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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teacher Preparation Opinion

Are Teacher-Prep Programs Out of Touch?

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 09, 2022 15 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series.)

The new question of the week is:

What do you think many teacher-credentialing programs should be teaching that they might not be doing now?

Today, PJ Caposey, Keisha Rembert, Stephanie Smith Budhai, Ph.D., Jasmine M. Wilhelm, and Jeffrey Wilhelm share their responses.

My personal response relates less to what is or isn’t being taught and more to who is doing most of the teaching in many of these programs.

From what I can tell, a large majority of instructors in many credentialing programs have not taught full time in a K-12 classroom for many years. I’m not suggesting that they cannot necessarily still provide valuable insights, but I think balancing this with instruction from those with real-time day-to-day experience is critical to adequately prepare teachers for today’s schools, particularly with the challenges of COVID-19 and attacks on culturally responsive pedagogy and support for LGBTQ students (and teachers).

That’s true for most if not all professions. For instance, I was a community organizer for 19 years prior to becoming a teacher. I’m confident that experience, along with my continuing connection to the field through teachers’ union work and time spent on social-justice issues, would equip me to be able to share many useful observations with those who might want to enter the field.

But organizing novices would be shortchanged without getting instruction and support from an active organizer—even if they were also getting mentored day-to-day by one, similar to what happens with student-teachers today.

Of course, it would not be easy for active K-12 teachers to find the time needed to teach classes in credentialing programs. I did it for three years and discovered it was not sustainable—at least for me.

But I do think creating the conditions for this change to happen in many credentialing programs is critical for future teachers and their students.

‘Assessment Literacy’

PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, keynote speaker, consultant, and author of seven books who currently serves as the superintendent of schools for the nationally recognized Meridian CUSD 223 school district in northwest Illinois. You can find PJ on most social-media platforms as MCUSDSupe:

When I am driving to work before the sun rises, I often think about how I would redesign education given the chance, the resources, and the authority. As I think through the complexity that is educational redesign, I always arrive back to the same core concepts. I find myself attempting to answer the question of what students truly need when they leave our schools. If we can find that solution, then we can surely backward design an educational experience to best prepare teachers to help execute that mission. When I examine the problem through that lens, I see four key elements that need a dramatic shift in teacher-credentialing programs.

  • Maslow before (and) Bloom

The role of schools continues to evolve as we remain the primary, and in some cases, the only social-service support to a great number of our students. As such, and with the developing needs our students are documented to have, it is no longer an option but a necessity to have the skills needed to support the social-emotional health of students before we are compelled to push educational gains.

To that end, the saying that has been popularized in this pursuit is “Maslow before Bloom.” This makes the assumption that we are focusing on pushing critical-thinking skills as Bloom’s Taxonomy calls for. What I have seen repeatedly in schools across this county is an inordinate amount of time spent at the lower levels of Bloom (or Webb’s DOK) instead of forcing kids to think critically every hour of every day.

  • Neuroscience

The level at which neuroscience is progressing is astounding. As we learn more about how kids learn, shouldn’t this be a focus for teacher training? Since brain-based strategies have become more popularized, I can assure you that the majority of new teacher candidates that we have hosted as student-teachers or interviewed for placements have not made this a focus of their practice.

Said simply, once we know better, we should be compelled to do better. I believe that we are about to know much better when it comes to how the young brain learns, and, therefore, we should strive to do better.

  • Reading and Writing

Somewhere in the pedagogical training that most middle school level and high school level teachers have received the fact that they are primarily reading and writing teachers has been lost. Outside of mathematics (and even an argument can be made there), all subjects and all teachers are teachers of reading and writing. Without this focus, everything becomes about content. When we focus on content over demonstration of skills, we are almost forcing ourselves into a corner in which is it increasingly difficult to teach higher-order thinking skills.

  • Assessment Literacy

I love teachers. I am a teacher at heart. But almost every teacher I have ever met complains when tests are written for them but still hates to write their own assessments. It is a wonderful situation we have ourselves backed into.

This said, the reason most educators do not like writing assessments is because they do not know how to do so effectively. I do not believe teachers are reluctant to engage in the process for any other reason. As such, I think the level and sophistication of training must shift in order to help alleviate this problem.

