The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What keeps good teachers teaching?

By Karen Hammerness

Last month, the National Council on Teaching Quality (NCTQ) released a report about the quality of teacher preparation programs that has been criticized for a number of reasons. One key problem about the report is that it fails to look at the important outcome of retention, and at key program factors that might keep good teachers in teaching. In a research study with colleagues at Brandeis University, we’ve identified a number of these factors. These programs have a shared, clear vision of teaching and learning to teach that is research-based; they focus upon teaching new teachers specific classroom practices that are consistent with that vision of good teaching; they help new teachers understand the theoretical and research base for those practices; and finally, they provide prospective teachers with repeated opportunities to enact and practice such strategies in real classrooms—but supported throughout by consistent coaching and feedback from faculty.

One of the programs we’ve been studying, UChicago UTEP, a graduate program started in 2003 and based at the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, has a strong record of sustaining teachers in some of the most challenging schools in Chicago.  Almost 90 percent of UChicago UTEP graduates are still teaching—an impressive statistic given that about 30 percent of new teachers typically leave teaching within three years and about half have left after only five years. Graduates of some alternative programs leave even more rapidly; a study of teacher preparation in New York City estimated that 80 percent of graduates of fast-track programs would have left after four years of classroom teaching.  Understanding what programs do to prepare teachers who stay in teaching is vital.

What are some of the things UChicago UTEP does that contribute to these results? First, the program is designed around a common and shared vision of good teaching that is based upon research on how children learn, and how teachers learn to teach. Having a vision of good teaching does not mean, however, that faculty focus upon a set of abstract, pie-in-the-sky goals that have little relationship with real, everyday classroom teaching. The faculty have identified specific classroom practices — such as learning to conduct an interactive ‘read-aloud’ of a text with children with varying degrees of reading ability; or learning how to use data to assess student progress in mathematics — that new teachers need to learn in order to be able to accomplish this kind of strong classroom teaching.

Student teachers don’t simply read about those classroom practices and concrete strategies in their courses. They observe them being enacted in real classrooms, and rehearse and practice the strategies themselves with real students — just as they will need to do, in their own classrooms once they graduate. For instance, student teachers watch videos of high quality enactment of read-alouds in real classrooms; UChicago UTEP faculty model the practices for students; and then student-teachers have a set of mentored opportunities to practice doing read-alouds themselves both with their own classmates and with K-12 students. This kind of careful preparation, rehearsal and actual practice in classrooms with school children means that UChicago UTEP student-teachers have tremendous support in learning and then carrying out complex and demanding teaching practices.

At the same time, these concrete classroom strategies are not treated in the program like purely routinized skills or simple techniques that anyone can apply, with little understanding of the theory that supports them. Prospective teachers learn why these strategies are important—and the feedback that faculty give when the candidates practice the strategies– is designed to help them make links between theory and practices. Knowing both about how to enact these strategies as well as to how they contribute to learning, means that prospective teachers come in with a repertoire of effective research-based strategies but also the flexible understanding to consider how and when to apply those practices.

In our follow up research on this program, in which we visited the classrooms of program graduates, we found that UTEP graduates were not only consistently using these high-leverage classroom practices in effective ways, but were also thinking about how to configure them to suit the particular needs of their students. For instance, one UTEP graduate mentioned that she had found the interactive read-aloud strategy so useful in helping students learn to read that she had adapted it to the teaching of mathematics.

Among the most critical factors that contributes to whether new teachers remain in teaching, or choose to leave, is the degree to which they feel efficacious with students. Prospective teachers leave UChicago UTEP with a repertoire of these high leverage classroom practices at their fingertips. They start out with some concrete approaches that are not only known to be important for children’s learning, but that they can immediately put to use in their classrooms. At the same time, UChicago UTEP graduates have the understanding of the theoretical and research basis of the strategies, which means that they can also generalize and learn as they go, flexibly adapting strategies to the different students and contexts that they will meet in their early careers. The preparation UChicago UTEP provides enables their graduates to enjoy this kind of ‘sense of success’ with students, likely a key factor in their choice to remain in teaching.

In a period in which policy makers and educators are paying increasing attention to the preparation of teachers—as well as to how to keep good teachers in classrooms—we need to know much more about the programs that do this work well. Understanding how programs like UChicago UTEP keep committed, reflective teachers in teaching is fundamental.  Programs like this help new teachers achieve what many educators say that they value most highly—and in turn, what motivates new teachers to stay in teaching– the knowledge that they have successfully helped their students learn.