Teacher training programs need a reboot

Teacher training programs should be designed on the medical model, writes Jane Dimyan-Ehrenfeld in the Washington Post.

I went to a highly ranked liberal arts college and graduated with a special major in sociology, anthropology and education as well as an elementary teaching certificate. I immediately found a job teaching breathtakingly underprivileged students in a persistently failing elementary school in Prince George’s County. I wasn’t prepared to teach my students how to tie their shoes, much less to make up for years of institutional neglect, hunger, poverty, family transience, isolation and other ills. My first year was a nightmarish blur; my second was only slightly less awful. My third had its highlights but was still a daily struggle.

She enrolled in a one-year master’s program at Teachers College, Columbia to learn how to teach special-needs students. She learned a lot about Lev Vygotsky’s theory of the zone of proximal development, but nothing of practical use.

We can’t decide whether teaching is a “craft or a profession,” Arthur Levine said in the Post‘s story on National Council on Teacher Quality‘s report criticizing teacher education. “Do you need a lot of education as you would in a profession, or do you need a little bit and then learn on the job, like a craft?” asked Levine.

It’s a false dichotomy, writes Dimyan-Ehrenfeld. Medical students combine highly specialized education with clinical rotations, “learning the craft of patient care through observation and guided practice.” They also take “rigorous licensing exams that test their theoretical and practical knowledge.” Then comes on-the-job learning under master practitioners and more tests.

Why not adopt this model for education? Educators could be required to complete a period of schooling in which they learn the theories and ideas that will be most valuable to them as teachers and hone their skills at thinking and talking about education from an intellectual standpoint. Then, perhaps, one to two years of guided practice under the supervision of master teachers could be required, with lots of coaching and meaningful feedback. We could even throw in some rigorous exams.

If it took years of education, training and testing to become a full-fledged teacher, would we have enough teachers?

Dimyan-Ehrenfeld taught for eight years in Maryland and Boston public schools. She now practices education and civil rights law in Washington.

About Joanne


  1. wahoofive says:

    What I mainly hear from teachers is that pretty much nothing they learned in college is of much use in the classroom. Before we sign on to this dual-training idea, I’d sure like to hear some teachers (not just “education professionals”) argue that the coursework in their 4-year degree was useful for more than just fulfilling a credentialing requirement.

    I don’t think “craft” is a helpful term, though. Craftsmen start with a bunch of identical 2x4s and turn them into identical Mancala boards to sell at crafts fairs. Teachers, like doctors, realize that they have to tailor their approach to individuals, and that’s one of the things they don’t really learn in college.

  2. Education Theory is NOT brain surgery (in spite of the fact that people are seriously making this
    comparison)! “The theories and ideas that will be most valuable to them as teachers” can be taught in less than a month.

  3. As someone who teaches at the University level, I confess to having NEVER taken a single education course. I do not teach at a research institution, but all my Ph.D. training was pointed towards doing research. I learned my specialty (math) and learned how to teach on the job: being a teaching assistant for a year, and then twenty years of teaching at three different universities. No studies of pedagogy, development of courses, theory of learning, cognitive development or any of that. All of that came from discussions in the lunchrooms, meetings, workshops and other “professional development”. I think I’m a good teacher – I have students come back and say thank you – but you never really know…

  4. It’s time for the false and useless comparisons of teachers to physicians to end. A much more useful comparison would be to bachelor’s programs in nursing. In four years, nurses learn anatomy/physiology, biochem, microbiology, pharmacology, psychology, sociology and both the background knowledge and clinical practice in all areas of nursing (on which they will be tested for licensure), plus take electives in a variety of fields. Considering that ES teachers should (be required to) know the vast majority of the content they will be teaching BEFORE they enter college, it’s insane to suggest that they can’t be fully prepared to teach effectively in four years. Even future MS and HS teachers should already have a solid foundation in their subject area, on which college can build. Considering that my (excellent) early ES teachers were Normal School grads (1 year post HS), I’m sure it’s possible to prepare most k-5 teachers in two years of CC (specialties aside). Of course, classroom management would be far less of an issue if kids were assigned to classes based on their instructional needs and admins made sure that disruptors (from whatever cause; brats, thugs and wannabes or spec ed) were removed. Good curriculum choices, like Core Knowledge and Singapore Math, and explicit instruction work to maximize teacher effectiveness

    • Of course, it’s also necessary to say that it’s harder to get into nursing programs than teaching programs and the workload, both in class preparation and lots of labs and clinical practicums, is far higher. When I was in college, most of the kids who dropped/flunked out of nursing went to the ed school.