Lastly, the reason this is so vitally important is that once we have better assessments, we will have a greater depth of instruction in order to match the demand of the assessment. Instruction does not drive the assessment. It is the opposite. Thus, in order to ramp up the intensity of the instruction, we need to increase the effectiveness and complexity of the assessment.


‘Teach for Liberation’

Keisha Rembert is an award-winning educator who is passionate about anti-racism and equity in schools. Currently, Keisha is a doctoral student and an assistant professor of teacher preparation at National Louis University:

Education programs must show they value Indigenious, Black, Chicano/Latino scholars and scholarship and are invested in educational equity to disrupt status quo teaching that only serves to preserve whiteness and leaves students and teacher candidates without a place to explore teaching for real change.

Few education preparation programs offer students insights on changing the school systems—only maintaining it. There is a gap in teacher education programs with regard to equity and its classroom application. Every teacher-preparation program should offer a sequence of equity courses like Understanding Cultural and Racial Identities, the History of Educational Access, Advocating for Equity, and Understanding Curricular and Technology Equity with coursework focusing on how to build equitable systems. Identifying and admiring the equity problems in education are not enough; programs need to be offering abolitionist-teaching frameworks taking teacher candidates from theory to action in educational spaces. With an understanding of equitable actions/liberatory teaching application, teacher candidates can avoid perpetuating curricular violence.

Education programs must model what it means to teach for liberation and how to disrupt inequity itself. With a teaching pool on the college level where 75 percent of the faculty identify as white, schools of education are themselves part of the problem rather than the solution. They are robbing teacher candidates of the expertise, scholarship, and advocacy of racialized faculty. This is evident in the lack of course development in pursuit of equity and liberation and a dwindling number of racialized students entering into education programs to pursue teaching.


Exploring ‘Potential Bias’

Stephanie Smith Budhai, Ph.D., has a decade of experience as a teacher educator and is a former K-12 teacher. She is the co-author of Increasing Engagement in Online Learning, Teaching the 4Cs with Technology, and the forthcoming books, Leveraging Digital Tools to Assess Student Learning and Culturally Responsive Teaching Online and In-Person: An Action Planner for Dynamic Equitable Learning Environments:

Teacher education and credentialing programs must move forward with preparing preservice teachers to effectively and efficiently teach students who come from diverse and varied backgrounds within a wide variety of flexible learning settings. Gone are days of traditional content and teaching-methods courses using the same pedagogical practices that have been used over the last century.

Teacher-credentialing programs must support preservice teachers in developing the knowledge, awareness, and skills required to teach students who are dealing with trauma, whether it be racial, financial, social, or other. Many of the textbook and course materials that teacher-credentialing programs continue to use were written from one perspective of the dominant culture, while silencing the voices of other groups.

Teacher-credentialing programs must help preservice teachers explore potential bias that they might bring to the classroom and show them how to use culturally responsive teaching pedagogy in their teaching—by modeling for them, engaging in difficult discussions about the impact of systemic and institutionalized racism on schools, and showing them how to use curriculum and instruction to empower their students to be the best learners they can be.

Teacher-credentialing programs should also teach preservice teachers using the same methods that they will be expected to employ when they enter their own classroom. This means that we cannot ask students to demonstrate their learning through only multiple-choice tests and written paper assignments.

Teacher-credentialing programs need to incorporate podcasting, vlogging, and project-based learning into teacher education courses. Technology-specific courses should move beyond the integration of specific ed-tech tools and focus on P-12 teaching in online, hybrid, and dual-audience learning environments. Instead of teaching preservice teachers what Universal Design for Learning is, embed the tenets of it into the fabric of teacher-credentialing programs. Provide preservice teachers with multiple ways to access course content. This can include live and record lectures, inspiring TedTalks, and infographic visuals. Engage preservice teachers in different ways beyond the discussion board or in-class discussions or build in team projects and allow time for inquiry.

Performance-based assessments, which mirror many teacher-certification exams, should be embedded into teacher-credentialing programs. Preservice teachers should be able to practice having to pivot instruction to meet the needs of students in person and online, to teach in flexible learning modalities, and to differentiate instruction as needed. As future teachers who will go on to teach students to be successful in a world where the careers that they will land in may not yet exist, we have to teach preservice teachers how to incorporate soft skills such as the 4Cs (critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity) into their classes and learn from a growth mindset, in order to provide their students with deeper, innovative, and value-added learning experiences.


