It’s Never Been Harder to Be a Teacher and That’s Why We Need to Train Them Better

Dec 16, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Dirk Tillotson

Teacher training in the U.S. has been a crapshoot. Because when you're hiring first year teachers, sometimes you say “crap” and other times you say “shoot.” Kidding...kidding. There are a myriad of programs out there, ranging from ones online to others with quality intern experiences and content, and more still that crank out degrees en masse for the right price. But separating the wheat from the chaff usually happens in the thresher of the classroom, meaning students become an unwitting part of the experiment. While every local area has its favored teacher training programs, in this reality of teacher shortage, schools are increasingly taking all-comers. That's why it's so important to have valid and consistent standards around a quality teacher training program. The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) recently analyzed 875 teaching training programs for its indicators of quality. While I can and will quibble with some of the smaller methodological issues, I believe the report is a step forward. [pullquote]Being a teacher is harder now than it's probably ever been.[/pullquote] More is asked of them (in good and bad ways). Students are also often facing enormous challenges, and there's an increasing sense that someone has to be “accountable.” Accountability, like shit, tends to flow downhill. If we can’t blame students, next up are teachers—whether they have the training, tools and support to succeed or not.

The Findings

We're generally making progress on the measures NCTQ identified as indicating high quality, but not uniformly. Improvement in Reading According to the report, there are huge gains in teaching reading:
The big news is that more programs are adhering to evidence when teaching elementary teachers how to teach reading. In 2016, 39 percent of programs teach evidence-based approaches to early reading, up from 29 percent in 2014.
Reading is the gateway to other academic areas and foundational to success in other subjects. NCTQ looked at the breadth of reading content taught and the quality of textbooks, to rate the programs accordingly. While I worry it may come down to ordering better textbooks to get better ratings, in the end, better texts rank higher than worse ones. Increases in Selectivity and Diversity Selectivity is highly correlated with teacher quality, and a diverse teacher workforce plays a critical role in our increasingly diverse public schools. We are seeing some gains here:
While most programs are still not selective enough (with only 26 percent limiting selection to the top half of college-goers), there was some progress. More programs that are housed in institutions lacking strong admissions requirements have stepped up, setting their own relatively high admissions standards (at least a 3.0 GPA for admission)—up from 44 percent in 2014 to 71 today. Importantly, half of these selective programs are also relatively diverse when compared to the institution as a whole or to the state’s teacher workforce. These 113 programs demonstrate that teacher prep programs can be both diverse and selective.
While there's progress in diversity, the standard is pretty low—being more diverse than the school or the state’s teaching force. For example, Brigham Young University gets credit for being diverse at 3 percent Black because the school is 1 percent? I guess that’s progress, but maybe some higher absolute standard is needed. Math and Other Content Areas Need Beefing Up The results in math were gloomier:
In light of the recent PISA results, the news on mathematics preparation is gloomy. Just 13 percent of programs cover the essential math that other nations expect their elementary teachers to have mastered.
There were mixed results as some programs earned A’s and others got F’s. Folks working in schools can attest to challenges in finding strong young math teachers:
The findings are even worse on content preparation—which is so important for states that have adopted the Common Core or similar standards—with just 5 percent of programs requiring aspiring teachers to be exposed to the literature, history, geography and science found in the elementary curriculum.
Student Teaching Is Largely Unsupervised Student teaching can be a very important experience for aspiring educators, but it seems to be largely ignored as part of teacher training programs, or at least insufficiently supervised:
Just two-fifths require a supervisor from the program to conduct at least five observations of the student teacher that produce documented feedback and another third require four. Only about 7 percent of programs collect any meaningful information on each cooperating teachers’ skills, and only about 1 percent screen cooperating teachers for both their mentorship and effectiveness as a teacher. The remaining programs (around 93 percent) accept cooperating teachers suggested by a school district without knowing much about that teacher’s effectiveness or ability to mentor adult learners.
We Need to Work on Classroom Management The biggest struggles I see when working with new teachers is classroom management. If they lost control of that, nothing else really matters. And when I talk to new teachers leaving the profession, I hear a lot about the challenges of managing a classroom. Early in the year, it’s often more about kids not wanting to learn, but as teachers learn and peer into the prism of trauma or special needs, they realize how much they don’t know. I think many of our teachers wish they knew more or had better strategies.
Two in five (42 percent) of the 661 teacher preparation programs give feedback to their student teachers on all or nearly all key areas of classroom management. Programs are most likely to provide feedback on student teachers’ ability to establish or reinforce standards of behavior and to maximize the amount of class time when students are focused on learning and least likely to provide feedback on student teachers’ use of meaningful praise to encourage positive behavior.
While this analysis is progress and useful, I think we need a more thorough reimagining of teacher training—one that starts with an understanding of who our children are, what their needs may be and how diverse children can learn best and be best engaged. Yes, content is needed, but until someone is listening, it doesn’t matter what you're telling them.
An original version of this post appeared on Great School Voices as Progress On Elementary Teacher Training, But a Long Way to Go.
Photo courtesy of Republic Schools.

Dirk Tillotson

Dirk Tillotson is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Great Schools Choices, which supports community-based charter school development and increasing access for underserved families. He has worked for over 20 years supporting mostly charter community schools in Oakland, New Orleans and New York City, and he’s even consulted on education issues in the Middle East. As a child, his parents moved their family to a high-performing school district where they were the first Black family on the block. The challenges of that experience embedded in him a desire to create academically high-quality schools where students don’t have to check their identities at the door. Dirk currently resides in Oakland, California, and blogs at Great School Voices.

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