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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

Transforming Teacher Preparation

By Elizabeth Hinde — May 20, 2014 7 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Elizabeth Hinde, Director of Teacher Preparation at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. Elizabeth points out that not all teacher prep programs deserve criticism, and many have transformed the way they prepare teachers.

I began my teaching career in a fifth grade classroom located in a suburban Title I school. The school was surrounded by vacant lots and had a trailer park across the street. The first advice I was given was not to stay at the school after dark. I had 33 students that first year - half of whom moved away and were replaced throughout the year with other students who moved in and out of the trailer park. I did not have enough mathematics textbooks that first year, and the social studies textbooks were 10 years old. There was a new reading program that the teachers were not familiar with, and some of my students did not speak English. Believe it or not, though, I felt prepared to teach that first day.

I stayed in that school for 15 years, then taught in another similar school for five more years before earning a PhD and entering the world of academia and teacher preparation. Even though I currently direct one of the largest teacher preparation programs in the country, I am grounded in those 20 years of teaching and still recognize the challenges that face teachers. Some of the challenges they face are different than when I started teaching, although they are not insurmountable. Teacher preparation programs are as needed now as they ever were.

The nation’s teacher preparation programs prepare approximately 200,000 teachers each year, which accounts for the majority of the nation’s teaching workforce. In recent years these programs have been facing increasingly intense scrutiny. I am not complaining, though. Since teacher preparation programs are responsible for preparing people who will teach the next generation of citizens, it is right to scrutinize them.

At some point, though, criticisms of these programs became vitriolic, not to mention unwarranted and even somewhat perplexing. For instance, in a recent edition of the US Department of Education’s newsletter, The Teachers Edition, a teacher, referring to teacher preparation, was quoted as saying, “There is too much theory and not enough practical experience. We need to know about Vygotsky, but it’s much better to examine his ideas in practice in a classroom.” The following week (in the same publication) another teacher, again referring to teacher preparation, said, “We were told that a good lesson plan solves everything. I learned very quickly that this isn’t true.”

Over the course of my career I have had the pleasure and honor of working with teacher educators from all over the country. These educators work in teacher preparation programs that are in university-based settings as well as in alternative programs, like Teach for America. I have also had the honor and pleasure of meeting and working with practicing teachers of every grade and subject area from all over the country as well. Those two statements, allegedly posed by the teachers and quoted by the Department of Education, left me wondering: Where were those teachers prepared? Certainly not in any of the quality teacher preparation programs in the country.

Perhaps the programs those teachers completed taught too much theory at the expense of practice, and perhaps one misinformed teacher educator made a statement about a lesson plan solving all problems that one of his or her students remembered (and was later quoted in The Teachers Edition). However, theory-laden preparation programs and misguided teacher educators are not indicative of all programs and all teacher educators.

I am painfully aware of ineffective teacher preparation programs - those programs whose main mission is to generate revenue for other programs or for their for-profit enterprise, and focus on convenience for students over quality of their education. I am also painfully aware of the historically low status that teacher preparation holds in the world of academia. Regardless, it is important to recognize that there are very good programs out there that are preparing the excellent teachers we need for the next generation of schools. And, importantly, some programs have transformed the way they prepare teachers. There is not enough room to discuss all the ways in which teacher preparation is transforming, but I will mention two of the most notable trends.

  1. Residency models of teacher preparation are increasing - Residency programs in Boston, Denver, Seattle, Texas Tech University, and my own institution, Arizona State University, have substantially increased the amount of time students in preparation programs spend in classrooms. The traditional model of student teaching where a student spends 8 to 15 weeks in a classroom at the end of their training program is still around, but it is certainly not the only way that teachers are being trained any more. Residency models require students to spend an entire school year with specially trained mentor teachers. Teacher candidates (aka student teachers) are completely embedded in schools for a year and leave with a realistic view of teaching. As teacher educators in these programs can attest, not all students are able to complete the residency programs because they cannot handle the rigor. These programs are difficult. And as school district personnel have stated, graduates of a residency program, like the one at Arizona State, are so prepared that in their first year they are more like second year teachers than rookies.
  2. Silos are coming down - The most important aspect of transforming teacher preparation does not involve punishing faculty or imposing selectivity or admission requirements. It does not involve scrutinizing syllabi or requiring more or less phonics instruction, or more or fewer standards. The most important component of transforming teacher preparation involves changing the culture of the program to allow for the formation of alliances with others who are outside of the program. That is, colleges, schools, and departments of teacher education form mutually beneficial partnerships with PreK-12 schools, school districts, community colleges, other colleges and departments within the university, community organizations, and even with alternative programs like Teach for America. In other words, teacher preparation programs are not in silos.

Mutually beneficial partnerships are the key to transforming teacher preparation and do not refer to simple collaboration between groups. These partnerships allow faculty from Education to work with faculty in Arts & Sciences in a spirit of mutual respect and with a common vision for the kind of teachers we want. They work together to create relevant courses in the content areas that prospective teachers will take.

Mutually beneficial partnerships allow for schools and preparation programs to share a common vision for the kind of schools and teachers we all want, and then work together to create those teachers. Schools benefit from the teacher candidates working with K-12 students, from access to university expertise and resources, and from professional development offered by university faculty. Preparation programs benefit from the opportunity to allow for students to be trained in the schools, from access to school data that scholars can use to enhance and understand teaching and teacher preparation, and from ongoing communication that continually gives teacher education faculty realistic perspectives of schools.

If these two ways seems idealistic, come and visit Arizona State or Texas Tech or one of the many other programs around the country that are actually implementing these changes. Visit the programs that are breaking down silos to prepare excellent teachers. In fact, visit any teacher preparation program and learn exactly what they are doing to prepare teachers. While it is true that some programs are not effective and are badly in need of reform, not all of them should be subjected to the same criticisms. All teacher preparation programs are not the same, and now is a good time for the best of them to be heard.

Maybe then we will read a quote from a teacher about his or her teacher preparation experience in The Teachers Edition who, like me, will be able to say, “I love my job and was well prepared for teaching.

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.