How to Upgrade Teacher and Administrator Preparation Programs
The part of public education that has received the least attention for reform is the most important: whom our education schools admit and how they are prepared to be teachers, administrators, education researchers, and education policy makers. Although there is very little high quality research on these topics, useful information for reforming education schools came from the massive review undertaken by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel for its report in 2008.
It found no relationship between student achievement and traditional teacher education programs, certification status, and mentoring and induction programs. That means that teachers who have completed a traditional teacher preparation program, hold a teaching license, and have participated in an induction program get no higher student performance on average than other teachers.
In addition, the Panel found almost no evidence that professional development programs increase student achievement, whether or not they increase teachers’ knowledge of the subject they teach. Nor is student achievement related to whether prospective teachers graduate from a traditional teacher education program or an alternative program.
However, the Panel did find teachers’ knowledge of the subject they teach significantly related to student achievement. In other words, the more academically competent the teacher is, the more students learn. That finding wouldn’t surprise anyone who thinks content matters.
There may be other characteristics of an effective teacher, but so far no credible body of research has told us what they are. Part of the problem lies with educational research itself. Over 16,000 potentially relevant studies were located by Abt Associates for the Panel’s consideration. But Abt judged only a tiny number worthy of review.
The Panel’s findings suggest four goals for education policy makers. Following each goal, I suggest reform measures a state legislature and/or a board of education can mandate to address the goal.
Goal 1. Ensure that prospective teachers are fully academically qualified for the grade levels and subjects they intend to teach. We need to reconsider whom we admit into a teacher preparation program. In high-achieving countries, this takes the form of a high academic bar for admission. Admission to a teacher training program is highly competitive; only students in the top 10-20% of their high school or college cohort are admitted to an elementary or secondary teacher preparation program.
Illinois is approaching this goal in a way other states can emulate. Its state board of education set a high bar for passing a strong test of basic academic skills. On June 20, 2012, the ISBE re-affirmed the high cut score. While a very high percentage of minority test-takers failed this test, no one argued that minority children would benefit from being taught by academically under-qualified minority teachers. The solution to that problem lies in the future—to increase the pool of strong minority candidates.
* To increase the academic qualifications for admission to undergraduate teacher preparation programs, require all individual applicants to have a SAT, ACT, or GRE score in the top 25% of their high school graduation cohort.
* Mandate a reduction in size in large programs whose numbers show little relationship to employment possibilities in the state’s public schools.
* Eliminate undergraduate teacher preparation programs altogether, a policy recommended in 1986 by the Holmes Group, a group of reform-minded education school deans. Trustees of any university could do so simply by voting that undergraduate education courses not count toward an undergraduate or graduate degree for anyone.
Goal 2. Strengthen doctoral programs in education and abandon weak masters programs. It is mind-boggling to think that over 15,000 of the 16,000 studies located for possible review by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel had to be discarded because they failed to meet minimum scientific standards in their design and claims. To address this problem, the Panel’s Subcommittee on Standards of Evidence recommended that “the rigor and amount of course work in statistics and experimental design be increased in graduate training in education.”
Researchers have found no relationship between student achievement and master’s degree programs in education, most of which are for those already holding a teaching license from an undergraduate program. Most of these programs should be abandoned, leaving in place only the M.Ed. program that is a post-baccalaureate teacher preparation program and the MAT program in which half of the graduate coursework is in the discipline the aspiring teacher intends to teach.
Unfortunately, few teachers today earn a MA or MS degree in their subject area (a degree that tends to guarantee demanding discipline-specific graduate coursework), creating a new problem the public is unaware of. Few K-12 or 6-12 curriculum directors are apt to have more than a major in the subject they supervise, or in more than one of them if they supervise many subjects. This deficiency leaves them unable to offer expert advice on textbooks, course sequences, and course content.
* Require a MA or MS degree in a subject taught in K-12 for admission to a doctoral program in education. This requirement would upgrade the caliber of doctoral students in one stroke.
Goal 3. Make structural changes in teacher preparation programs that increase the academic competence of new teachers. In a common European model, prospective secondary teachers are trained under the aegis of the academic discipline they have majored in and often obtain a master’s degree in, with pedagogical faculty attached to the discipline, not an education school. Since liberal arts departments in this country deal with the results of high school training, they alone can make valid connections between the high school curriculum in their discipline and what they expect in their own post-secondary coursework.
In contrast, for pre-school, kindergarten, and perhaps primary grade teachers, we should consider a separate structure, possibly two- or three-year pedagogical institutes, as in many European countries. In these institutes, a pedagogical faculty concentrates on teaching top high school graduates how to teach beginning reading, writing, and arithmetic.
The now well-known Finnish model dates from about 1970. Its reforms upgraded the master’s program in education for prospective generalist and subject teachers, focusing them on rigorous educational research. Note that in both models subject teachers are expected to have a deep understanding of their subject before they begin teaching.
* Require subject teachers from grade 5 to grade 12 to be prepared in programs attached to the academic discipline they teach. At the very least, teachers of mathematics and science at any grade level should be prepared in programs attached to college mathematics and science departments. Discipline-specific pedagogical faculty should be under the aegis of the academic discipline. As the Panel suggested, schools should aim for full-time mathematics and science teachers in grades 5 and 6 instead of self-contained elementary classrooms with generalist teachers in those grades.
* Require teachers for pre-K to grade 3 or 4 to be prepared in programs for each type of teacher (e.g., pre-school, kindergarten, primary grades), with all coursework tailored to each type. Education schools should concentrate on programs for teachers in pre-K to grade 3 or 4, linked to community-based two- or three-year institutions to ensure consistency of program coursework for the different types of teachers for young children.
Goal 4. Require both discipline-based faculty and pedagogical faculty as supervisors of student teaching. In order to implement needed changes in K-12, this is perhaps the most important area to address.
* Require discipline-based faculty to help in supervising student teachers of their subject and to approve of the teachers of the classrooms in which they are placed.
National Mathematics Advisory Panel. (2008). Foundations for success: Final report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.
Sandra Stotsky. (2012). Essay review of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland by Pasi Sahlberg. Journal of School Choice: Research, Theory, and Reform, Volume 6, Issue 2, 295-300.
Sandra Stotsky. (2009). New guidelines for teacher training: A needed attempt to reform the accreditation of teacher education schools lacks substance. Clarion Call. Raleigh, NC: John Pope Center.
Sandra Stotsky. (2009). Who needs mathematicians for math, anyway? The ed schools’ pedagogy adds up to trouble. City Journal.
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Sandra Stotsky. (2006). Why American students do not learn to read very well: The unintended consequences of Title II and teacher testing. Nonpartisan Education Review, 2 (1).
Sandra Stotsky. (2006). Who should be accountable for what beginning teachers need to know? Journal of Teacher Education, 57 (3): 256-258.
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