Teach your teachers well

Elite colleges should take the lead in redesigning teacher training, writes Susan Engel, director of the teaching program at Williams College, in the New York Times.  She envisions selective (and free) teacher training programs taught by outstanding professors. Future teachers would study their subjects as well as learning the mechanics of teaching. They’d be subsidized for their first three years of teaching.

. . . students should learn their craft the way a surgeon learns to operate: by intense supervision in a real setting with expert mentors. Student-teachers are usually observed only twice during a semester and then given a written evaluation. But young teachers, like young doctors, should work side by side with skilled mentors, getting plenty of feedback, having plenty of opportunities to observe and taking on greater and greater responsibility as they improve.

. . . In much the same way (as family therapists in training), young teachers need to record their daily encounters with their classrooms and then, with mentors and peers, have serious, open-minded conversations about what’s working and what isn’t.

Engel also suggests giving schools incentives to hire groups of newly prepared teachers so they’ll “feel part of a robust community of promising professionals.”

Is this practical on a large scale? We’ll never staff all our schools with Ivy League grads, but we could hire and retain more smart new teachers if they had a chance to learn the job before going solo in a classroom.

Robert Pondiscio praises the use of “craft” to describe teaching rather than “art” or “science.” Check out the discussion in comments as well.

Alliance for Excellent Education also has ideas on improving teacher preparation programs.

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  1. Homeschooling Granny says:

    I question whether the problem in our schools is so centered in the caliber of teachers. I see home schooling parents who appear to be pretty average people doing a fine-to-excellent job of educating their children. The environment in which they work offers a slew of advantages not always available to school teachers.

    If reform focuses too much on teachers, it will lack necessary balance. Administrators, parents and even students themselves, hearing that the problem is teachers, may give themselves a pass and overlook their own contribution to the problems.

    When my children complained about their teachers, I told them that was tough but the education they got – or failed to get – was theirs; that they needed to get everything they could from what was available to them. I also said that if they wanted better teachers, they should be better students; be the student the teachers went into teaching to serve.

    I see great possibilities in mentoring and internships but not so much in scapegoating teachers.

  2. Homeschooling Granny, I like your style. It is very true that those who home school are able to provide the one on one attention teachers try to give in the classroom. If you divide the instructional minutes I have each day by the number of students I have, it comes down to two minutes per day per child. That’s hardly one on one attention in the classroom.

    As for getting Ivy League grads into our classrooms, perhaps if we subsidized teacher’s salaries who are coming from the best schools of education (say the top three) and make those salaries comparable to other professions, the competition to attend those schools of ed would increase dramatically, thereby increasing the quality of teachers coming out. Who’s going to pay for that subsidy? Who knows- just a thought.

  3. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Nick, it is not just the time spent with the child. It is also the ability to pick curriculum and to change it if it doesn’t work. It is the ability to discipline (by which I mean loving guidance in the rules, not corporal punishment). It is not having burdensome paperwork requirements that intrude on time that might be spent researching material for lessons.

  4. When I was in college, the dropouts/flunkouts from the various medical fields and STEM fields most often seemed to end up in the ed school. This was also true for a number of those who started with a major in the College of Arts and Sciences; the ed school required only half the number of credits for a major or minor. The issue was as much, or perhaps more, related to inclination than to ability. The kids I knew who transferred into the ed school were significantly less willing to spend time and effort on academic matters and significantly more interested in having plenty of time for “college life” endeavors. With double majors and double minors, in two different Colleges, I saw many such departures.

    I think that the people who choose teaching, through the ed school route, are fundamentally different than those who do not. I don’t think the kind of incentives being discussed will help things much. Public-school teaching is done in a bureaucracy and some people are inherently more willing to choose that environment than others.

    I’d also like to point out that somehow nurses are able to pass a rigorous, knowledge-based licensure exam when they graduate and are prepared to begin practice after a short orientation period. However, they had a college curriculum which included sciences, social sciences, related electives and clinical content, plus supervised clinical practice. The typical ed-school curriculum does not compare.

  5. I think that the people who choose teaching, through the ed school route, are fundamentally different than those who do not

    Yep. They’re not interested in short cuts, they’re usually better human beings than engineers and mathematicians, and I’d trust most of them with my children before I’d even begin to trust people in other majors.

    Your contempt for teachers is disgusting.

  6. Sigh. Really, momof4… really? Was that necessary?

  7. Homeschooling Nanny, I dont see this as scapegoating teachers, but just pointing out different ways to train teachers and the benefits to this one. I actually went through both a training program in elem educ. (the traditional way), and also went back to school and become family therapist. So I know 1st hand the training that goes with both . The more time teacher programs, family therapy programs, any type of human service profession for that matter….the time and experience under supervision a program can offer it’s candidates in a real world setting is invaluable.

