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Paper Calls for Focus on High School Teachers

By Catherine Gewertz — November 04, 2009 4 min read
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If high school students are to master the skills and knowledge they need to do well in college or good jobs, their teachers need to be up to the task. And that will require revamping teacher-training programs, according to a paper released last week.

In a brief called “Teaching for a New World,” the Alliance for Excellent Education calls on colleges of education to step up their training in adolescent literacy to ensure that all teacher-candidates are well versed not only in the subjects they intend to teach, but also in the reading-comprehension and writing strategies necessary for those subjects.

The alliance, a Washington-based group that focuses on improving high schools, also urges teacher-training programs to do better at producing teachers who have both deep knowledge of the content they teach and mastery of the best pedagogical approaches to teaching that material. That instructional challenge is colored by the age group of the students.

“This quality separates the biologist from the biology teacher, and the writer from the English-language-arts teacher,” the report says of that dual requirement. “The understanding of what makes learning various topics within a discipline easy or difficult for an adolescent requires not only understanding the facts and concepts of that discipline, but also knowing how to help students learn and understand that discipline.”

Arthur E. Levine, a former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, and a sharp critic of teacher-preparation programs, said the report’s emphasis on content knowledge and sound pedagogy is well timed, since schools have difficulty finding teachers with strong training in mathematics, science, special education, and the education of English-language learners.

“That’s important at all [grade] levels, but particularly at the high school level,” said Mr. Levine, who is now the president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, based in Princeton, N.J.

Changing Expectations

Secondary School Skills

The Alliance for Excellent Education is calling for teacher-preparation programs to do a better job of preparing high school instructors to build college- and career-readiness skills in all students. The organization urges such programs to ensure that all secondary-level teacher candidates know how to:

• Work with diverse learners, including those learning English and special education students;

• Teach literacy skills in all subject areas;

• Effectively use assessment and data to shape teaching and learning;

• Teach in high-need schools, such as those in urban or rural areas; and

• Convey content knowledge to students in an understandable manner, tailored to the academic discipline.

SOURCE: Alliance for Excellent Education

A focus on training high school teachers is necessary because they, more often than elementary teachers, say they were inadequately prepared to do their jobs well, according to the report.

Defining how high school teachers should be trained is also particularly important now, it says, because the marketplace demands higher-level skills from all students, not just those perceived to be most able. That means teachers must be able to hold all students from all backgrounds and skill levels, to high standards.

“Expectations of teachers have changed dramatically,” the paper’s author, Marcy Miller, said in an e-mail. “They now are responsible for ensuring all students—not just a subset—graduate from high school ready for college and careers. Yet, while the job of teaching has changed, in many cases, the preparation of teacher-candidates has not. Too many high school educators are walking into the classroom on their first day as the teacher of record without the skills they need.”

Tom Carroll, the president of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, welcomed the report’s emphasis on ensuring that high school teachers can teach literacy across the disciplines, and that they have strong pedagogical as well as content-area skills. But he said that teachers aspiring to work at the secondary level also must be better versed in collaborating across subjects, and in using digital media in their instruction.

“We can’t expect students to develop 21st-century competencies unless their teachers have those and use them in their practice,” he said.

The report recommends improving teacher training in other areas to ensure that high school students are ready for college and careers—such as preparing prospective teachers to use data to guide instruction and to teach students with widely varying needs and skills—but most of those recommendations have also been widely advocated for teachers of lower grades. The report notes that there is little research exploring the specialized types of preparation high school teachers need to ensure their students’ success.

Likewise, the Alliance for Excellent Education urges federal policymakers to “take bolder action” in support of improving teacher preparation so that all high-school-level teacher-candidates are ready to “provide students with a college- and career-ready education from their first day in the classroom.” But most of its recommendations are as applicable to the training of K-8 teachers as they are to that of high school teachers.

They include closing bad training programs and building data systems that can inform teaching practice by tracking how students are doing later on. They also include a suggestion that federal officials encourage development of a common set of performance standards to which teachers would be held, rather than simply presuming that with the right education school courses and field experiences they will be ready to be good teachers.

Mr. Levine applauded the report’s proposed shift in thinking about teacher effectiveness from inputs to “outputs,” saying it represented a “revolution” in thinking about teacher training.

A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as H.S. Teachers Said to Need Better Training

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