Teacher training should emphasize the practical, panel urges

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By Michael Birnbaum
Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Programs that train teachers need to be radically revised, according to a panel composed of some of the country's top educators, and eight states, including Maryland, have signed on to adopt the recommendations, scheduled to be released Tuesday.

Teacher-training programs have long been criticized for not putting enough emphasis on inside-the-classroom practice, and the recommendations suggest turning programs "upside-down" by putting practical training first and foremost. They advise creating formal mentorship programs for student teachers akin to those at medical schools and suggest that more scrutiny be given to teaching programs.

"This is a seismic moment for teacher education," said Nancy L. Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York and co-chairwoman of the panel that wrote the report. The panel also included the heads of several of the country's largest education schools, government officials and the leaders of the country's two main teachers' unions.

Teacher preparation needs "to connect what you know to what you're able to do," Zimpher said. She praised the report for taking a "systematic" approach to improving standards for teacher preparation.

Nationwide, about 150,000 new teachers enter the workforce each year, according to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, four-fifths from traditional university- or college-based training programs.

But a growing number come from programs such as Teach for America, which bypass traditional education schools, in part because of a perception that the standard routes for teacher preparation have become less useful.

Teach for America argues that the teachers it puts in challenging classrooms after a five-week summer training program are just as ready to teach as their peers who have been through standard teacher-preparation classes. Those assertions have been controversial, but the program has grown in popularity and plans to double in size over the next four years with the help of a $50 million federal grant it won in August.

But even many educators who are skeptical of Teach for America agree that most teacher-preparation programs don't give their trainees enough practical experience.

In Maryland, the education department signed on to implement the recommendation, although officials say they are already mostly in compliance. California, Colorado, Louisiana, New York, Ohio, Oregon and Tennessee also have pledged to implement the recommendations.

"We feel we're already implementing much of what's recommended here," said Maryland Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "I don't think it's consistent across this country."

She said Maryland has found that teachers who have had extensive in-classroom experience before they start teaching full time tend to stay on the job longer than their peers.

She also said the state planned to use a new system to track student performance back to teachers and to the teaching schools that trained them. For now, she said, it would be "diagnostic," a way to help teaching programs find the areas they need to improve. She said she might be interested in using student performance data in reaccreditation decisions, as Louisiana started to do last year.

The state school system also will try to reduce the number of people receiving training to teach in elementary schools in favor of harder-to-staff areas such as math, science and early childhood, another component of the report, she said.

"Accreditation is being broadly criticized today," said Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, who was on the panel. "What we're having now is an education war over the best way to prepare people.


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