TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

What teacher candidates won't find in their textbooks

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Over the holidays, I ran into an old colleague from back when I was doing a lot of work in Baltimore during the 1990s. The conversation turned to NCTQ's work in teacher preparation. Perhaps half kidding, he accused me of being a turncoat, referring to my newfound commitment to traditional teacher preparation. "Whatever happened to you?" he launched in. "You used to know that teacher prep was a total waste of time. Now you're such a booster!"

"Twenty-five years ago, that position may have made some sense," I retorted. "It's just not a defensible position any longer."

What this guy didn't realize—nor perhaps do a lot of people—is that over the last couple of decades there's been a boon in all sorts of knowledge, much of it highly relevant to teaching. Unfortunately, little of this knowledge has been integrated into teacher preparation. If it were, we might see a big reduction in the all-too-steep learning curve experienced by most novice teachers.

For starters, there's the rock-solid science on how to teach reading, which didn't just end with the National Reading Panel in 2000, but has continued to grow, particularly including the roles of oral language and building broad content knowledge. There have also been advancements in basic principles of instruction and managing human (e.g. classroom) behavior. 

In a report NCTQ released yesterday, we again find little evidence of these advancements making their way into mainstream teacher education, specifically by means of the textbooks programs require for coursework. This time, the field of study is human learning, our collective knowledge of which, resting on a foundation laid over a century ago, has gone into warp speed over the last few decades. And, we would contend, there is no other subject that could benefit struggling new teachers more. 

To determine the presence of this beneficial knowledge in teacher prep programs, we analyzed the textbooks required in courses purporting to teach how children learn (generally ed psych and methods courses), assessing if any home in on the research-proven strategies that teachers can use to help children learn as well as retain what they learn. Those very practical strategies, some of which are supported by research going back decades, were neatly packaged and tied with a bow for an audience of educators in 2007 by the Institute for Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

In an exhaustive analysis, our experts were not able to identify a single textbook in our representative sample of 48 textbooks which would be suitable for teaching this essential group of strategies. The majority of texts adequately cover only a single strategy. None in the sample covers more than two.

We wondered then if perhaps programs worked around the deficiencies found in textbooks, supplementing them with other resources. Looking for references to supplemental readings (hoping one might be the IES guide itself), lecture topics and student assignments, we found nothing. Further, since publishers generally only publish texts which are likely to meet consumer demand, it seems unlikely that teacher educators are clamoring for content they're not getting. And the fact that the newly formed Deans for Impact made the "science of learning" its opening salvo also suggests that this material has yet to be embraced by mainstream teacher ed.

One explanation for the absence of these strategies from textbooks and coursework is that the field of teacher education is more likely to ignore research, not just because it sometimes comes from other fields, but because it counters the prevailing views of teacher educators. That hypothesis might explain why one of the six strategies (the one which also happens to be backed up by the most science) receives such short shrift. That would be the "testing" strategy which advises frequent quizzing to help students remember what they learn. Testing is a dirty word these days. But it doesn't explain the indifference on the part of teacher education to the other strategies, such as teaching about the importance of teachers distributing review or practice of new material across weeks to promote retention of new material. 

Another hypothesis might point to teacher education's unwillingness to put down its collective foot once and for all, rejecting much of the current "research" which would more aptly be termed thought-pieces, non generalizable case studies or small-sample investigation. That kind of culling, by our estimation, would reduce the average ed psych textbook's 2,200 references by about 90 percent—with most of the reduction due to the common practice in these textbooks of citing a whole book as the supporting evidence for this or that practice without even identifying the page number (imagine a medical textbook accepting as adequate support a citation such as "Your Spine and You, 2000, Chicago: Doubleday"). 

The market for substandard textbooks has got to dry up. There is simply no defense for using textbooks so untethered from the emerging research about what works in practice. We look forward to working with publishers and prep programs to ensure these books are pulled from the shelves.
See NCTQ's latest report, Learning About Learning, for a closer look at the research-proven instructional strategies teacher textbooks leave out.