Wagon circling or soul searching: It's up to you, teacher prep

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The New York City Department of Education is thinking about getting into the teacher prep business. GothamSchools claims "such a move would grant an unprecedented level of authority to local education officials while heightening competition with existing teacher prep programs." Wouldn't that be nice, was our thought.  

By our estimate, a couple of dozen states have been allowing their districts to do what New York City is proposing, but it's hard to say that any of these moves has had much of an impact. Certainly, teacher educators in higher ed have not been jolted out of their complacency, asking themselves what they should be doing differently to prevent the competition from gaining steam.

One of the reasons may be that the district efforts to date have been pretty minimal, focusing only on preparing the kinds of teacher candidates that higher ed can't seem to attract anyway: those interested in STEM and special ed prep programs. California has allowed districts to certify teachers for nearly 20 years, yet in 2009-10, only 3 percent of the state's teachers were district-trained and almost all were trained for shortage areas.

It would be much more interesting to watch the reaction from higher ed if NYC (or any district) were to begin certifying traditional teacher prep's life blood: elementary teachers. I imagine it would make the furor raised by teacher prep over Relay's entry into the field of middle school prep look like a kumbaya moment.   

In any case, while there is no doubt districts have a better idea of the training they'd like their new teachers to receive, there is plenty of doubt about their capacity to deliver it. Districts aren't in the business of training adults, no matter how well intentioned or frustrated they may be by the status quo. Seasoned veterans of such initiatives generally attest to the enormous difficulty of getting them started, let alone maintaining them, even when not consumed by the task of running a huge school district. The issue of core competencies comes into play here.

A year ago I suggested to an audience of teacher educators that they might spend less time denigrating another competitor -- Teach For America (TFA) -- and more time examining why public schools don't feel that they are getting the teachers they need from traditional prep.  Did they, I asked, ever examine why TFA had gained such steam and try to reposition themselves by changing their programs?  By the answers I got, it was clear that most have not: they believe that TFA just knows how to market itself better, hoodwinking districts into a preference for Ivy Leaguers.  

In any case, higher ed's complacency strategy has always been a winning one.  After all, the colossus of traditional prep swallowed half of the pie of alternative certification without alt cert having any noticeable effect within or without. Unless we've reached a new tipping point in ed reform in which competitors on the margin can have a more disruptive effect, I don't have much confidence in the GothamSchools prediction.  

Kate Walsh