With the early-education field continuing to grow nationally, it’s increasingly clear that the key to good programs is teacher quality. Unlike in K-12 education, however, there aren’t standard entry requirements for preschool staff members, and debate continues over how best to build an effective workforce for early education. Some advocate for requiring bachelor’s degrees in education, assuming that postsecondary teacher preparation will produce high-quality preschool teachers. But the quality of traditionally prepared K-12 teachers is extremely uneven—especially in schools enrolling low-income and minority children—so that’s a big and unwarranted leap of faith. Conventional teacher training comes with a lot of baggage, and relying on it to prepare early educators would be a mistake.
As a recent reminder of this, Robert Pianta, the dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, published an opinion piece in The Washington Post in February on the urgent need for accountability in teacher preparation. His essay underscores the fact that education degrees do not necessarily lead to teacher effectiveness—and that education professors are resistant to making sure that they do. As Pianta wrote, “I am embarrassed that professionals responsible for the preparation of teachers seem to oppose so adamantly efforts to evaluate the competence of the workforce they produce.”
Pianta’s lament was prompted by education professors’ wholesale rejection of a new federal regulation proposed by the Obama administration in December, which would evaluate the quality of teacher-preparation programs based on their success in producing competent teachers. (More than 1,500 members of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education submitted comments in opposition.) The proposed regulations, in turn, were prompted by years of growing evidence that the teacher education industry has done an inadequate job of preparing teachers to be effective in public schools. In fact, Arthur E. Levine, a former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, wrote in the Huffington Post last fall that “ensuring a strong pipeline of well-prepared teachers” is only possible by “transforming teacher preparation as we know it.”
Unfortunately, transforming teacher preparation is no easy task. The nation’s 1,130 teacher-training institutions are big business, serving as “cash cows” for colleges and universities across the country. Education departments award one out of every 12 bachelor’s degrees and more than a quarter of all master’s degrees. But while these programs grant a lot of degrees, Levine found in the major 2006 study of the field, “Educating School Teachers,” that “teacher education in the United States is principally a mix of poor and mediocre programs.” On most campuses, he wrote, “teacher education is regarded by university professors and administrators inside and outside the education school as one of the poorest-quality campus units.” He found this to be particularly true for programs training teachers for younger grades.
Conventional teacher training comes with a lot of baggage, and relying on it to prepare early educators would be a mistake.”
A 2011 Thomas B. Fordham Institute study by Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett found that half of all education professors themselves think that “‘teacher education programs often fail to prepare teachers for the challenges of teaching in the real world.” That same year, the Obama administration issued “Our Future, Our Teachers,” a report declaring that “while there are shining examples of strong programs throughout the country, too many of our teacher-preparation programs fall short.” In 2013, the National Council on Teacher Quality published “Teacher Prep Review,” an exhaustive study of the nation’s teacher education programs, concluding that teacher preparation is “an industry of mediocrity.”
Educators, too, share this negative outlook. Levine’s study, funded by the Annenberg, Ford, and Ewing Marion Kauffman foundations, found that more than three in five teachers report that their education degrees did not prepare them for “classroom realities.” Barely a third of principals think education schools are doing very or moderately well at preparing teachers overall. Only 16 percent believe they prepare teachers to address the needs of students with limited English proficiency.
The bottom line is that the teacher education establishment does not adequately prepare teachers, and real reform is nowhere in sight. Thanks to years of lobbying from education schools, regulations mandating education degrees for K-12 teachers are deeply embedded in state laws. A handful of alternative-certification programs have sprung up as an education school workaround, but the K-12 sector remains heavily burdened by the daunting task of “fixing” teacher education, on top of its core business of educating more than 50 million children.
Early education, on the other hand, is starting with a clean and unencumbered slate. This is the right time to make crucial, carefully considered decisions about how teachers should be prepared to educate very young children. The route predictably promoted by education schools and the teachers’ unions is to require preschool teachers to get degrees in education. Yet that approach would fail to produce a high-quality workforce and unnecessarily bind the emerging early-education sector to the dysfunctional teacher-preparation industry. Instead, early education should seize this moment to build a better way of preparing its teachers from the ground up, by creating innovative, well-designed new pathways into the profession. The latter approach will require investing more time and attention in the short run, but will pay big dividends for the field going forward.
A version of this article appeared in the May 06, 2015 edition of Education Week as Making Early Education Work: Train Teachers in New Ways