Education Opinion

Teacher Preparation: Neither Frivolous Nor Unnecessary

By Michelle Rhee — May 15, 2014 5 min read
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Earlier this week, Michelle and Jack kicked off a discussion about alternate routes. Today they continue their conversation, looking particularly at the rhetoric surrounding teacher preparation reform.

Rhee: You ended our last discussion by saying that policy rhetoric frames teacher education as frivolous and unnecessary. But who’s saying that? I’ve never heard anyone say that. Is it real? Just because some reformers believe that we should multiple routes into the classroom doesn’t mean they think the traditional routes don’t have a place in the landscape. There may be people saying teacher education programs need to be improved but I think we all can agree to that.

Schneider: Yes it’s real. Scholars like John Chubb have argued that teacher education and teacher licensure are unnecessary. And obviously there’s an ideological slant there. But when you pair those kinds of claims with rhetoric about how alternate pathways are more effective than traditional pre-service preparation—and that is a message sent by organizations like TFA, despite internal practices that suggest otherwise—you can see how a very particular perception develops.

This gets repeated in the media. Nicholas Kristof, for instance, wrote an egregious piece in the Times in which he compared teacher educators with snake charmers and asserted that there’s no evidence of effectiveness among college- and university-based teacher prep programs. And Bill Keller referred to the “cozy, lucrative monopoly” of those programs. These ideas, unenlightened as they are, then seep into policy decisions.

Again, I see this conversation being driven by simplistic thinking—about what teachers need to know, about how to measure effectiveness, and about how to cultivate a profession. It seems to me like very few people are genuinely interested in talking about how to actually improve pre-service education in colleges and universities, which still prepare a significant majority of teachers. That conversation would be about state requirements, programmatic coherence, links between coursework and practice, the cultivation of relationships with great cooperating teachers, and debt relief—for undergrads committed to teaching, as well as for students who decided after graduation that they wanted to go back and get a license.

Rhee: OK. But while those are examples of people, Chubb is an academic and Kristof and Keller are journalists. I think it’s wrong to say education reformers are saying those things. Specifically, I know for a fact that TFA, TNTP, KIPP and others have spent a lot of time thinking about teacher prep with traditional programs, colleges and universities. Just because they advocate changes and different kinds of programs doesn’t mean they are demeaning the existing programs.

The bottom line is I think we agree on a few things: 1) preparing effective teachers is hard and complicated work, 2) we should have multiple routes and programs to suit different people, and 3) there’s a lot to learn and be shared among programs. Does that sound right?

Schneider: In the abstract it does sound right. But again, I think it’s essential to point out how complex the policy environment is. Sure, according to your definition of a reformer no one is trying to get rid of teacher education. But there are plenty of self-identified “reformers” out there who are; and they don’t agree with the three propositions you laid out.

Those folks, and their messages, are a part of the policy environment. And so when an organization like TFA says that it is more effective than traditional teacher education programs, the message pairs perfectly with the notion that college- and university-based preparation should be axed. That puts leaders in higher education on the defensive, draining energy away from whatever efforts might have gone into programmatic restructuring. And it skews the conversation toward silver bullet thinking, rather than complex thinking about what actually might work, which in turn steers resources away from where they are most needed.

I’d love to hear an organization like Teach For America come out and say that they don’t have the answers. I’d like to hear them say that they are trying to learn from and with college- and university-based programs. Because publicly you hear the opposite, and that’s damaging. And I’d also like to hear an organization like TFA say that they truly want corps members to become teachers. Not leaders after two years in classrooms. But teachers.

The result of all the things I’ve mentioned is that many young people don’t want to be teachers. They want to be reformers. And we’re increasingly preparing them for that. So the rhetoric about teacher preparation has gotten young people excited about getting into classrooms, but only as a stepping stone. And the policy around teacher preparation has fostered this.

Rhee: I think TFA is a good example of an organization that has been pretty reflective, actually. Wendy Kopp, for instance, acknowledges that some criticism of TFA has been deserved. And she’s pretty candid about where she believes they’ve fallen short. Similarly, Matt Kramer and Eliza Villanueva Beard—the new CEOs at TFA—have created two new initiatives that get at both of your points—a pre-service year of training and additional support and development for teachers to stay in the classroom beyond their initial two-year commitment.

Or how about TNTP? Last year, they went through a similar exercise—they took a hard look at themselves and realized that while their teachers were doing okay in their first year, they weren’t doing great. In terms of effectiveness, TNTP teachers were about the same across the spectrum. While that’s okay considering it’s an accelerated training, it’s not okay if the goal is to raise the level of teacher effectiveness in classrooms. So they released a report called Leap Year that looks at what they need to do to improve. I think that’s hugely beneficial to the field in general—not only will this help TNTP get better, but it contributes to the knowledge base from which other preparation programs can learn. Just as TNTP can learn from them.

I think it’s fine to ask whether they can do more and whether there’s enough learning going back and forth between traditional preparation programs and alternative routes like TFA. But these folks are listening and they are learning, and from what I’ve seen, they’re fully willing and able to admit where they need to improve and then work on doing that.

Schneider: Again, we need to distinguish between internal practices at these organizations and external messaging. Because they don’t align.

Alternate routes should be framed as just that—alternate routes. If their projects can inform the larger enterprise of college- and university-based teacher preparation, great. Like a lot of scholars, I do see room for them in the teacher preparation landscape.

But I have a real problem with alternate routes being framed as solutions. Because they aren’t. And worse, framing them as such degrades more robust programs.

The opinions expressed in K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric 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.