      • “When I was in college, most of the kids who dropped/flunked out of nursing went to the ed school.”

        The Ed Schools are $$$$$$ makers aka CASH COW for the universities by allowing a pathway for the lower 40% of students to get an EASY degree. That’s why this mediocrity is perpetuated.

        No way is teaching a GENUINE profession. It tries to maintain those trappings BUT falls far short.

        This is NOT meant to denigrate the THOUSANDS/Tens of Thousands of outstanding teachers who teach our youth. One of the problems is that there are simply far TOO MANY positions and TOO FEW genuinely qualified applicants. Of course this problem extends to the adminocrats both in the individual schools and the districts. All of these problems are compounded by the centralized control, through the use of $$$ funding, by the Department of Education aka Federal control of education. The DoEd should be reduced to an Office of Educational statistics, as should each state DoEd, with responsibility and funding devolved to each respective district.

  5. The advancements in technology has its own ups and downs. Most kids these days spend more time online than reading and doing homework. Teacher training program should really have a reboot to cater to today’s children.

  6. I’m currently working on my teacher certification in Maryland. I already have a bachelor’s and master’s in biology and after years of tutoring and teaching in a nonformal setting I am teaching middle school science at a private school. Maryland requires 7 courses and two Praxis exams to become certified as a secondary level teacher in biology. I’ve taken 6 of the 7 classes. I have found the classes to have quite a lot of useful information and practical advice, although there is just as much useless stuff in them including teaching fads that have been proven as ineffective. One of the more interesting findings for me is that the classes are much more meaningful AFTER teaching for a year – then I could apply the information to what I was already doing. The courses that are specifically education classes are rather easy; the psychology courses that are not only taken by education students are more challenging. The Praxis exams are probably hard enough; however, Maryland’s cut off scores are very low (about 60% correct is passing on the biology exam).

    I would not want teaching certification to become like a medical doctor program – should it be that outrageously expensive?!? The nursing program analogy might be more realistic. And as someone else pointed out, one of the problems is that education schools are often filled with low performing students – stupid in, stupid out.

    As someone else said, teaching is not rocket science. If one wants to become a seriously good teacher they can do their own research and apply what they learn – something I’m always doing; however, this is not a common practice among my colleagues.

    • Mike in Texas says:

      And as someone else pointed out, one of the problems is that education schools are often filled with low performing students – stupid in, stupid out.

      This is a myth from about 10 years ago, created by the anti-teacher crowd based on a survey of high school students who said they wanted to be teachers.

      I would suggest you do some research on it.

      By the way, do you realize you basically called yourself stupid, being a graduate of an education school and all?

      • Citation?

        • Mike in Texas says:


          I noticed you didn’t demand proof from Geena that teachers are stupid.

          • Try reading – I do not have a degree in education and I’m not working on one; my degrees are in biology. The classes I am taking are post graduate for certification. My reference to “stupid in” is in regards to those receiving bachelor’s in education; these programs are known for accepting students with low scores, although I was not clear about this point in my post. The program in which I am taking classes has no entrance requirements of any kind so anyone can take them. The state accepts any score C or above. You’d have to be pretty dim to get a C in any of the classes I’ve taken. The MD praxis score cutoff points are shamefully low.

          • In a world of change some things can still be counted upon.

            A union blog. Typical.

            It’s too bad Al Shanker’s not around any more. Unlike the typical union leader, Randi Weingarten for instance, Shanker knew that pissing in the soup isn’t a good idea even if you don’t have to partake. People have a long memory for nasty tastes in their mouths and when the opportunity to balance the scales eventually emerges the memory of the bad taste tends to offset more logical considerations.

            I didn’t bother to demand verification from Geena is because I know the reason her assertion is true.