Want Better Educators? Make Teaching a Community Practice
Most Americans don't hear about—or even care to listen to—the war of words that's been raging, albeit in closed company, between higher education's teacher education programs and non-academic, alternative teacher preparation organizations like Teach For America and The New Teacher Project. They're challenging prevailing teacher education programs as not preparing aspiring teachers to meet the needs of disadvantaged students.
On the surface one might see this as a low-stake dispute since colleges and universities directly prepare 90 percent of our nation's teachers and ostensibly anchor our communities. But, TFA and TNTP have both pointed out grade point average disparities between education majors and other fields. Most recently, the National Council on Teacher Quality charged that the overwhelming majority of college teacher prep programs accept candidates who lack sufficient content knowledge and advanced methodological training, and are all but lacking in adequate supervision. On balance, NCTQ's charges of college inadequacy are more mission driven than research based, but less biased research supports many of their claims.
Consequently whenever these non-college teacher prep organizations declare student gains, whispers of better teaching and teachers soon follow. A subsequent political mêlée in many cities—Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans, for example—has resulted in significant policy shifts, reallocation of budgets, and increased employment opportunities for graduates of alternative teacher prep programs like TFA and TNTP. To the victor belong the spoils.
The fact remains, however, that postsecondary institutions must continue to train the bulk of our teachers. Indeed, higher education's chief accreditation body the Council for the Accreditation for Educator Preparation recently approved standards that are a welcome signal that colleges and universities are responding to the needs of students and school districts.
CAEP's standards address the aforementioned accusations but emanate largely from a blue ribbon panel held in 2010. Their new emphasis on clinical partnerships and practice will push higher education towards what educators know is good for children. Teaching is a practice that demands deep content knowledge and extended clinical fieldwork. Districts need young teachers to stay employed in schools long enough to reap the fruits of the investments. Communities need young teachers to reside and participate for more than a few years in the communities in which they serve. Communities and schools need professional teachers who are durable neighbors of the school—actual members of the community.
How we induct teachers into the profession influences these issues. The academic portion of traditional teacher education programs is protracted, but the abbreviated trainings of non-collegiate counterparts like TFA and TNTP do not give candidates enough depth or an opportunity to bond with communities. Nonetheless, both teacher-training camps do recognize that districts need quality teachers in abundance.
Neither faction succeeds if their programs aren't ensconced in the schools and neighborhoods themselves. When teachers and their training are disconnected from the communities they serve, candidates aren't exposed to the real situations they will face. The school is to the teacher like the hospital is to the physician. Their training should be similar. Currently, both camps spend insufficient time training in the settings in which they are to perform. The antagonism between the K-12 reform community and postsecondary education schools reflects the overall separateness between K-12 institutions and teacher training programs.
Cohesion is still wanting between statewide accountability examinations and higher education’s industry standards of the ACT and SAT. University teacher training programs are too academic; teacher candidates don't spend enough time learning their trade. Teachers are often thrown in the proverbial fire without the skills, content knowledge, cultural competency or desire to be a professional. Most importantly, if we are to sustain reform, training programs must recruit, train, and hire local talent.
Training can get even closer. Colleges of education and the reform community have forgotten how to be good neighbors. The point of an education has always been to create self-reliant, self-deterministic members of a community. Success can only be claimed when a community can say they improved their own stock. Teacher training programs must be as focused on finding members as they are with recruiting talent and instilling skills..
True teacher training reform will come less from blaming and more from partnering with communities and school districts. Colleges and universities have been trying to move towards clinically based training and have tried to heighten their admissions standards, but college faculty and governance structures are built to last, not to move. As the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University I'm committed to building education programs to meet this belief and the new CAEP standards.
So as an education community, let's not waste time harping on who did what to whom. Let's boldly ask, "Where do we go from here?" Building great teachers is the path we must all take.
Teacher holding textbook image via Shutterstock