Progress on Elementary Teacher Training, But a Long Way to Go

Teacher training in the US has been a crapshoot. Sometimes when hiring 1st year teachers you said “crap” and sometimes you said, “shoot.”  Kidding, … with a myriad of programs, some online, some with quality intern experiences and content, and others cranking out degrees en masse for the right price, separating the wheat from the chaff usually happened in the thresher of the classroom, with students being an unwitting part of the experiment.

While every local area has its favored teacher training programs driven by reputation, in this reality of teacher shortage, schools are increasingly taking all comers. So it’s even more important that there are valid and consistent standards around the basics of a quality teacher training programs.

We took a step forward with the National Council on Teacher Quality’s latest report which analyzed 875 programs for its indicators of quality.  Read it here.  And while I can and will quibble with some of the smaller methodological issues.  This is a step forward.  There was basically nothing before but word of mouth, which only traveled so far.

Teaching is hard and getting harder

Before we dig in, I want to acknowledge as the report did, that being a teacher is harder now than it has probably ever been, more is being asked of teachers (in both good and bad ways), students are often facing enormous challenges, and there is an increasing sense that someone has to be “accountable.” Accountability like sh*t tends to flow downhill, if we can’t blame the students , next up is the teachers—whether they have the training, tools, and support to succeed or not.

The Findings

We are generally making progress on the measures NCTQ identified as indicating high quality, but not uniformly, here is a summary,

Improvement in Reading

There was,

some genuine overall progress by programs on the evidence-based criteria we examine. 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. They looked at the breadth of reading content taught and also the quality of textbooks, and rated programs accordingly.  And while I worry that it may come down to just 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 diverse teachers have a critical role in our increasingly diverse public schools, and 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 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 is progress in diversity here, the standard is pretty low—being more diverse than the school or the state’s teaching force—so BYU would get credit for being diverse at 3% Black because the school is 1%?  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,

Unfortunately, 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 here as more programs earned A’s and more programs got F’s.  Folks who work in schools can attest to the challenges 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 one of the most important experiences for aspiring teachers but 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 in my work with new teachers is in managing classrooms, and if they have 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 classrooms.  Early in the year it’s often more about the kids not wanting to learn, but as the adults learn, and peer into the prism of trauma or special needs, I think many of our teachers wish they knew more, or had better strategies.  They start to learn how much they don’t know.

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.

So while this is a step forward and will be 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 may learn best and be best engaged.  Yes content is needed, but until someone is listening it doesn’t matter what you are telling them.




What do you think?

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