Why the Quality of Teacher Prep Programs Matters

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Some people ask if the quality of teacher preparation matters at all. They assert that preparation isn't really essential to teaching, pointing to research showing how preparation has little effect, that many teachers start teaching without it, and that teachers improve more through on-the-job practice than by taking classes full of education theory.

It's hard to think of other professions that people commonly believe can be practiced without any training adding value. Even professions that appear to emphasize learning on the job still have some measure of pre-service training -- such as plumbing with apprenticeships and journalism with university degrees and student newspapers.

Is teaching the lone exception -- a profession that can only be learned by doing? That's what Bellwether argues in its recent No Guarantees report dedicating an entire chapter to asserting "We Don't Know How to Train Teachers."

But perhaps such critics aren't looking closely enough or long enough. Based on what NCTQ has learned from a decade of evaluating teacher prep programs on many measures, we maintain that the real problem is not that preservice preparation can't matter if done right, but that it does not currently because of the uneven quality of existing programs.

We acknowledge there is very little research providing authoritative evidence on how teachers should be trained; few studies comparing two different methods of preparing teachers in order to prove one empirically superior. However, there is quite a bit of research on what works best in actual classrooms. We have conclusive research that proves if teachers do X rather than Y they can increase student learning. And, thanks to the work of people like Malcolm Gladwell and Roland Smith, we also have come to appreciate the substantive benefits of skills practice -- presumably effective no matter what skill is being practiced. Teaching future teachers on what is known to improve student outcomes makes for a rich and robust corpus of knowledge.

Connecting what is known to work in the classroom with teaching this knowledge and skills before teachers are put in charge of a classroom constitutes a leap that some haven't been willing to take. Instead, they put their eggs in the "just get smarter teachers" basket or the "let anyone teach and then fire the unsuccessful ones" basket. While we are the first to agree on the importance of attracting smart people into teaching, we think that any teacher is better off with some evidence-based training.

For example, when we look at what future teachers need to learn about how to teach reading, we can point to settled science -- the results of the National Institutes of Health's investigation into 60 years of studies. When we look to what future teachers should learn about instructional strategies, we see equally robust research which names the approaches teacher can deploy to help children learn and retain what is learned. Not only should every teacher know those strategies, but they also should have practiced them to mastery. The same goes for classroom management. There are strategies that work and strategies that are not as likely to work. Every teacher candidate needs to be able to distinguish between them.

In addition to the research, we rely on the universal consensus that teachers, including elementary teachers, need to know what they teach. With the exception of the field of secondary mathematics, there is very little research actually proving that teachers who know their content well can teach it better to students. Yet we doubt many would argue that the lack of such research justifies abandoning expectations for content knowledge.

We also draw upon the success of other nations to build our knowledge base for what teachers ought to know in elementary mathematics. There's also common sense. No one needs research to suggest that a student teacher should not be trained by a struggling classroom teacher.

All of these connections between classroom practice and what ought to be taught in teacher prep programs don't seem like very big leaps to make -- more like a hop.

Comparison to Teachers from Non-traditional Programs

Those who question the value of teacher prep programs like to point to the success of teachers from non-traditional programs like Teach For America (TFA). While these teachers start with just a few weeks of training, some studies show they are at least as effective as traditionally-prepared teachers (see our analysis of Vanderbilt research and Mathematica research).

But we believe this research simply underscores the problems with existing teacher prep; too many programs fail to incorporate the evidence of what works in the classroom or provide sufficient practice. For instance, NCTQ research has discovered that only a tiny percentage of teacher prep programs teach the strategies that will help children learn and retain what they learn. As a result, comparisons to non-traditional teachers do not reflect the performance teachers could obtain if their prep programs were designed around the science of instruction. Would you believe claims that gym members were no more fit than others, without checking to see how often these members visit the gym and what they do there? The same check should be used on teacher education.

Although undergraduate elementary teacher prep programs have made progress, three out of five programs still do not cover the science of early reading instruction in their courses designed to teach teachers how to teach reading. Only 13 percent of programs require coverage of the critical topics mathematicians say future teachers need. So, since prep programs are not training future teachers in research-proven instructional methods, it is not shocking that their graduates do no better than people with only brief preparation.

Since studies show existing teacher prep does not make a difference, America should work at raising the quality of our teacher prep programs, making them more useful, rather than abolishing or deregulating them. The criteria in the Teacher Prep Review provide a helpful first step in defining what programs can do to graduate teachers with the evidence-based knowledge and skills to teach successfully in their first couple of years, even as they learn, grow, and become even better.