Editorial: Parsing the difference between what is and what could be

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By Julie Greenberg and Kate Walsh

We know we're not cool for saying so, but teacher preparation, if it were done right, should make a big difference.

Like many of our fellow ed reformers, we happen to believe that the teaching profession needs to recruit more smart people and we also believe that it's important to be frank in communicating that need. Believe it or not, because this common sense assertion makes many educators bristle, it's often communicated in code, substituting the word "talented" for "smart."

However, unlike many of our policy friends, we also think that once having persuaded smart people to enter the profession, even they would benefit greatly from solid preparation, especially at the elementary level.

Though it's clear we're no apologists for the current quality of teacher prep in the vast majority of education schools, our plug for a newly envisioned quality of preparation puts us out of step. Many reformers put their faith solely in the transformative power of elite teacher candidates. This approach is misguided on two counts.

First, it fails to account for the simple arithmetic involved, that being that there just aren't enough elite teacher candidates to go around. Currently, the programs attracting elite candidates (TNTP, TFA and urban residencies) account for fewer than 10,000 of the 240,000 teachers hired each year in this country.

But it also fails to acknowledge that even smart candidates might be even more effective with the type of preparation offered to equally elite candidates in countries whose students outperform our own.

The policy agenda for Michelle Rhee's new organization, StudentsFirst, is a case in point. While we applaud Rhee's activism and credit her with groundbreaking reform approaches on many fronts, her stance on teacher preparation is stuck on this theme. As the organization's website states: "The best programs recruit candidates who are high academic achievers and have strong subject matter knowledge, then intensively support new teachers through mentoring and observation." Note that there's not a word about the professional preparation provided to these candidates before they enter the classroom.

At last, however, the need for the right type of preparation before entering the classroom may be getting some attention from someone other than us in the Ticket to Teach initiative just advanced by Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).

Among DFER's recommendations is one that "each preparation program should develop an advanced, state-of-the-art curriculum that is interdisciplinary and covers: research based approaches to reading instruction, mastery of mathematics (algebra at minimum) and interpretation of statistics and other quantitative data; identification of learning disabilities, including experience in administering the industry assessments that identify such disabilities and certification in their use. It would also have to provide training in effective and appropriate student discipline and classroom management."

We agree on most of these topics -- as you'll see if you look at the standards NCTQ is now using to review teacher preparation at our nation's 1,400 education schools, announced in partnership with U.S. News and World Report on January 18th. Through examination of programs in hundreds of ed schools nationwide over the last six years, we've developed the tools to take on this task.

Our goal is to provide the information needed by prospective teachers, hiring districts and policy makers to distinguish among teacher preparation programs to identify the best and worst among them. We also hope to identify a core preparation program that aligns with what superintendents and principals say they need, which--after more than a century of formal teacher preparation--has yet to even be defined, let along take root in the nation's ed schools. It would be ironic if despite our efforts, and what we hope will be our successes, it continues to be as difficult to win over ed reformers as it is ed schools themselves.