DFER for Teachers: Reforming Teacher Prep

By Jocelyn Huber, DFER Director of Teacher Advocacy 

Students across the country have settled into another school year and many prospective teachers are in their first year of student teaching experience. Student teaching gives prospective teachers the opportunity to put theory into practice and ideally to learn the art of teaching from a skilled educator. Despite the importance of the student teaching experience, in some cases too little attention is paid to the quality of these programs. Some states are bravely tackling the arduous task of developing and refining teacher evaluation systems, but have yet to look carefully at the institutions and pre-service experiences that have the ability to deliver either exceptional or failing teachers. Rather than struggling to find the fairest way to identify, remediate, or ultimately remove bad teachers, wouldn't it be far more beneficial for the profession and for students' learning to ensure that only the very best teachers are earning certification and entering the classroom? (See DFER's white paper, Ticket to Teach, to read some of our recommendations on reforming the profession here.)

In an attempt to more carefully examine the quality of pre-service training and education for teachers, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) has begun a review of teacher preparation. In July, they released "Student Teaching in the United States." The report and the larger review are controversial and have generated some backlash. But, if one can look past the defensiveness and posturing on all sides, the report suggests some helpful guidelines for teacher preparation programs and states to begin setting clearer and more rigorous training criteria for the benefit of students.

NCTQ laid out five critical standards to evaluate teacher preparation programs. While certainly with such a complex profession, there are innumerable standards that could (and maybe should) be applied to training programs, these seem like a logical baseline:

STANDARD 1: 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 represent a full-time commitment; 

STANDARD 2: The teacher preparation program must select the cooperating teacher for each student teacher placement;

STANDARD 3: The cooperating teacher candidate must have at least three years of teaching experience;

STANDARD 4: The cooperating teacher candidate must have the capacity to have a positive impact on student learning; 

STANDARD 5: The cooperating teacher candidate must have the capacity to mentor an adult, with skills in observation, providing feedback, holding professional conversations and working collaboratively.

Essentially, the student teaching experience should be a meaningful, full-time commitment that places a prospective teacher with an experienced, proven effective educator who has the ability and willingness to mentor another adult. This doesn't seem unreasonable. But NCTQ found that while all of the 134 institutions they examined required 10 weeks of student teaching, 82 percent required cooperating teachers to be experienced, and only 28 percent required cooperating teachers to be effective as evidenced by student achievement. Fifty-four percent of the principals NCTQ surveyed reported that the institution they partner with has no criteria for the quality of the cooperating teacher. This means that inevitably some student teachers are "sacrificed" to bad experiences with ineffective or unwilling cooperating teachers. What does this mean for the future students of that new teacher?

While the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and the Association of Teacher Educators (ATE) have some standards for student teaching, there is not enough precision in the guidelines or communication between organizations to ensure all student teachers have productive, meaningful experiences. Likewise, state requirements often provide vague or weak guidelines on student teaching experiences and little follow-up to ensure institutions comply. For example, the NCTQ report points to the four Maryland state requirements for cooperating teachers, but finds that the Maryland institutions in their sample fail to address or enforce the state requirement to "demonstrate a knowledge base and skills to address the performance evaluation criteria and outcomes to be met by each mentee."

While some of the finer points of the report may be debatable, NCTQ's final recommendations get to the crux of many of the problems in teacher recruitment and retention: quality and respect. Too many universities run teacher preparation programs with weak curriculum and no minimum requirements. The bar for entry to teacher preparation programs should be among the highest in any university. An education major should never be allowed to be a struggling college student's last resort, and admitting any student lower than the 50th percentile to the major is unconscionable. As NCTQ points out, relationships between school districts and universities could be greatly improved if the districts were able to assume that all of the student teacher candidates sent for placement had already demonstrated the potential to be excellent educators. To further narrow the pool of teacher candidates to only those with true classroom readiness, NCTQ suggests structuring teacher preparation programs to include a "fallback option" which allows education majors who are struggling with student teaching or who have simply changed their mind about their future career path to gracefully exit the preparation program and complete another degree.  

Many institutions and school districts alike fail to make the role of cooperating teaching an attractive proposition for classroom teachers. Being selected to train the next generation of teachers should be a well-compensated honor, not a burden. Current stipends for taking on a student teacher, if they even exist, are small. The task of training a new teacher is time-consuming and handing over valuable instructional time to a novice is risky in a system of increasing accountability. Once the most effective teachers are identified as potential mentors for student teachers, they should be honored and rewarded. As NCTQ mentions, it would be difficult to pay cooperating teachers what they are really worth, but both institutions and school districts must direct more resources into recognizing and compensating those cooperating teachers who develop the next generation. The Rodel Exemplary Teacher Initiative, provides a useful example of how to attract and reward cooperating teachers. The program, which has highly competitive selection criteria, matches student teachers with highly effective cooperating teachers in high poverty schools who are rewarded for their efforts with $10,000 saving bonds and recognition in statewide media.  

While the debate over the best way to evaluate teacher preparation programs is likely to continue, the evaluation of these programs must be done. The best time to identify an ineffective teacher is before he or she ever has the opportunity to be solely responsible for the education and futures of a classroom full of children. The universities that train teachers and the states that certify them must step up to the plate to implement and enforce clear, rigorous standards for teacher preparation programs an invest the resources necessary to connect future teachers with the best possible mentors. 

Jocelyn, having been a teacher in rural public schools, knows firsthand the challenges that face students and teachers. She also has experience working with teachers' unions as the Grants Manager for the NEA Foundation. Read more about Jocelyn here.