Top-Performing Countries Give Teachers Deeper Training in Elementary Content

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 19, 2016 4 min read
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U.S. elementary-grade teachers get far less training than teachers in high-achieving countries for deep understanding of the foundational math, reading, and science content they teach.

A new report on primary school teacher quality released this morning by the Center on International Education Benchmarking finds high-performing education systems in Japan, Finland, Hong Kong, and Shanghai have very different approaches to elementary-level teacher training. But all of their teacher-education systems focus more than U.S. programs do on pedagogical content knowledge—deep foundational understanding of both basic concepts and how people understand them at different ages and developmental levels.

“A lot of people look at Finland and say they make their teachers have master’s degrees, and so what we should do is make teachers have master’s degrees,” said Ben Jensen, author of the study, “Not So Elementary.” “But what is key there is what is taught there.”

A new teacher candidate in Finland, for example, is given a copy of the elementary school curriculum, he said; the training over four years gives teachers deep understanding of the specific content they will teach at each grade and subject "... and all the possible questions and misunderstandings students might have about that curriculum.”

The report noted that many U.S. preservice education programs have teachers continue to take higher math courses, such as calculus, rather than focusing on building pedagogical knowledge of the math they will be teaching. For example, a general U.S. college graduate may understand that 1 2/3 is equal to 5/3 and prove that it is true, but may not predict that students may confuse the numerator and denominator when converting the fractions, or decide which of a set of fractions would be the most challenging problems for a particular student.

In comparison to the four international systems studied, U.S. teacher education programs require lower levels of initial content knowledge in foundational reading, math, and science for teacher candidates, the report finds. The training programs also dedicate less course time to training teachers in the content they will teach (in part because curriculum can vary significantly from state to state) and teacher licensure exams do not include as difficult questions on content pedagogy as those in top-performing countries.

“The actual GPA of [U.S. teacher education] program entrants is 3.0,” said Sharon Robinson, the president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, during a briefing on the report. “If the college work is not adequately rigorous in the institution and will not produce candidates who know in a way that will help them teach ... GPA is only one part of the selection process and I don’t think it will get us all the way there.”

Though he was not connected with the report, Lee Shulman, a professor emeritus at Stanford University and president emeritus of the Carnegie Center for the Advancement of Teaching, agreed that countries that outperform the United States often integrate content classes for preservice teachers with instruction in how to teach that content, from the very beginning of their college degree program.

“In American higher education, it is very rare—except for perhaps nursing and engineering —for people to begin knowing what they are majoring in professionally and starting that work immediately,” Shulman said. “Something like 40 percent of future teachers did not begin their professional degree at a four-year university, but at a community college.”

Robinson also pointed to Hong Kong, which uses a corps of its most experienced and effective teachers to induct new teachers starting their careers. Programs like this and ongoing “lesson study” professional development in Japan help active teachers continue to refine their understanding of the best ways to teach specific content.

Building on Our Own Best Practices

How do top-performing countries develop the teacher training that helps their students rocket past American students on global tests like the Program for International Student Assessment?

Ironically, in many cases, international officials learned those practices from American schools and research, using effective approaches that U.S. schools already have—but haven’t scaled up, according to Marc Tucker, the president and chief executive officer of the National Center on Education and the Economy, to which the international center belongs.

“They told us they go to our peaks of excellence,” Tucker told me in an interview. “That could be individual programs or practitioners. We have research worth paying attention to, practitioners who are doing innovative things, some very good policies—but no effective system for taking it to scale.”

Gary Sykes, a senior research director for the Educational Testing Service’s Understanding Teacher Quality Center, said researchers don’t know enough about the actual curriculum in teacher education programs or which parts are most effective in helping teachers once they are in the classroom.

“It’s a highly variable enterprise and we don’t know to what extent teacher education programs are already focusing on pedagogical content knowledge,” Sykes said. “One implication of this report is that we need to take a closer look at exemplar programs in this country who are already doing this work.”


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.