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Teaching the teachers

Saturday, November 20, 2010; 6:34 PM

TEACHERS, LIKE DOCTORS, should receive their training through clinical practice. That conclusion of a national report calling for teacher education to be "turned upside down" makes sense. But if medicine is the model, this country also has to figure out how to attract its most accomplished graduates to teaching. Training is important in improving teacher quality, but so is making teaching a career that appeals to the best and the brightest.

Last week a panel of education experts convened by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education issued a report proposing an overhaul of how teachers are trained. It recommends a shift from the focus on classroom lectures and course work to practical hands-on experience. Those who aspire to teach would, from day one, be immersed in the actual work. Other suggestions include rigorous accountability measures for education schools and targeted research into which programs are most effective. It's an ambitious agenda, and it's unclear whether education schools, accrediting agents and individual school districts will have the will or the resources to sign on. But it's encouraging that a group generally not seen as on the cutting edge of reform is advancing these ideas and that eight states already have signaled their intent to add more clinical practice to their teaching training programs.

More attention also must be paid to the quality of those seeking to be trained as teachers. The report calls for raising admission, performance and graduation standards for aspiring teachers but leaves largely unanswered how to attract top talent. Of course there are many happy exceptions, but by comparison with other nations America's smartest and most accomplished college graduates don't want to be teachers. Other professions offer more lucrative salaries, more prestige and other rewards. As the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. reported this fall, fewer than one in four of U.S. teachers are coming from the top one-third of college graduates, while the world's top performing systems recruit 100 percent of their teacher corps from the top third.

Teacher quality is the single most important in-school determinant of student achievement; that is why the need is so great to make reforms in how teachers are evaluated, compensated and supported.

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