Teaching Profession Opinion

Teacher Quality and the Question of Preparation

By Barnett Berry — October 18, 2005 8 min read
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It is time to get over the battle between teacher education and alternative certification.

The recent federal foray into improving teacher quality has been anything but a success. In just a few months, state and district education officials will have to meet the deadline of the No Child Left Behind Act’s mandates on “highly qualified” teachers. Reports from both sides of the political aisle are discouraging, with some suggesting that the law has only increased the stranglehold of the education establishment on teacher education and certification, while others lament the lack of resources necessary to recruit and support teachers who know how to teach. The bottom line is that when it comes to teaching quality, we have not mustered the fortitude to create and enforce high standards, demand rigorous preparation, provide necessary support and resources, and offer professional compensation. Instead, we keep looking for the silver bullet that can solve our problems—especially in the current fight over how to recruit and train teachers.

All too often, the national conversation about the quality of teaching disintegrates into debates over the federal definition of the “highly qualified” teacher, or whether or not the research on teacher education and certification supports policies that require teachers to be prepared and licensed before they begin to teach. The discussion sinks into an abyss of false dichotomies over teacher education and alternative certification. Do we prepare more career-oriented, professionally prepared teachers, or recruit academically able college graduates from prestigious universities who will teach for only a few years but are willing to fill vacancies in our nation’s hardest-to-staff schools? Do we prepare teachers before they begin teaching, or just find good ones and place them quickly in classrooms to combat significant teacher shortages?

This rancorous debate becomes a contest between those who want to protect the current teacher education monopoly owned by university faculties, and those who want to jettison the traditional teacher preparation provided by slow-moving colleges of education and out-of-touch professors. All too often, this is played out as university-based education schools vs. Teach for America.

Teach for America is a well-known and well-heeled program that annually attracts 2,000 young, bright graduates from some of the nation’s best colleges, gives them a crash course in teaching skills, and then sends them off to teach for up to two years in some of America’s most challenging urban and rural schools. While they are teaching, most TFA recruits are also enrolled in local teacher education programs; most leave the profession, however, when their two-year stints are up. The program’s appeal to college students looking for a postcollege job is clear. Last year 17,000 college graduates applied for the program, including no fewer than 12 percent of Yale’s graduating seniors. Only one in eight TFA applicants were selected for the program. With our public schools needing to hire 200,000 new teachers annually, why not TFA?

—Bob Soulé


The good news is that the program has attracted academically able, energetic young adults and infused them into schools that desperately need their passion and idealism. In some anecdotal cases, TFA alums have done wonderful work, and have contributed significantly to their schools. And I would be the first to praise the program for finding and placing bright individuals in some of America’s most challenging schools.

But the research on TFA, unlike what is usually touted in the popular press, does not support the enthusiasm the program often generates among policymakers. This is especially true when it comes to the vexing problems of staffing high-need schools in America’s urban and rural communities. Journalists are apt to cite the 2004 study conducted by Mathematica Policy Research Inc., which suggested that students of Teach for America recruits got better results in math and the same gains in reading as did those of other new teachers. But most alternative-certification advocates ignore the fact that the study’s 41 TFA recruits were compared with other teachers who were, remarkably, even more underprepared, with fewer being certified or having had student-teaching than members of the TFA group themselves. Perhaps most notably, the students of both TFA teachers and their non-TFA counterparts performed abysmally. Another study, drawing on extensive data from Houston, recently found that between 57 percent and 90 percent of TFA recruits had left teaching after their second year, and between 72 percent and 100 percent had left after their third year. All of this is a sad commentary on the extent to which many urban and rural districts that hire TFA recruits have lowered standards for teachers of low-income and minority students.

Ultimately, the TFA model—recruiting each year a small group of young people who enter teaching on a short-term basis with zeal but little training—cannot provide the kind of teaching our most disadvantaged students need and deserve. No one will deny that public schools need more teachers who come from the top of their class and from our most competitive colleges. But schools also need teachers who know how and why children learn and how to make increasingly difficult material more understandable, useful, and engaging. And they need teachers who will stay in the profession, rather than adding to the regular turnover that undermines the stability of urban and rural schools and costs them many thousands of dollars for each teacher who leaves.

