In this post, I will be responding to the Huffington Post article “How Teacher Prep Programs Are Failing New Teachers — And Your Kids” and discussing what it takes to improve teacher preparation programs. I have provided a short summary of the article below but you can read the original by clicking the link above. I have sectioned off this post so you can either read straight through or skip around to the areas that catch your interest.
The recent ruling in the Vegara vs. California case (stay tuned for this post) in which the state of California ruled that tenure for teachers is unconstitutional, has added fuel to the ongoing debate about teacher quality in our schools. A group called the National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) “advocates tougher teacher evaluations” (Huffington Post, 2014) and has recently turned its attention to teacher preparation programs. The NCTQ argues that too much attention is being given to the quality of current teachers and not enough is being given to the selection and preparation process of new teachers. The NCTQ developed an annual survey analyzing various program elements from admission standards to class textbooks and syllabi to determine how well they meet various teaching standards. They have found that few of the participating programs failed to even meet what the NCTQ considers to be “modest standards” (NCTQ, 2014). These findings have been taken into consideration as the US Department of Education seeks to increase regulations on teacher preparation programs. Many groups and program directors, while supporting program improvement, question the accuracy and methodology of the NCTQ’s analysis of these programs. (Click here for the article)
Teacher preparation programs fall into two general categories; collegiate programs and certification programs. ‘Collegiate programs’, as I call them, are undergraduate and graduate programs offered through colleges/universities that focus specifically on preparing future educators. In general, these programs include the study of common educational practices, standards and philosophies in addition to content in the students’ respective subject matter(s).
Certification programs focus on helping participants obtain a teaching certification outside of a college program. These programs vary in who they accept as participants and the methods by which they help these participants gain certification. Some take a similar approach to college programs while others take a purely experiential approach (i.e. Teach for America). Experiential certification programs work similarly to apprenticeships, placing participants in classrooms and having them ‘learn on the job’. These programs provide additional support outside of the classroom for their participants to ensure their success and are often more selective about their participants.
Goals for Improvement
All programs that prepare future teachers must follow certain guidelines and standards in order to be certified however, many people/organizations like the NCTQ would argue that the standards programs are held to are not high enough to ensure quality teachers are produced. The article states that the US Department of Education is seeking to increase standards for teacher preparation programs and expects to do so next year (2015) however, I am left to question what these higher standards will be. Where I believe higher standards are good in general, they might not have an effect if their focus is wrong. I won’t go into all the ways new standards can be applied, but I will provide a couple of thoughts.
One thing I believe the new standards should address is the required academic performance level of program candidates. I agree with the NCTQ’s standard that teacher preparation programs should only accept participants who have a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher (this is using a 4.0 scale). If you do the math, that is a score 75%, a score that is just above passing in most high school classes. This grade not only reflects the candidate’s content knowledge, but their level of dedication when meeting and overcoming academic challenges. If one is consistently unable to overcome their own academic challenges (it takes a number of low-scoring classes to get a cumulative 3.0), is it fair for us to expect that they will be able to effectively help others with the same thing? Higher requirements in academic performance also make the programs more competitive and ensure quality candidates. Keep in mind that most other professional programs already have these standards, so why not us?
New standards should also address how programs structure their classroom experiences. This includes how much time program participants should spend in the classroom as well as what they do while in the classroom. I firmly believe that program participants cannot wait until the end of their program to start spending a significant amount of time in classrooms. Participants need to be exposed to teaching in practice so they are better able to analyze the philosophy they are taught and recognize the difference between the two. This will help them develop their personal teaching philosophy more accurately and prepare them for the real challenges they will face in the classroom. It is much harder to control what happens in these classroom experiences as participants are ultimately guests in a teacher’s room. However, some guidelines may be helpful in ensuring that classroom experiences are meaningful.
It seems like such a simple thing but I can’t express its importance enough. In a field such as education, changes often don’t take just a few months to have full effect, they take years. Often before things improve, things get worse as people try to adjust to new methods, procedures, and expectations. The problem is that when change is not immediately effective, we quickly lose faith in the process and change it all over again. We don’t get to see what the true effects of the changes are because we keep stopping in the middle of the adjustment period. This also means that we remain stuck in a downward spiral of confusion and failure as teachers and schools constantly try to keep up. I understand that there are pressures at all levels that make this type of patience very difficult, but it is necessary.
If we break down a typical teacher preparation program, we are looking at a time-frame of 2-4 years from the start to finish. That means that from the moment a change is made with all else held constant; it will take 2-4 years for the first cohort of new teachers purely following the new methods/standards to complete their program. After that, it will take 1-2 years (depending on how quickly these teachers get jobs) to determine how well these teachers were prepared. I argue that it will take the full school year and perhaps two in order to determine this as it is natural for immense growth to occur in the first few years of teaching and part of being prepared to teach is being able to quickly and effectively grow and adapt. That leaves us with a time-frame of 3-6 years before the program can be fully analyzed. However, we must keep in mind that as weaknesses in the new program are discovered, the program is tweaked to address them. These weaknesses often come to light during the first few cohorts. That means if we want the most accurate analyses of a program, we would have to look at either the 3rd or 4th cohort completing the program. This brings our grand total to 7-10 years for accurate measurement.
