I recently visited Framingham State University here in Massachusetts, the first public "normal school" in the U.S. In 1840, the school graduated its first class of 25 teachers; in spring 2020, FSU minted 98 teachers with initial licensure.715 This got me thinking about the long history of teacher preparation in the U.S., and I wondered: Why are we ignoring such a powerful source for a strong and diverse teacher workforce—at such a high cost to our students?
Across the country, policymakers are overlooking teacher prep as a critical force in promoting teacher quality and better outcomes for students. To improve teaching and learning, we pour hundreds of millions of dollars into professional development for current teachers, tutoring programs, or new curricula and materials, but don't address the years of coursework and practice that happen before most teachers first take charge of a classroom.
In the past few weeks, leaders in Ohio and Massachusetts have made ambitious moves to advance literacy in their states. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine just announced that he is seeking $129M to provide training for current teachers and curricular materials aligned to the science of reading. While the proposal received attention for its strong position on promoting the science of reading and eliminating instructional methods that are misaligned from the research, it does not include a focus on teacher preparation programs—worrisome, because as of 2020, only 14 of 46 elementary prep programs in the state adequately address scientifically based reading instruction.
In Massachusetts, state representative and Assistant Majority Leader Sal DiDomenico just proposed a bill "to promote high-quality comprehensive literacy instruction in all Massachusetts schools." The legislation would go far in holding districts accountable for teaching students to read using proven methods. Yet when it comes to teacher preparation, pre-service training is mentioned just once in the bill, and that's to call for the state agency to convene a panel of stakeholders to draft recommendations about disseminating best practices.
Why are we ignoring the huge role teacher preparation programs can play in ensuring new teachers have the knowledge and skills to be effective on Day 1 in the classroom?
New teachers reach over four million students each year.
In the most recent data available, 168,900 new teachers entered the classroom, reaching an estimated 4.2 million students.718 In schools, teachers are the most important factor that affects student outcomes (some estimates put their effect at two or three times more than any other in-school factor); this means the potential reach of teacher prep programs is enormous.
How those teachers are prepared matters. Several studies716 have confirmed the relationship between teachers' knowledge of scientifically based reading instruction and their students' outcomes. And when teacher candidates learn about a specific math topic in their prep program, they deliver stronger lessons on that topic.717 If we overlook the institutions that prepare these teachers, we are neglecting an opportunity to strengthen new teachers' impact on millions of students each year.
And where do these new teachers go to teach? They predominantly teach in schools serving higher proportions of students of color and students living in poverty, as well as English Learners and students with disabilities. Black students are inequitably assigned to new teachers. Latino students are assigned to new teachers at higher rates. Given the immense responsibility immediately accorded to these brand new teachers and the fact that many of them land in the highest-need schools, they must be ready. New teachers deserve to be well-prepared to make an impact on Day 1 in the classroom, as their students' success rests on their new teachers' preparation.
It's time for state education leaders to act like teacher prep matters.
States set standards and review teacher preparation programs to determine whether (or not) their candidates are eligible for state licensure. To make a meaningful difference for students, state leaders should leverage their authority to set clear and high standards for teacher prep, review programs against these standards, and support them in their continuous improvement. Sometimes states will need to make the necessary and tough decisions if teacher preparation programs are not living up to standards—as Colorado recently did.
States can't do this work alone. Higher education and teacher preparation administrators and faculty must be included—many of them are eager to be at the table to support improved student results and strong teacher preparation. And higher education leaders should be clear about their willingness to step up—as the University of North Carolina Board of Governors did a few weeks ago in voting to support a resolution that called for teacher preparation programs in the UNC system to change their programs to improve literacy preparation and instruction.
Many of our nation's flagship higher ed institutions can trace their roots back to teacher preparation. We must return to those roots and focus on teacher prep across our nation to ensure our aspiring and new teachers are well-supported to make a positive impact with students on the first day they enter their classrooms. Millions of students depend on it.