When done right, student teaching can be a tremendous learning experience as teacher candidates observe an outstanding teacher and then put into practice what they learned. They not only benefit from their cooperating teacher's experience but also obtain additional feedback and guidance from a representative of their program. In lower quality programs, student teaching can turn into one more procedural requirement to be checked off, a chance to pick up bad habits, or even unpaid labor with little educational value.
In order to increase the odds of a positive student teaching experience, a growing number of states are imposing requirements on student teaching, such as requiring that cooperating teachers and program supervisors write down their observations of the student teacher on a specific, structured form. Massachusetts recently revamped its student teacher evaluation form, now called the Candidate Assessment of Progress (CAP), showing some of the potential positive and negative effects of this approach.
For example, NCTQ's previous evaluation found that few Massachusetts teacher prep programs provide student teachers with sufficient guidance on classroom management. Typically, programs give feedback on only one or two of the five areas of classroom management shown by strong research to be essential. However, the CAP form requires the observer to provide feedback on four of these. For example, the CAP specifically asks the observer to comment on student teachers' ability to respond to student behavior — positive and negative — in the classroom.
This is just one of many examples of the influence states can wield on the quality of teacher preparation by setting strong, explicit state requirements. For instance, the states that have the largest proportion of programs requiring strong mentorship skills for cooperating teachers are those states that mandate these skills (Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, and North Dakota).
Of course, not all states' actions are as successful as the adoption of the CAP form. A number of other states have mandatory forms for student teachers, but they are not as strong as the CAP because they are not aligned with practices shown by research to be effective.
Also, regulations do not always have the intended effect. For example, we found that three quarters of programs in four additional states that nominally require cooperating teachers to be strong mentors (New Jersey, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Tennessee) do not explicitly include mentorship skills among their criteria for cooperating teachers. This leads one to wonder how programs are interpreting other state guidelines.
Moreover, many states have not even established basic requirements for student teaching--one third do not require that teacher candidates spend at least 10 weeks in student teaching, and two-thirds of states do not mandate that prospective cooperating teachers be effective in their classroom.
For these reasons, we recommend that states seeking to craft new laws and regulations to improve teacher preparation focus on two essential aspects:
As Massachusetts demonstrates, all requirements should reflect state-of-the-art research on effective teaching. For example, key elements of effective classroom management are known – so states should require prep programs to give prospective teachers guidance on them during student teaching practice.
As we mentioned earlier, implementation matters. It's not enough to simply pass a law or write a regulation – states should put into place effective mechanisms to monitor adherence.
Most teacher prep institutions assign student teaching near the end of the prospective teacher's program in order to see if she can put into practice what she previously was taught. However, when properly organized, student teaching also is a learning opportunity. High-quality feedback from the cooperating teacher and program supervisor on what they observed can guide the student teacher to improve. States should take steps to require that cooperating teachers be excellent teachers and skilled mentors of adults, that both the cooperating teacher and the program supervisor frequently observe the student teacher, and that observers provide structured comments that include guidance on research-supported skills.
Otherwise, what should be the capstone of the teacher candidate's preparation, a final opportunity to grow their ability to plan a lesson and teach it successfully to real students (but with supervision and guidance that will be mostly absent when the teacher has her own classroom), can become just another bureaucratic hoop to jump through, with little value for the future teacher.