Goldilocks and the three teacher preparation programs

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The holiday season seems the ideal time to retell a childhood story with a slight twist...

Imagine a contemporary Goldilocks, not a little girl exploring out in the forest, but a high school senior surfing the web in search of the ideal undergraduate elementary teacher preparation program. As you recall, the original Goldilocks finds a house in the woods with three bowls of porridge, three chairs and three beds, each different in some respect and only one "just right." Our contemporary Goldilocks locates three teacher preparation programs, each a different length: a five-year program, a four-year program, and now a new three-year program launched by the University of Maine at Fort Kent (UMFK). The UMFK program is ambitiously--but ridiculously--entitled "Student Teachers Aspiring to meet the Real challenges of Schools" or STARS. Unlike the storybook Goldilocks, our Maine senior can't try each program to determine which is "just right" for her, so what advice can she be offered in her selection?

Five-year programs come in two varieties, each problematic in its own way. Some couple a standard undergraduate degree of any kind with a fifth year of professional preparation. These programs almost always shortchange the elementary teacher candidate on the content preparation relevant to the elementary classroom, particularly in mathematics and reading. Others simply extend undergraduate teacher preparation into a fifth year, a model that's never been suitably justified for the additional time and cost required.

The advertised merits of this new three-year program are both to save teacher candidates time and money by compressing four years of preparation into three and to make money for the university through enrollment increases. Those admitted reportedly will be the cream of their high school classes, "an aggressive, dedicated type of student."

But is the program good for teachers? The plan to lure top-notch candidates on to a fast track may in fact yield some decent crops of relatively strong, smart teachers. We wonder, however, if smarts and even, let's assume, the best coursework will be enough to compensate for the fact that these 20- to 21-year old teachers will be unleashed into public schools only nominally older than some of their students. Not to quibble over the difference of one year, there's still a decent argument that the quality of teaching benefits from the gift of years and that there's a reason why schools are pleased to attract older hires (and whose idea of classroom management isn't the lure of TGIF pizza).

Fast-track teacher preparation is probably best reserved for alternative certification programs for adults, not teacher preparation programs for teenagers. In that vein, Maine would be well-advised to consider developing a genuine alternate route into the teaching profession, as we note in our State Teacher Policy Yearbook.