It seems everyone is down on bad teachers these days. But the truth is that simply removing the bad apples won’t fix our education problems. After all, it’s not as if there’s a large pool of superstar teachers waiting to replace those who are weeded out. Our best hope to improve education broadly and deeply is to strengthen the programs that develop and prepare the vast majority of the nation’s teachers.
Unfortunately, many of those systems are in sorry shape. Research has found that teacher preparation programs across the country frequently have low admissions requirements, low exit criteria and a lack of academic rigor. Certainly there are some strong and innovative teacher training programs. But the vast bulk of teachers receive training that is disconnected from what they will experience in actual classrooms. Coursework tends to be long on theory and short on practical training in such essentials as classroom management and how to actually teach specific subjects. The result is that beginning teachers often walk into their new schools with very little idea how to handle and teach a classroom full of kids.
This lack of preparation is unlikely to be measured — or even noticed. Few teacher education programs measure their graduates’ success as teachers, or ask graduates or their employers to evaluate the quality or relevance of their preparation. Most school districts have no system in place for evaluating how new teachers from one program compare to those from another. Accreditation agencies monitor program quality at the institutions that train teachers, but they’re funded by the very universities they’re evaluating and tend to focus more on program design and materials rather than actual outcomes. Although states are supposed to identify and assist programs that are low performing, they rarely do. Out of more than 1,400 colleges of education across the nation, states identify only 38 as having low-performing programs. That doesn’t square with the widespread quality concerns raised by outside observers.
About a dozen years ago, Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) led a federal effort to establish a better quality-control system for teacher preparation programs. After a long and controversial battle with universities, he succeeded in getting a federal requirement that education schools must report certain outcomes, such as how many program completers pass teacher licensure tests. But that kind of information, besides being wildly inconsistent across states, says almost nothing about whether graduates are effective teachers.
Certainly the government shouldn’t determine exactly what is taught, or how, in education schools. But given the well-documented importance of teacher quality to educational success, government support for education schools should be leveraged to require colleges to get serious about teacher preparation.
That would mean tracking more meaningful measures of success, including information about whether graduates actually get (and keep) teaching jobs, what beginning teachers and their employers think of the quality of their preparation, and whether their teaching has a measurable effect on the achievement of students in the classroom. This kind of information would be invaluable to programs seeking to innovate, and to prospective teachers seeking an effective training program.
Sound impossible? It’s not. Louisiana has developed a strong data system that allows it to track where graduates of different preparation programs go and what kind of effect they have on K-12 student achievement. The state also asks new teachers to rate how well their teacher education programs prepared them for their first year of teaching.
In California, the Cal State system voluntarily surveys program graduates about the quality of their preparation, both at graduation time and during their first year of teaching. The university system also surveys the employers and supervisors of graduates and works with several large districts to determine whether the graduates of some programs are more effective teachers than others.
Beyond just collecting this type of data, states should ensure that universities use it to improve teacher preparation programs. This will look different at every college, but for starters it could include tightening standards for program entry and exit. Programs should also focus more on clinical training, and universities should dedicate more tuition revenue to teacher preparation instead of treating the training programs like cash cows to finance other priorities. School districts should carefully collect data on how a program’s graduates perform in the classroom. And if, year after year, the data show dismal results for particular teacher preparation programs, then it’s fair for the state to shut them down, as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said should be done.
But again, as with teachers, getting rid of a few bad programs isn’t nearly as important as strengthening the programs that will continue to educate our teachers. With unemployment so high, it may be hard to imagine a time when many more new teachers will be needed, but as baby boomers retire over the coming decade, we’ll need new teachers. And for the sake of children, we need people who are ready for the job on Day One.
Camille Esch is director of the California Education Program at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy think tank.