Education Opinion

Teacher Preparation: Not an Either-Or

By James V. Shuls & Gary W. Ritter — April 03, 2013 14 min read
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The current policy debate about teacher preparation tends to pit two ideas against each other: traditional, college-bound preparation vs. alternative routes. It seems that those of us interested in education policy must choose which strategy we prefer for all K-12 teacher preparation.

In our view, however, the whole heated debate isn’t particularly productive because teachers and the students they teach are too diverse for a single prescription.

In this ongoing argument, some say it is silly that we send teachers into classrooms without the training and certification offered in traditional education schools. Others promote alternative preparation programs, such as Teach For America, in the hopes of attracting a more talented and diverse set of prospective teachers. The fiery rhetoric in this debate can be unproductive, with its actors characterized as either cranky public school critics attempting to deprofessionalize teaching and undermine its institutions, or staunch defenders of the status quo trying to maintain their monopoly on teacher training.

We propose that we start with some simple and positive assumptions: Both sides want to recruit and prepare an excellent teaching workforce to serve students well, and both sides have the right strategies to achieve this goal. Traditional teacher preparation is the right strategy, and alternative teacher preparation is the right strategy.

Instead of arguing about the superiority of one strategy over the other, consider the following compromise: Continue to support traditional programs as the primary strategy for preparing teachers of elementary students, and encourage alternative programs to develop more teachers of secondary school students.

Two Camps

If possible, we’d do a rigorous study of teacher preparation programs, using random assignment and multiple measures of effectiveness, with the hope of identifying the best practices for training future teachers. Then we’d implement those practices nationwide, mandating that every preparation program do what’s been identified as most effective. And, voila, we’d have an improved teacher labor force.

That may be a very well-intentioned goal, but let’s not hold our breath that it will happen. The recently concluded Measures of Effective Teaching Project (MET), a rigorous study that used random assignment and multiple measures of effectiveness, has taught us at least one thing: Identifying exactly what makes a teacher effective is difficult (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2013). Identifying exactly how to train the best teachers is equally opaque.

Broadly speaking, policy makers and education leaders fall into two camps when debating and developing the best policies to attract and train our future teaching workforce.

The first camp supports traditional teacher preparation in approved degree programs within colleges of education. In their course of study, teacher candidates learn educational theory, receive pedagogical training, and have practical classroom experience. Those in the traditional camp include other traditionally trained teachers, teacher unions, and professors in colleges of education, among others. The logic is that teaching is a craft that must be developed over time through practice, observation, and induction into the profession.

Again speaking very generally, the other camp advocates for a more direct path to the classroom, with a focus on content knowledge. According to this strategy, teachers would typically have a degree in the subject they teach, but they have much less classroom experience. This group prefers alternative programs, such as Teach For America, which seeks highly talented individuals with strong content knowledge, provides a shortened training period, usually six weeks, and then places teachers in classrooms. Programs similar to TFA include the New York City Teaching Fellows Program and The New Teacher Project.

Reformers inside and outside the field have two concerns about traditional programs: First, they argue that subject-area content is critically important (perhaps even more than knowledge of pedagogy), and traditional programs are less likely to attract prospective teachers with deep content knowledge. Second, they maintain that requiring teachers to earn traditional certification via a four-year undergraduate major in education discourages potentially effective teachers from entering the field.

Critics of the alternative route say teaching is a complex process that requires more than deep content knowledge and that six weeks of preparation is insufficient to give teachers the depth of understanding about child development and pedagogy necessary to be an effective teacher.

Elementary and Secondary are Different

Perhaps these opposing camps have staked out their ground so vehemently because we continue to argue about teacher preparation as if it were a single question: How should we train teachers? We would have a more productive conversation if we agreed that there is no one right way to train K-12 teachers.

The first day of my [James] teaching career was a rude awakening. I remember vividly the excitement as students entered the classroom. They eagerly went to their desks, began putting away their things, and got started on their morning work. Once the bell rang, I noticed one student not working. I went to him, knelt down and reminded him to read the directions and get started. He cried out, “I don’t know how to read,” and tears began streaming down his face. I thought to myself, “Oh, yeah, this is 1st grade.”