I am not suggesting that we wait 7-10 years to make major changes, that is unrealistic and there are many other factors driving change that I have not accounted for. The purpose of my calculations was to demonstrate how long one change can take to have full effect. It should be noted that changes are occurring constantly in these programs and tend to overlap and intertwine. Where 7-10 years is a little extreme, we need to make sure new methods and procedures are given the proper opportunity to succeed rather than continuing a downward spiral brought by constant change and confusion.
-Meaningful Classroom Experience
As previously mentioned, teacher preparation should provide numerous meaningful classroom experiences for their participants from the beginning of the program to the end. Participants should be present and active participants in the classroom and be pushed to use and analyze what they have observed in their course of study.
In an ideal world, every teacher preparation program would require their participants to be hands-on and assist in their assigned classrooms and they would have many experiences from the beginning of the program until the end. However, we are dealing with real classrooms and real teachers who are facing a lot of pressure to make sure their students are succeeding. The classroom experiences of participants in the same program may greatly vary depending on the personality, comfort level, and supportive ability of the classroom teacher as well as the abilities of the participants.
My mentor for my student teaching liked to work very closely with my university and as a result, we had multiple teachers-in-training at various stages in the program present in the room. As I was in charge of most classroom functions for the majority school year, I became partially responsible for these participants. I found that the participants who were intuitive and engaged in the classroom were easy for me to work with (once I got used to allocating tasks) and I saw my students benefit from working with these participants individually or in small groups. However, I had significant trouble with those who would not engage with the students or had trouble playing the part of teacher. When working with these individuals, I not only had to run a productive lesson for my students, I also had to constantly monitor and instruct the trainees. This is a difficult task for any teacher, but it was particularly difficult for me as a student teacher trying to develop as a professional myself. My mentor tried her best to help with these individuals but there were many occasions where she was not present in the room and could not do so. As a result, the tasks these participants were asked to do differed from their more engaged and intuitive counterparts. Despite the challenge, I am thankful I had the opportunity to work with these trainees as they challenged me as a professional and pushed me further into my teaching role. What I want my story to illustrate is that teachers-in-training pose a challenge to classroom teachers, but there can benefits to having them as well and teachers should encourage their engagement.
-Support for Partnering Teachers/Schools
I was going to put this with classroom experience but I think it deserves its own section. Since meaningful classroom experiences are vital to the success of future teachers, it is important that the schools and teachers that make these experiences possible receive the support they require to ensure the success of program participants. This means tighter communication between the programs and their partnering schools/teachers so that schools and their teachers are clear on what the programs expect from their participants and how they can help make the experience as successful as possible. In addition, classroom teachers will be able to express what they observe about the program participants and any concerns they may have about a participant that should be addressed. Program administrators can use this feedback to help analyze their program and intervene with problematic candidates before it is too late to help them. Meetings for participating teachers and administrators can also be scheduled to encourage collaboration and provide additional support.
What is necessary in order for communication between programs and their partners to stay strong and effective is the willingness of program administrators to listen and respond to the concerns of both their partners and participants. Even though most programs ask for an evaluation of the participant from partnering teachers, there seems to be a lack of response when concerns are expressed unless they are extreme. I argue that it is just as important to address some of the more minor concerns as there is a potential for the problem to worsen over time. Where these may not make the participant unemployable, they do ensure that the participant is not as strong as they could have been. Partnering teachers see participants in a different context and are able to observe things that classroom professors or program administrators cannot and their concerns should be considered.
On the reverse side of that, participants could end up with a mentor who fails to provide the proper support for them. I have heard quite a few horror stories, as I am sure many of you have. Some of these can be attributed to a bad mix of personalities, but if there are consistent complaints about a partner teacher from participants, the program should respond accordingly. We cannot produce quality teachers if they are not getting the classroom experience they need. I think a lot of these issues could be solved with more communication between the programs and their partners, but it won’t solve all of them and programs need to be conscious of that.
Are We Asking the Right Questions?
As with most issues, improving teacher quality is an extremely complex problem to solve. Even when we focus in on something like the preparation of new candidates, it is hard to figure out where to start. Are we really asking the right questions? The article discusses the quality of teacher preparation programs in general but decides to fixate on issues with content knowledge and standards. Is this where our energies should be focused?
