Will education have its Pronovost moment?

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Back in 2011, the CDC reported that central line infections in U.S. intensive care units had fallen by 58 percent in just ten years. A principal cause of this was a rigorously developed and tested checklist that originated in the work of Dr. Peter Pronovost of Johns Hopkins.

People working to improve public education often wonder if we could replicate such feats for students. In at least one crucial area, the answer is probably yes. Why we haven't yet raises some troubling questions about teacher education and its relationship to the teaching profession.

In 2000, the National Reading Panel used a rigorous, scientific meta-analysis to identify the five core components of early reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. Here was the equivalent of the Pronovost checklist for teachers: a set of teacher activities that experts could credibly argue would have more than 90 percent of children reading by third grade. Surely, the field of teacher education would make sure that all novices would get fully trained in scientifically based reading instruction, right?

For our national reading study in 2006, we looked at the syllabi, textbooks, assignments, assessments, and practice in over 100 schools of education across the country to see if they had embraced the findings of the NRP. Only 15 percent of the institutions in our sample had done so. Four years later, a decade after the NRP report was published, we released our Illinois report, which found that fewer than 20 percent of the state's programs were providing such preparation.

For the teaching profession to thrive, its members must be deeply familiar with a body of knowledge and skills about what will work to help educate children. New teachers receive this expertise from the institutions charged with training them. This expertise is the educational "inputs" for which we're looking (and often criticized for doing so.) But unless the field of teacher preparation can settle upon what this expertise should be, it's hard to see how teachers can achieve the Pronovost moment that the medical profession has achieved for its patients.