Throughout my first year, I struggled with how to conduct small group lessons, circle time, and a host of other activities germane to the early childhood classroom. Although I had been an elementary education major, I never planned to teach in the early grades. I had done observations in a 6th-grade classroom and student-taught 5th grade; neither of these experiences prepared me well for that first year in 1st grade. I wasn’t lacking content knowledge or education theory; I was lacking practical classroom experience.

Having limited clinical experience is a reality even for many education majors. Levine (2006) reports that student teaching “lasts a term or less for 76% of teacher education alumni” and, like me, 45% of teachers have only one placement for their student teaching experience (p. 39). Before you read this as a call for more student teaching or experience in the field for all teachers, consider what would have happened that first year had I been in a high school chemistry class. In a science classroom with older students, I wouldn’t have struggled with basic classroom procedures or circle time. Rather, my challenges would have stemmed from the fact that I could not have described the difference between a polypeptide and a Polly Pocket! I lacked content knowledge.

There is a tremendous gulf between what an elementary teacher needs to know and what a high school teacher needs to know. Why do we assume that a 1st-grade teacher and a trigonometry teacher both need the same sort of training? To us, a trigonometry teacher seems much more like a college professor than like an elementary teacher.

Policy discussion would be more productive if we had a more nuanced view of K-12 teaching. Instead of asking whether a traditional model or an alternative model is better (or worse), let’s ask which type of training is best for teachers in a particular subject area or for a certain age student. If we carefully thought through questions like this, we might propose numerous models of teacher training. Some of those models would look more like traditional training, others more like the Teach For America model, and some more like apprenticeships. We aren’t the right people to carefully delineate the preparation strategies appropriate for different types of teachers, but we do feel safe in making one suggestion: Stop treating teacher training of all K-12 teachers as a monolith.

Let’s begin by acknowledging two very broad categories of teachers: those who teach very young students (grades K-6 or so) and those who teach older students (grades 7-12). By doing this, we might be in a better position to improve training for the entire K-12 profession.

Considering the Alternatives

The traditional training method requires prospective teachers to enroll in numerous courses in pedagogy and child development. Prospective teachers also have opportunities to student teach and practice important classroom skills. This approach leaves teacher candidates less time for courses in the discipline they’ll be teaching. Additionally, the traditional model isn’t particularly appealing to some of our nation’s most academically capable high school students, as measured by college entrance exams (Podgursky, Monroe, & Watson, 2004). Moreover, some critics contend that mandatory certification has been a barrier to market entry that has exacerbated teacher shortages in a handful of disciplines.

In alternative training strategies, such as Teach For America, prospective teachers typically have majored in the content area they’re planning to teach rather than majoring in education. In many cases, these individuals also tend to score higher than traditionally trained teachers on standardized achievement tests, such as the ACT (Sass, 2011), or licensure exams (Boyd et al., 2008). These programs also expand the pool of eligible teachers by making a pathway to the classroom readily available to more individuals and from a variety of disciplines. The downside is that the teachers enter the classroom with little to no classroom experience or pedagogical training, leaving critics to claim that they’ll be experimenting on students.

Given this assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the two models, let’s consider some basic principles of preparation for the two levels of teachers and discuss how each training model fits with elementary and secondary teachers.

Elementary Teachers

Preparation programs should, first and foremost, provide meaningful classroom experience for preservice teachers. This goes beyond simply requiring classroom observations and means working in partnership with local schools to ensure each teacher candidate has the opportunity to work with and learn from multiple highly effective teachers in various grade levels. Prospective elementary teachers should also receive instruction in child development and pedagogy. When possible, these aspects should be taught in conjunction with clinical experience working with students. Sitting and listening to someone talk about classroom management or Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development isn’t nearly as meaningful as learning them through hands-on experience.

At this level, knowledge of appropriate pedagogical practice and child development seem far more important than content knowledge. Moreover, because there are few shortages of elementary school teachers (and likely a surplus in most places), there is little need to remove the barrier of certification to increase the labor pool of potential teachers. Thus, for preparing teachers of elementary and primary students, the traditional system of teacher training works well and seems most appropriate.

Secondary Teachers

Preparation programs should, first and foremost, ensure that teacher candidates possess the necessary content knowledge. By the time they enter college, most elementary teachers have mastered most of the content or concepts they’ll be expected to teach. Secondary teachers, on the other hand, require much more specific content training. Imagine a Spanish teacher entering the classroom with only the most basic knowledge of the Spanish language or a calculus teacher who never made it past Algebra II. Clearly, this would not be acceptable. Many secondary preparation programs reduce the number of content courses to make room for courses in education theory and classroom observations. Although theory and experience are beneficial, they are secondary to content knowledge and should be treated accordingly. Therefore, the first priority of a secondary teacher preparation program should be to impart deep understanding of the subject matter.