-Quality Vs. The Bottom Line
Unfortunately we must sometimes see teacher preparation programs for what they are or are a part of; a business. And just as in all businesses, the age-old struggle between developing and providing a quality product (in this case an education program) and making money tends to rear its ugly head. It goes without question that a lot of money is needed to run and support a teacher preparation program and as a business, these programs seek a profit. The consumers of these programs (aka future teachers) provide the primary financial input for these programs via tuition. Therefore, the higher the enrollment (demand), the better off the program is. In order to achieve higher enrollment, the programs need to develop a good reputation via a quality program that is well received by potential employers. It takes money to develop such a program and reputation, so the demand for students and price of enrollment may increase and the cycle continues like that.
Within this structure, change of any kind is extremely expensive to implement. With that my friends, let’s talk about opportunity cost. If we did what the article suggested and raised the standards for entering the program, we could reasonably expect enrollment in our program decrease. Let’s say we are at a major university and each student forks over about $10,000 in tuition each semester for four years. This makes the revenue earned from one student $80,000. Our enrollment immediately decreases by 500 students due to the new standards. This makes for a total loss of $40,000,000 in potential revenue. Even losing 100 students delivers a hard blow at $800,000 and neither figure takes into account students who are out-of-state or out-of-country and pay 2-4 times the amount of in-state students. Even though this money is not being taken from our university directly, the university has priced its programs according to its expected enrollment and will suffer a significant financial blow. Our fictional university cannot completely offset the loss by an increase in tuition cost as such a jump could alienate other potential students and it does not have a high enough reputation to completely offset the loss. Even if we used a lower tuition cost in our figure, we are still looking at thousands if not millions in potential revenue lost. Programs take these figures into account when they are asked to implement major changes.
How programs choose to balance revenue and quality can vary. Most if not all collegiate programs make additional revenue via grants from successful alumni and other royalties through research. This makes it easier for them to absorb the initial financial blow of change and universities with particularly strong programs that push this innovation can potentially benefit in the long run. Certification programs do not have the same type of buffer collegiate programs do and tend to vary a lot more in how they address this balance. Some decide to focus more on higher enrollment where others severely limit enrollment in order to get a small number of strong candidates who can raise the reputation of the program. It should be said that some of these certification programs are not profit based (again, Teach for America), making their balance a little different. One of the things we can look at as we try to improve teacher preparation programs is how to provide the proper support to programs in order to improve their quality without devastating their bottom line.
-Class Content vs. Number of Classes
When we hear that a program is lacking in quality, particularly in providing sufficient content knowledge, more classes are quickly prescribed as the answer. However, perhaps it is not the amount of classes but the content of the classes that poses the problem.
In order to maintain their license, teachers need to go through professional development and take a certain amount of course hours. In fact compared to other professions, teaching has one of the highest ranks for the amount of course work required over one’s career. So why are other professionals at this level more successful? Are our requirements simply not enough? We could increase the amount of coursework required, but financially, teachers cannot support it. Compared to similarly educated professions, teachers make significantly less money and the gap between them and others only increases over time (National Education Association, 2014) ((By the way, you should read through this article, it’s really good)). The lack of financial support and growth means that new teachers struggle to pay the growing costs of a higher education and additional classes may put too much strain on this already thin wire.
Perhaps it is not a question of how many classes we take but what these classes are focusing on. It is no surprise that the NCTQ has found secondary education teachers to be better prepared in content than elementary teachers. Secondary teachers are required to have majored, minored, or completed significant coursework in their teaching area where as elementary programs have a tendency to focus more on teaching practices and are more general in the content they cover (but they still have significant course requirements). I don’t really think it is fair to compare the two programs in the area of content as they naturally focus on different things to service different age groups. However, if there seems to be an overall lack of knowledge despite extensive training, then perhaps the program isn’t providing the proper content. I myself have come across moments where I was unfamiliar with the material I was teaching and I don’t feel it was any lack of studying on my part. I always had more than 12 semester hours and I took 1-3 summer classes every summer. Does my lack of familiarity mean that I am not knowledgeable/capable in my topic? Is it really possible to have learned everything I may have to teach? Maybe if I had been given more guidance in what classes I should take, my coursework would align more closely with my curriculum, but this would also require me knowing exactly what age group and topic I would be teaching.
The improvement of teacher preparation programs is one step towards the betterment of our school system as a whole. However, all of the work in this sector can easily be overshadowed by the number of other challenges we face, including the support of new teachers once they have entered the workforce. Where I think improving teacher preparation programs is a necessary step, I disagree that this is where our focus for improvement should be at the moment. We are in an environment where experienced teachers are struggling to meet the demands of the system and are left to navigate the unpredictable sea of standards and expectations without the proper tools or support. If we cannot effectively support our trained veterans, how can we expect inexperienced teachers to succeed? No matter how well prepared they are, new teachers still need time and support to grow. So yes, quality teacher preparation programs are important, but they will ultimately have no effect if other changes are not made.