  8. I agree with the importance of such programs. Since the needs of the primary students are different from the secondary students, the primary teachers and secondary teachers are required to take up different teacher’s training courses. The importance of teachers is especially enormous during the formative years of children when they first join school. Therefore it is very important to have professionally qualified teachers to ensure the right development of students.

  9. A gee Mike, Lightly Seasoned, someone not toe the “teacher as secular saint” line necessitating a fierce display of thin-lipped disapproval?

    Sorry, not only is momof4 right, she didn’t really cover the issue.

    Ed schools are undemanding scholastically because the prospective employers of their graduates are indifferent to the skills with which those graduates emerge from the schools.

    The research that’s produced in ed schools wouldn’t impress an elementary school science contest judging panel since it’s rarely more then window dressing for a some cockamamie idea that either apes scientific insight by being embedded in a thicket of deliberately incomprehensible jargon or supports a political agenda by being embedded in a thicket of deliberately incomprehensible jargon.

    Ed schools are cash-cows for their colleges since the supply of students is never-ending, facilities are cheap and so’s the staff.

    Of course that all makes perfect sense when you consider that the purpose of an ed school isn’t so much to educate tomorrow’s teachers for enormous demands of their chosen profession but to reduce entry to a field generally seen as being not particularly demanding, secure if not generally all that well paid and with plenty of time off.

  10. She didn’t criticize the ed schools, she made a derogatory and very general claim about the anti-intellectual nature of teachers. When I am trying to have a productive conversation with someone — and this comment thread has largely been productive — I try not to turn around and call the people I’m talking with idiots. It is poor style and tends to derail the issue under discussion. That’s all.

  11. While it is true that some students in ed schools may not be as academically oriented as other majors, such as engineering, making a blanket statement about all students in these programs is derogatory and not conductive to a constructive conversation.

  12. There’s nothing derogatory in facts. They just are and ed school entrants have SAT scores in the bottom quartile of college entrants.

    If you want to characterize the mentioning of that fact as calling teachers idiots then that’s an indication of your inability to deal with the fact or preference not to.

    As to the post that started this thread my question is, as always, why?

    Why should colleges expend resources to improve teacher training if those doing the hiring largely *don’t* differentiate between prospective hires on the basis of the school from which they graduate?

  13. I did not condemn all ed school students or all teachers. I stated that my fellow students who were unable and/or unwilling to be successful in other schools typically transferred into the ed school, where they could be academically successful and have more free time. The lack of rigorous content-area requirements in many/most ed schools is not news, nor is the idea that such content knowledge is not valued there. I have read many posts, on this site and others, by teachers who said that they have had to acquire such knowledge, and the skills to teach it, on their own. I do feel that the usual philosophy and design of ed schools does not require acquisition of such knowledge and skills, which does not mean that some don’t seek out more than required. It also means that the academically-indifferent can survive there. My comment about ed majors being fundamentally different specifically refers to the bureaucratic nature of public schools and their willingness to tolerate it.

    My kids had some truly outstanding teachers, especially at the high-school level, and most of their teachers were good. This was only to be expected in their highly-ranked schools, where it was easy to attract good teachers. It is far otherwise in many areas and ed schools don’t seem to do a good job weeding out their weakest students.

    I don’t think the teachers that post on this site, and others like it, represent the pool of weak graduates. It’s more likely that they are disproportionately from the upper end of the teacher spectrum; those who do value content and who seek effective ways to teach it. Some fundamental changes in the ed school philosophy and curriculum might produce more of the latter.

  14. Allen,

    While it is a fact that the average SAT score of an education major is significantly lower than other majors, that is not a blanket statement about all students who go through an education school. I would expect any educated individual to understand that measures of central tendancy cannot be used to characterize every member of a group.

    I would also point out that Momof4 did not state facts in her post, she stated anecdontal evidence. You significantly mistated my disagreement by claiming that I was ignoring her statement of fact. I was disagreeing with her characterization of all education majors by anecdotal evidence. Nothing more, nothing less.

    That being said, I am not denying that education schools have significant problems, but treating all education majors with disrespect for the intellectual abilities is one factor that discourages talented individuals from seeking education as as a field. There is no point for education schools to redo their systems when districts don’t care about the rigor of a prospective teacher’s background. A fundamental change needs to be done across all levels of education for it to be self-sustaining.

  15. While I would put my college transcript up against anyone’s, I also didn’t major in “education” or “liberal arts”. I majored in applied mathematics. Any school other than the one I attended would also have granted me a minor in engineering. I got my teaching credential through an alternative program a decade after getting my bachelor’s degree.

    Here in California, our state schools don’t even offer a bachelor’s degree in “education”. Prospective teachers get a degree in *something*, and then go into ed school or an alternative program. I haven’t seen any *recent* data on the academic qualifications of teacher candidates, although my gut feel is that there’s a wide spread (with more towards the lower range than any of us would care to admit).

