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Improving Teacher Preparation in 2012

Published:  January 5, 2012

Debates over how to improve teacher preparation have been central to the education reform conversation over the past several years. Researchers, reformers and stakeholders called for a number of exciting, yet sometimes contradictory ideas: improving coursework on child development; moving to a model that includes more meaningful practice for prospective teachers in diverse classroom settings; holding teacher prep programs accountable; strengthening state regulatory rules for teacher prep programs; opening the doors for more alternative certification options; and more. Here at New America we joined the conversation, releasing a paper that focused on how to improve the preparation and licensure of prospective early grades teachers (PreK-3rd), and recommending that states reduce the overlap between early childhood and elementary teacher licenses.

In short, there have been loads of new ideas and recommendations – but while there are some pockets of action, changes to teacher preparation programs haven’t yet gone viral. Two recent additions to the discussion include a survey of student teaching conducted by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) and a plan for national teacher education reform and improvement published by the U.S. Department of Education. Both papers discussed significant shortcomings in the current teacher preparation system.

1. Review of Student Teaching

NCTQ evaluated 134 institutions offering elementary education preparation programs according to five standards, a subset of 19 standards developed by an advisory group. The five standards deemed most significant were:

  • The student teaching experience, which should last no less than 10 weeks, should require no less than five weeks at a single local school site and should represent a full-time commitment.
  • The teacher preparation program must select the “cooperating” mentor teacher for each student placement – the classroom teacher with whom a student teacher is placed.
  • The cooperating teacher candidate must have at least three years of teaching experience.
  • The cooperating teacher candidate must have the capacity to have a positive impact on student learning.
  • The cooperating teacher candidate must have the capacity to mentor an adult, with skills in observation, providing feedback, holding professional conversations and working collaboratively.

How did the institutions stack up? Not so well. In part this is because teacher education institutions typically craft programs to mirror state requirements, and only Tennessee requires programs to meet all five standards identified by NCTQ. Twenty states don’t require programs to meet any of the standards.

Taking a closer look at cooperating teachers, a vital part of the student teaching experience, NCTQ found that in a typical elementary school with 25 teachers, only one of those teachers would be qualified and willing to serve in a mentor role. In reality, student teachers are often paired with subpar cooperating teachers. (See the report, pages 18-21, for details on how the authors reached this conclusion.) NCTQ criticizes teacher education programs for not considering supply and demand when accepting new teacher candidates, especially into elementary preparation programs. The report states, “institutions are overproducing the number of elementary teachers that are needed, at the risk – we argue – of harming the quality of the preparation provided to their student teachers.”

There are three other noteworthy findings from the report:

  • Only 68 percent of programs require their student teachers to be present on the first day of school. (The days leading up to and the first week of school or very important for student teachers to experience, helping them to have a better idea of what they need to do to establish their own classroom.)
  • Only 38 percent of institutions require cooperating teachers to demonstrate the qualities of a good mentor.
  • Just over half of the principals surveyed for the report stated that the institution they partner with has no criteria at all for the cooperating teacher.

2. Department of Education Plan for Teacher Education Reform

The Department of Education released a three point agenda for teacher education reform, including:

  • Developing regulations to focus data collection conducted under the Higher Education Act on the most important indicators of program quality. Currently, teacher education institutions are required to fill out a form with 440 questions that focus primarily on student inputs. The Department would work to dramatically reduce what information institutions report, with an emphasis instead on outcomes: K-12 student achievement growth, employment outcomes and customer satisfaction after completion of the teacher education programs.
  • Reforming financial aid for students preparing to become teachers. This would include transforming the TEACH grant program into the “Presidential Teaching Fellows Program,” which would provide formula aid to states that commit to establish rigorous teacher licensing systems as well as teacher preparation program accountability. Funds would be used for scholarships for high-achieving prospective teachers in traditional or alternative certification programs. Prospective teachers receiving scholarships would be required to teach in a high-need school for at least three years.
  • Directing federal funds to institutions that prepare teachers from diverse backgrounds. This would entail making federal investments in teacher education institutions that serve minorities and have high-quality teacher education programs.

What’s missing from the DOE plan is a significant research component; we know a good deal about teacher preparation, but there is more to research and evaluate, and the federal government should play a strong role in this work. What are the best models for coursework and how do they differ across grade spans? What divisions of state teaching licenses lead to the best student learning (ex. PreK-3 and 4-8 vs. K-6)? Do residency models work? Do longer and more involved student teaching models translate to better learning outcomes for kids?

There will surely be many more reports and research on teacher preparation in 2012. NCTQ has already embarked on another big survey of institutions with teacher preparation programs due to come out in late 2012. Read more about it here.

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