Preparing New Teachers for the “What” and “How” to Teach

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A good secondary teacher prep program has two basic functions: first, to ensure that teacher candidates graduate knowing the content of the subject in which they will become certified; and second, to ensure that they also know how to teach this content. We call this the What and the How of teacher prep.

At the high school level, most programs do well preparing teacher candidates on content:

  • Almost all programs make sure English and mathematics teachers cover the content in their fields.
  • Our most recent scan of programs finds that fewer programs provide science teachers with sufficient content, but most do (81 percent).
  • The subject area programs have the most trouble with is social studies. Only two thirds of programs provide the right level of content.

Of course, effective teachers not only need a strong background in content, but also need to know how to teach it to students. Most programs (roughly three quarters) provide teachers with methods courses showing them instructional techniques specific to their subject.

Yet, when we look for the intersection of these two functions — ensuring good content preparation and methods for teaching the content, more programs come up short looking across the four core subject areas. Fewer than half of all programs systematically deliver on these two functions for all their teacher candidates. 

Specifically, 80 percent of programs earn an "A" in both content and methods in English, 78 percent in math, 63 percent in science, declining to only 48 percent in social studies.

The following chart lists all the examined teacher prep programs and whether they require adequate content and methods for each of the four core subject areas:

The full chart can be found here.

Virtually all teacher prep programs adequately address both content and methods for English and mathematics teacher candidates, demonstrating their dedication to strong teacher preparation. That dedication can be applied to the more complex challenge of preparing teachers in science and social studies.

Smaller programs also need to find creative ways to provide methods courses tailored to teachers' intended subject areas, even when only a single teacher candidate is seeking certification in that subject. Three quarters of small programs in our sample (those graduating fewer than 25 teachers a year) are able to achieve this goal, proving this is possible for the others.

Ultimately, if a teacher prep program wants its graduates to do well in their first year of teaching, they must provide both what and how to teach. Programs that fail to do both successfully--or that only do both for some subjects and not others--risk graduating teachers who will be poorly equipped for the real challenges of the classroom.