Moreover, the secondary level often has labor pool shortages, particularly for teachers of math and science in high-poverty, urban schools (Ingersoll, 2011). Thus, to increase the numbers of quality teachers for secondary students, policy makers may need to reduce the barriers to entry into this market. Alternative programs do just that by opening the teaching market to individuals who didn’t necessarily major in education as undergraduate students. Because we need to draw more teachers with strong content knowledge into the field of secondary education and because high school teachers can afford to know a bit less about child development and pedagogy, alternative teacher preparation strategies may be appropriate for teachers at the secondary level.

Let’s be clear: We aren’t saying secondary teachers don’t benefit from classroom experience nor that elementary teachers don’t need content knowledge. But we are suggesting that elementary and secondary teachers have different needs and that the most pressing needs of one group are not the most pressing needs of the other. For our state and national teacher training policies to be effective, we must recognize these differences.


As much as we want to ensure that every teacher entering the classroom is well-prepared, the reality is that much of any teacher’s learning will occur during their first few years in the classroom. Both traditionally and alternatively trained teachers can attest that they grew significantly at the beginning of their career as they made mistakes, learned from those mistakes, and collaborated with other teachers. The fact that teachers improve most rapidly in their first three years is evident in research (Boyd et al., 2008).

Also evident is that the prerequisites to be an effective elementary or secondary teacher are markedly different. As such, the training of teachers for elementary and secondary education should be markedly different. Though we cannot specify exactly what percentage of time should be spent on content or classroom experience, we can say that experience is more important for elementary preparation, while content knowledge is more important for secondary.

Our critics will say we have glossed over the fact that secondary teachers need experience too, or that elementary teachers need rigorous training in content as well. To both, we agree. In a perfect world, teachers would enter the classroom with the exact right mix of content knowledge and practical experience for the subject they are to teach. But we do not live in the perfect world. Our world has constraints and competing interests. If teacher preparation programs become too intensive, too lengthy, or too difficult, many individuals will choose not to go into teaching. If we neglect to recognize both aspects of teacher preparation, to prepare and attract, then we do a disservice to the profession and to students.

Our modest proposal is that we begin to think of teacher training not as one question, but as a series. What is the best method of training for early childhood teachers, upper elementary teachers, science teachers, math teachers, etc.? But before we can have that conversation we must first recognize, at the very least, that there is a difference between elementary and secondary teachers.

If we acknowledge this obvious difference, then the answers to some of our thorny policy questions about teacher preparation become more readily evident. Is the traditional training model effective and appropriate? We say yes, and likely most effective for teachers of younger students. Are alternative pathways effective and appropriate? Again, we say yes—in this case most likely for teachers of older students. In our view, policy makers should stop entertaining the debate over which should we privilege and which we should prohibit; rather, we should encourage and allow both models and use each where most appropriate.


  • Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2013). Ensuring fair and reliable measures of effective teaching: Culminating findings from the MET project’s three-year study. Seattle, WA: Author. www.gatesfoundation.org
  • Boyd, D., Lankford, H., Loeb, S., Rockoff, J., & Wyckoff, J. (2008). The narrowing gap in New York City teacher qualifications and its implications for student achievement in high-poverty schools. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 27(4), 793-818.
  • Ingersoll, R. (2011). Do we produce enough mathematics and science teachers? Phi Delta Kappan, 92(6), 37-41.
  • Levine, A. (2006). Educating school teachers. Washington, DC: The Education Schools Project. www.edschools.org
  • Podgursky, M., Monroe, R., & Watson, D. (2004). The academic quality of public school teachers: An analysis of entry and exit behavior. Economics of Education Review, 23 (5), 507-518.
  • Sass, T.R. (2011). Certification requirements and teacher quality: A comparison of alternative routes to teaching. Working paper. www2.gsu.edu/~tsass/pdfs/Alternative%20 Certification%20and%20Teacher%20Quality%2011.pdf

All articles published in Phi Delta Kappan are protected by copyright. For permission to use or reproduce Kappan articles, please e-mail kappan@pdkintl.org.


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