Opinion
Teacher Preparation Opinion

What Is the Role of Teacher Education?

By C. Emily Feistritzer — February 22, 2011 6 min read

How critical is a teacher-preparation program in determining the future effectiveness of a teacher? Evidence is mounting that the answer is “not very.”

The drumbeat surrounding the ongoing teacher education debate ratcheted up several notches with the recent announcement that the National Council on Teacher Quality, or NCTQ, and U.S. News & World Report are teaming up to investigate some 1,400 teacher education programs in the United States. They intend to grade the programs on whether they meet the standards of good teacher education that the NCTQ has defined as “research based.” Their plan is to come out with a report that could revolutionize teacher education much the way the Flexner Report is said to have revolutionized medical education nearly a century ago. (“Teacher-Quality Group to Revamp Education School Review,” February 23, 2011.)

See Also

For another perspective on NCTQ and U.S. News & World Report‘s entrance into teacher-preparation evaluation, read “Evaluating the Evaluators,” February 23, 2011.

At least 1,800 traditional and alternative programs prepare teachers for initial certification to teach in this country. They vary greatly in size, as well as requirements for entry, instructional courses, clinical experiences, assessments, exit requirements, and who administers them. What is not so well known is that it doesn’t seem to matter which one a prospective teacher goes through to get certified to teach in any given state. And several recent studies have concluded that effective teaching does not correlate directly with the type of preparation or certification program.

And then there are the data from teachers themselves concerning what they think about their teacher-preparation programs.

The National Center for Education Information, the private organization I head, is currently wrapping up its fifth survey of K-12 teachers. The survey asks teachers a number of questions about their preparation programs, one of which is: “Overall, how would you rate the teacher-preparation program you went through?” Nine out of 10 teachers believe their preparation program was good or better. The same percentage think that “completion of a teacher-preparation program” is a good measurement for determining if a teacher is qualified to teach, and that they would recommend theirs.

It doesn’t seem to matter how old teachers are, how many years of experience they have in the classroom, where they teach, how many education courses they took, how much clinical experience they had, or the type of teacher-preparation program they went through. Their responses are the same. They thought their certification programs prepared them well, and they would recommend them.

These survey results certainly dampen the argument that there is a “best” way to prepare individuals for the occupation of teaching. Teachers report in survey after survey that what has been most valuable to them in developing competence to teach are their actual teaching experiences, their work with other teachers and colleagues, and life experiences in general—in that order. Courses in education methods, college faculty, and professional-development activities are far down the list.

What needs to happen to ensure that every student in America is taught by an effective teacher? Certainly not spending more time, energy, and money to get traditional colleges of teacher education to provide information about their programs with the anticipated outcome that several of them will get D’s and F’s and the media will raise such an uproar that they will be shut down.

Why all the uproar over colleges of education? They are a big enterprise. Some have even called them the “cash cows” of the postsecondary education system.

Teachers report in survey after survey that what has been most valuable to them in developing competence to teach are their actual teaching experiences."

Data from the U.S. Department of Education show that in 2008, 2,034 postsecondary institutions conferred a total of 300,192 education degrees; 1,202 of these institutions conferred 102,642 bachelor’s degrees in education. Of these, the 25 largest institutions grant 15 percent of all education bachelor’s degrees; 149 institutions account for half the total; and 305 institutions account for 70 percent of the total. But counting education degrees does not translate into numbers of teachers.

Data from the Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study, or B&B, from the Department of Education indicate that about 21 percent of B.A. recipients in 2000-01 who were teaching during the year after graduation were neither prepared nor certified to teach during their undergraduate years. Furthermore, the B&B studies show that, of the B.A. recipients who were certified and/or had prepared to teach as part of their undergraduate programs in 2000-01, 23 percent were not teaching within a year of graduating. Other B&B data show that 40 percent of recipients of bachelor’s degrees in education do not ever enter teaching.

Since the mid-1980s, every few years, the Education Department has announced that the nation is going to have to find a million new teachers in the next five years to meet demand. It’s really important to define “new teacher” in this context. It can make a big difference.

Using data from the Schools and Staffing Survey of the department’s National Center for Education Statistics, one could say there were 516,000 “new hires” at the school system level, or there were 97,500 “never-taught-before, just-out-of-college” newly hired teachers, with a few more iterations of the same data in between.

The current survey from my organization shows that one-third (34 percent) of the 3 million teachers now in the classroom expect not to be teaching five years from now, so, indeed, it looks as if schools will need to hire at least a million teachers in the next five years. This is no cause for panic. The nation has been replacing teachers at nearly this rate for at least the last three decades. Colleges of education have been producing far more teachers than go into teaching.

Who is going into teaching, and how are they getting there? One-third of the teachers are coming through some 600 alternatives to the traditional route of college-based teacher education. This trend continues to grow as increasing numbers of career-changers and other postbaccalaureate adults seek to teach and school districts seek to hire them.

The more I learn about teachers, the more I think it’s not true that teaching is not attracting very bright people and that teacher education programs are doing a lousy job of training them. Teach For America, the New Teacher Project, and most of the alternative routes have quite stringent entry requirements, and many of the colleges of education and state education departments have raised the GPAs and testing requirements for initial teaching licenses.

Teaching is its own unique profession. It is not law. It is not medicine. So let’s get off this rampage of judging it as if it were and trying to figure out how to revolutionize teacher education to look like medical schools. Besides, any review of the literature on medical schools shows there is no consensus about the best way to train doctors anyway, despite Flexner’s report.

Teaching is a highly sought-after job in this country right now. This very day, there are probably at least a half-million would-be highly effective teachers who would love to teach—if only they could figure out how to navigate the turbulent waters of becoming a teacher, select the best teacher-training match, and find a suitable teaching job. They could care less about what grade the NCTQ and U.S. News give to 1,400 teacher colleges.

A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2011 edition of Education Week as What Is the Role of Teacher Education?

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