‘Deliberate Practice’

Jasmine (Jazzy) M. Wilhelm is a fourth-year teacher and a fellow of the Boise State Writing Project.

Jeffrey D. Wilhelm is her father, a Distinguished Professor of Literacy Education at Boise State University and the author of the recent Planning Powerful Instruction, grades 2-5; grades 6-12 from Corwin Publishers.

Jazzy: The major issue with my program was the lack of consistent and helpful mentoring. Of my three mentors, only one was empowering and supportive—helping me process how to enact my educational values. The other two did not help me into the knowing, thinking, doing, or being of a competent teacher. They weren’t prepared or supported in mentoring; they just told me what to teach and how, without any dialogue. They often left me alone implementing someone else’s plans. I felt quite alone through student-teaching and my early career.

Jeff: I know from research into situated cognition and about teacher preparation that people learn to teach in real situations, not from methods classes, so mentoring that inducts you into the profession is of paramount importance. We had a three-year grant program that tried to address this common problem.

We teamed up teachers with student-teachers for four semesters. The first semester we got to know each other and shared some basic strategies of thinking partnership, like deep listening and mirroring, and providing procedural feedback. After self-selecting partners, one mentor worked with one student-teacher for the next three semesters.

There was another partnership in the same school/district that also collaborated with them. This provided multiple levels of support: from me as the university supervisor, from the larger group that met monthly for the two years of mentorship, from the thinking partnership itself, and from the other team in the same school or district. We guided each other first through the process of co-planning and co-teaching, required in semester one; then in reciprocal mentoring and co-planning units pursued in semester two; then in teacher research and reflection, completed during student-teaching. The mentor team was supported in joint productive activity at every stage: working together in planning lessons and units, delivering them, reflecting and doing action research on the teaching, then revising plans for the future. In every case, the mentoring continued through early career because of the strong relationships formed. It solved the kinds of problems you had with mentoring.

Jazzy: My first few years, I felt unprepared to plan units. My program focused on the elements of a lesson plan, and we practiced delivering highly structured single lessons, but we didn’t practice how to string lessons together into coherent units nor how to differentiate. I had lots of strategies but didn’t know how to put them into coherent units or how to adapt them to individuals or small groups.

Jeff: Unit planning is the primary form of knowledge that teachers create, and units need to flexibly meet the needs of unique groups. Research shows that unit planning is an area of struggle for teachers at all experience levels. That’s why we developed the EMPOWER model of unit design that captures what is known from across the learning sciences (motivation, optimal experience, effective teaching, development of expertise, etc.) and operationalizes it (Wilhelm, et al. 2020).

First, develop tools to envision major goals and map a lesson sequence taking students from where they are to where they must go to meet the goals. Then prime learners by activating prior interests and knowledge that are necessary resources to the new learning, orient learners by setting relevant purposes and payoffs, apply the crux move of walk-through or apprenticeship into new ways of knowing, thinking and doing—including ways to differentiate, extend to support applying learning to new situations, including reflection throughout. Here’s how EMPOWER works and reflects research such as Anders Ericsson’s (2016) into the kinds of deliberate practice that develop real-world expertise.


(Image by Jeffrey D. Wilhelm)

Jazzy: I wish I had known about EMPOWER to sequence and differentiate when I started teaching. I learned about it in graduate courses, and it has helped me to see the moves I need to make as a teacher in each unit and in what order. Having a framework like this has helped me design units that are engaging, relevant, and serve student understanding instead of leaving me to re-create what I experienced as a high school student. I wish I could have jointly planned and co-taught units so that I wasn’t alone in my reflections and had someone to process and learn from and with. That’s what apprenticeship into a profession should look like, right?

Jeff: Copy that!

Ericsson, A., & Poole, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. New York, NY: Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt.

Wilhelm, J., Bear, R. & Fachler, A. (2020). Planning Powerful Instruction: 7 Must Make Moves of Effective Instruction, 6-12 (also a 2-5 version). Thousand Oaks: Corwin.


Thanks to PJ, Keisha, Stephanie, Jasmine, and Jeffrey for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.


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