council on Teacher Quality/U.S. News & World Report research on teacher training programs has been pretty well sprayed all over the national media (hence the email from, well, Mom), and denizens of the blogosphere are doing what they can to either hose it off or highlight it, depending on their perspectives.

The report’s findings, as the EdWeek headline suggests, are “disputed,” but there is plenty in it we’ve read before. I can’t begin to guess at the biases or lack thereof that the researchers may have brought to their project or the ways in which they did or did not slant their results, but it’s at least reasonably clear that schools of education aren’t living up to the Council’s/U.S. News‘s expectations for what good teacher training should be. Even the higher education trades, though, seemed to relish the bad news--viz. the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed headlines.

I have my own expectations, based on having been a new teacher once and having subsequently worked with many of them. I have an idea of the kinds of pedagogical skills and practical knowledge teachers should have, and I am a big believer in the idea that teachers should understand a lot about the developmental needs of kids. I also know that practical, hands-on experience with willing and knowledgeable mentors is essential--the more the better. Easy and deep familiarity with subject matter is critical, but even more so is a belief in kids and an unswerving commitment to their success. Heck, I’ve even written a book about this.

I’ve also seen that teachers need to be clever--enough to stay a question or three ahead of their students, enough to shape discussion in ways that conduce to smart, respectful, and sensitive classroom cultures, enough to make whatever analogical steps and leaps might help explain complicated things to kids, enough to find whatever precarious ways we can to balance our lives and our work. Some of this cleverness is old-fashioned “school smarts"--Howard Gardner’s verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences, if you will--and some of it is inter- and intrapersonal intelligences (to stay with Gardner).

In a way, what’s most discouraging about the news from this National Council and associates is the continued emphasis on the relatively (in comparison to other countries) low standards of admission at some (many?) schools of education. The saddest thing is that the cause-and-effect here is so blurred, and the cycle it sets up so clear. We dis our teacher ed programs for being unselective, but there’s a certain thing about selectivity: you can only select from the applicants you have. When a profession is regularly subjected to criticism, even humiliation, in the public forum, when a profession is demonstrably underpaid and offered increasingly lower levels of job security, how, then, I ask, is it going to attract all those top-flight applicants that NCTQ/USNWR would like to see in the pipeline? Simply put, as a society we’re not going to inspire vast numbers of our top college students to enter the field of teaching until we’ve figured out a way to make teaching as attractive as financial services or engineering.

The voices, at least in the political and economic arenas, that seem to enjoy slagging teachers and the teaching profession are often enough the same ones that can’t wait until we make college into a solidly specialized pre-vocational experience (leavened by football games and beer-pong, perhaps) aimed at producing the “innovators” and entrepreneurs that our society so urgently needs. I get the value in innovation and entrepreneurship, but don’t we also need podiatrists, yoga instructors, graphic designers, social workers, farmers, philosophers--and teachers? Sure, we’re all humbled by boy geniuses who make zillions with their software ideas while the rest of us toil for our daily bread, but we toilers are necessary as customers for their software and to keep the boy geniuses fed and healthy. (And isn’t there an irony in that so many of the boy geniuses have tended to be college drop-outs?)

Sure, schools of education can upgrade their programs and their products, and they should (provided their funders--many of them state legislatures--can be persuaded to support these efforts). If some of their work is haphazard or their evaluation standards too low, they can fix that. We all can be better at what we do.

But schools of education can’t become vastly more prestigious and attractive to more applicants and thus more selective until their product--teaching credentials--becomes vastly more desirable, until more young men and women see teaching as a valued, respected, and rewarded way of life. And that is a problem for our society, not just for ed school deans or admission committees.

I guess I’ll have to send Mom a link this post.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

The opinions expressed in Independent Schools, Common Perspectives 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.