    Traditional ed schools are, for the most part, complete and total crap. Asking colleges and universities to revamp teacher education, when those very colleges and universities are the ones who created the current crappy programs, is silly. “Hey fox, here’s a big pot of money. Go guard that henhouse!”

  16. Mark Roulo says:

    “Here in California, our state schools don’t even offer a bachelor’s degree in “education”. Prospective teachers get a degree in *something*…”


    Yes, and that something is often a “Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies”, which is a fancy way for saying that the student’s take a lot of survey courses, but don’t actually learn anything in depth.

    I know because my wife took a lot of courses with people getting these degrees.

    This degree is *NOT* something as solid a a BA in history or math or classics or literature. It is a four year program of high-school level classes mixed with freshman intro-to courses.

    Requiring a *real* content-degree would be great, but that isn’t what California does 🙁

    -Mark Roulo

  17. It is, generally, for secondary teachers, Mark. But elementary teachers *can* get the degree you mentioned.

  18. Paul,

    In your desire to impute animus to momof4’s relating of anecdotes, anecdotes which are certainly supported by the indisputable fact of the lower SAT scores of ed school entrants, you’re missing the implication: this is a mutually-agreeable situation. Ed schools have relatively low standards and the low standards of ed schools appeal to students with low SATs.

    This isn’t a tragedy. It’s not even a problem that needs addressing. It’s a reflection of the demands of the public education system which is, in a very real sense, the customer of ed schools. When the public education system demands, if it ever does, classroom-ready and student-savvy graduates then the ed schools will have to respond. Until that time the ed schools are doing what’s expected of them, acting as an impediment to the entry of too many job-seekers into the teacher employment market.

    If all you are is a speed-bump why exert yourself?

  19. Lightly Seasoned: In a post on another site, you said that you learned calc and c++ because of requirements, not individual choice. That seems to be an endorsement of strong requirements. My posts are indended to point out that my experience of ed schools (flagship state U and private U) suggests that they do not necessarily have strong requirements and that they can therefore be comfortable refuges for the academically weak and/or unmotivated. The significant number of teachers in my family would be justifiably outraged if I were to suggest that all ed students fall into that category, but they all agree that weeding out that category would be beneficial. If properly challenged, some of the unmotivated would probably improve.

  20. Andrew Bell says:

    How did the comments here get so far afield of the referenced paper? How do you all feel about the specific suggestions Ms. Engel proposed?

    Personally, I like her ideas (I’ve mentioned most of them here and other places before). But they are costly and shift the monetary burden of bringing a teacher up to snuff from the student-teacher to some other party. I’m not sure we have the will to spend the money to improve the teaching profession, even if it might be the most sure way of improving the learning experience.

  21. In no particular order:
    1. I teach with colleagues who have Ivy degrees. They are not the best in the building. A couple of them are, in fact, quite weak.
    2. One of the benefits of teaching in the college credit program is supposedly being mentored by a professor in the English department. He hasn’t even bothered to do the requisite observation in years; mentoring high school teachers isn’t a high priority for professors. Interferes with writing, which is what they need for tenure.
    3. I’ve always said an internship program of some sort is the way to go, so I agree with that concept.
    4. Functional schools do not hire en masse; they don’t have those kinds of huge openings every year, so you’d be sending all the candidates into poorly run schools — might be the goal or might not be… dunno.
    5. Education majors are supposed to be lighter on requirements so that the person can double major in subject area.
    6. Yes, sometimes ed. schools attract folks just trying to get out with a degree. About half the graduates never end up teaching and probably never had any intention of doing so — when you get one of these as a cooperating teacher for the student teaching deal it is MISERY. I send them back. I wouldn’t characterize the other half by that particular cohort.

  22. Since you haven’t been reading my comments Andrew I’ll repeat them for your benefit. This’ll be on the mid-term so pay attention.

    There’s nothing wrong with ed schools. They are doing what they’re supposed to be doing given the reality of public education and not the romanticized illusion that proponents of public education hold in their own minds and insist on as the starting point for any discussion about public education.

    Teaching skill is not valued in or by the public education system, it’s assumed if it’s thought of at all. Ed schools thus receive no benefit for turning out well-prepared teachers so they don’t.

    Given those two propositions Ms. Engels ideas will have little effect other then to cost a great deal of money and it would not surprise me all that much that were they implemented they’d result in stupefyingly expensive teacher training – cue the conga lines in the ed schools – which might actually be less effective then what’s generated the demands for improvements.

  23. As a sub in public school, I now get to see a lot of teachers from state colleges, and I must say that I am impressed. People can sit on their high horses all they want, but I agree with Homeschooling Granny. Teachers in elite private schools and homeschooling teachers have a lot of advantages. When my son was in private school, students who did not perform or behave according to the school’s standards were told to find another school. Of course, those students were then enrolled in public school.


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