To be sure, teacher education in our nation’s colleges and universities is very much a mixed bag, and the criticism leveled against it is justified. Teacher education often has not served future teachers well because of the disconnections between what they are taught—in both the arts and sciences and education departments—and the needs of K-12 schools. Traditional preparation programs draw too little upon the talents of master teachers, such as those certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Education schools have had few incentives to attract top-flight faculty candidates, and, in research universities, pressures to publish or perish have led to insufficient attention to real schools and the opportunities for work inside them.

Moreover, traditional preparation has not served future teachers and school communities well because of the lack of universitywide investments, especially in the kind of clinical preparation commonly found in other helping professions, such as medicine and nursing.

No one will deny that public schools need more teachers who come from the top of their class and competitive colleges. But schools also need teachers who know how and why children learn and will stay in the profession.

Teacher education does, however, have some stunning exemplars, which are often unknown or ignored. One such highly effective program is at the University of California, Los Angeles. Center X is designed to attract academically able students to a two-year course of study that prepares them to radically improve urban schooling for California’s racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse children. In this postbaccalaureate program, students with majors in other content areas take a full load of courses and student-teaching in their first year. The second year is a residency. Each participant is paid to work as a teaching assistant in a school while completing coursework and a teaching portfolio. An ongoing assessment of the program reveals that only 10 percent of graduates leave teaching after three years, compared with about 50 percent of other teachers in urban schools.

In Chicago, the Academy for Urban School Leadership has designed an alternative-route program that attracts nontraditional candidates without sacrificing quality. The AUSL offers a $30,000 salary and a tuition-free Master of Arts in Teaching degree program to talented recent college graduates and midcareer professionals who agree to teach in the city’s schools. Recruits are expected to complete a 12-month leadership-development and teacher-preparation program that includes graduate-level coursework and a 10-month teaching residency, working under the tutelage of expert teachers in high-need schools. A new study shows that the students of AUSL graduates outperform similar students taught by other new teachers in the Chicago schools.

Don’t get me wrong. Our toughest schools need the idealism and energy of Teach for America corps members or other bright alternative-route candidates. But they also need new recruits who not only are well-prepared, but also are willing and able to stay long enough—at least five years—to make a difference in the lives of the students and communities they serve.

So what should we do to take the UCLA and Chicago models to scale?

First, Congress needs to pass legislation that will pay for scholarships for at least 40,000 bright college students (and midcareer job-switchers) to get serious preparation for teaching—and then provide incentives for these prospective teachers to stay on the job for not one or two years, but at least five. TFA corps members would be excellent candidates for these competitive scholarships. We do not and should not expect all of them to stay in teaching for 30 years, but our low-performing schools need them around long enough to make a difference.

Second, federal and state policymakers need to find the resources that will enable us to use highly accomplished teachers (such as those who are nationally certified) to mentor beginning teachers. Studies have shown that national-board-certified teachers produce higher student-achievement gains than their colleagues without such certification. Despite this, however, they remain an untapped resource in overhauling the preparation and support of novice teachers.

The nation also needs to invest in some of our most challenging urban and rural schools by turning them into the equivalent of teaching hospitals. Borrowing from the medical model, our most forward-moving education schools, along with nearby districts, have been trying to recruit and prepare new teachers differently, and in ways research has shown will make a difference. Studies indicate that these professional-development schools improve student achievement while transforming teacher education programs. Because professional-development schools require new funding by federal and state governments, however, as well as new priorities by university presidents, they remain mostly just a good idea, and have yet to be taken to scale.

It is time to get over the battle between teacher education and alternative certification. In 1969, America was able to find the resources, technical know-how, and political resolve to send astronauts to the moon. Thirty-six years later, it’s high time our nation mustered the dollars and the will to ensure that every student in our public schools is taught by caring, qualified, well-supported, and effective teachers.

A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2005 edition of Education Week as Teacher Quality and the Question of Preparation


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