What Should Teachers Learn?

The primary focus of states has been, What should students learn? One result has been the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which have at this writing been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. The CCSS make all the more pressing the need to train teachers to teach differently than they themselves were likely taught. Absolutely essential is the effective training of all candidates in necessary pedagogical tools and techniques before they enter the classroom:

• Early reading. We have the specific knowledge that would allow all but a small percentage of children to read. If we applied that knowledge systematically, we could reduce reading failure from some 30 percent to less than 5 percent.

• The Common Core and mathematics. As part of their own training, elementary teachers will have had to develop a fluid and conceptual understanding of numbers systems in all of their representations, something that we estimate is not currently happening in 75 percent of teacher education programs.

• The Common Core and English language arts. Teachers will have to adopt new protocols that consider a host of factors, including the careful selection of appropriately complex texts (with as much attention to nonfiction as to fiction), the delivery of a lesson, appropriate classroom activities, as well as the assignments that students are given. Ideally, new teachers should have practiced these protocols before they enter the classroom for the first time.

• Classroom management. Experience isn’t the only way to acquire classroom management skills; there are specific skills and techniques that can be taught and practiced to mastery. Behaviorists have contributed much of this research, but most of teacher education holds this body of work in disdain. The result is that teacher candidates are deprived of useful knowledge such as the clear principle that students need to hear a lot more praise than criticism if we are to maximize their engagement. Us eful guidance can also be gleaned from the practices of effective teachers, for example, the 49 techniques recently set down by Doug Lemov in Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College, a book that serves as the antithesis of what most institutions espouse.

• Cognitive psychology. Understanding how individuals acquire expertise and how memory works would be tremendously helpful for new teachers, but such topics are largely absent in the current preparation model.

• Assessment. Assessment is playing an increasingly important role (in ways both good and bad), and teachers need to understand that role. NCTQ’s study of this issue found that few schools are providing the most basic instruction on assessment.

Moving the Higher Ed Mountain

The challenge then is to find ways to motivate institutions to change in the direction of effective training. This is a battle that will be fought on many fronts, but the critical change must come in the incentives that drive the market for new teachers. Applying a variety of metrics to program performance will create the information consumers need to make different decisions.

Currently, consumers of teacher education, both aspiring teachers and school districts, do not know which institutions are doing a great job and which are not. The binary and quite opaque approach of accrediting bodies, in which an institution earns a thumbs-up or -down, does not provide information that consumers can easily access or use. In any marketplace, consumers will be drawn to higher-quality products if they can determine key product features. This is true even of those aspiring teachers who are inclined to choose an institution within 50 miles of where they went to high school. One reason teachers may stay so close to home is that there is no objective measure of program quality or performance that might provide an incentive to relocate. That need not be the case. NCTQ is rating the quality of individual teacher-preparation programs using a set of measurable, objective standards that reflect what public school educators view as important attributes in new teachers.

The NCTQ Teacher Prep Review, slated for initial release in June 2013,  is rating teacher-preparation programs across the country. By examining the fundamental requirements of each program—admissions standards, course requirements, coverage of essential content, preparation in the CCSS, how the student teaching program operates, instruction in classroom management and lesson planning, and how teacher candidates are judged ready for the classroom—the Review will capture the information that any consumer of these programs would want to see, including aspiring teachers and school districts looking to hire the best teachers. The Review also looks at the degree to which programs track outcomes in an effort to improve their programs and whether there are student achievement data that reflect the average effectiveness of an institution’s graduates.

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