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We've all heard the adage, "Those who can't do, teach. Those who can't teach, teach teachers." While this aphorism is an unfair generalization of teacher education programs, many educators and policymakers believe the programs currently in place do not adequately prepare participants to become effective educators. Many have sought to strengthen and transform teacher education programs, while others have advocated the creation of alternatives to traditional teacher preparation that are more focused on "real-world" experience and better serve the needs of the growing population of nontraditional teacher candidates.

What Makes A Teacher Good?

Ultimately, the only true evidence of good teaching is the impact a teacher has on his or her students. But what is it that enables the best teachers to have the greatest impact?

There is widespread agreement that strong subject-matter knowledge is a critical component of successful teaching. There is also some evidence that subject-specific pedagogical knowledge — how specifically to teach mathematics or reading or history — also is important. Beyond that, the picture becomes murky. Some experts have pointed to a positive correlation between teachers' scores on verbal ability tests and the achievement of their students, arguing that the best teachers are also intellectually the brightest. Others have insisted that the diversity of the contemporary classroom requires that successful teachers have a broad repertoire of instructional strategies. Still other experts claim that a teacher's character and attitude are strong predictors of his or her success teaching to specific kinds of students.

There have been several attempts to define the characteristics of good teachers. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has led the way in this effort, and the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC) has used the National Board's work to derive a set of standards new teachers should meet. Critics insist, however, that such efforts have no proven correlation to a teacher's ability to promote student achievement and such standards restrict the entry into teaching of talented individuals who lack such extensive — and not clearly necessary — pedagogical training. In the absence of a clear and unambiguous standard for new teachers, the job of providing adequate preparation for new teachers is difficult.

How Do We Prepare Good Teachers?

Increasingly, traditional teacher education programs in schools or colleges of education have been subject to a number of strong criticisms:

  • Too many students drop out or fail to enter teaching.

  • Too many graduates are poorly equipped to teach.

  • Programs focus too much on "soft" pedagogical knowledge at the expense of subject-matter depth.

  • Programs fail to prepare graduates to teach to student performance standards.

  • Programs do not provide adequate real-world, practical experience.

  • Programs aren't sufficiently responsive to the needs of nontraditional teacher candidates, especially minorities and mid-career adults.
There has been a variety of responses to such criticisms. Some states have attempted to strengthen teacher education programs through more rigorous accreditation standards, more intensive field experience, and greater involvement of the arts and sciences faculty. There has been a movement, both through accreditation and through compliance requirements in the federal Higher Education Act (Title II), to emphasize outcomes, such as pass rates on state teacher licensure examinations, as appropriate measures of the success of teacher education programs. There have been calls for university presidents to make teacher preparation a more central part of the university's mission and to give teacher preparation greater institutional and financial support. With few exceptions, those calls have gone largely unheeded.

Primarily out of a desire to strengthen the field experience component of teacher preparation, many states and individual teacher education programs are building solid partnerships between universities and districts or individual schools. Such partnerships sometimes include the establishment of "professional development schools," in which a well-trained K-12 faculty and university faculty collaborate to model teacher preparation after the clinical training that medical students receive in a teaching hospital. On the state level, there is a growing trend toward P-16 (or K-16) partnerships, which are formal or informal working arrangements between a state's K-12 education agency and postsecondary agencies. Such partnerships promote coordination of academic standards and course requirements and ensure the postsecondary education and training teachers receive adequately prepares them to meet K-12 students' learning needs, including proficiency on the state's K-12 student standards.

Alternative Routes to Teacher Preparation

In addition to undertaking reforms of traditional teacher education programs, most states now support alternative teacher preparation programs. The need for teachers to fill vacancies in hard-to-staff schools is often the catalyst for creation of such programs.

Alternative route programs generally enroll teacher candidates who already possess a bachelor's degree and a major in an appropriate subject field and are in need only of pedagogical training to satisfy the requirements for teacher certification or licensure. Alternative programs generally involve a short-term initial preparation, after which participants may accept regular full-time teaching positions. Once participants have entered the profession, high-quality alternative programs support them with induction and mentoring, as well as collateral coursework during their first year or two of teaching. There is, however, significant controversy surrounding alternative programs. Critics contend that in those states in which alternative candidates are not required to pass the standard requirements for certification or licensure, alternatively certified teachers are substandard. In most states, however, alternative route candidates still must pass the same requirements for licensure and certification as traditionally prepared teachers; only the route, not the license, is different.

Still, critics of alternative preparation contend that alternative programs are inadequate, arguing that alternatively prepared candidates are put in the classroom too quickly and are more likely than traditionally prepared teachers to leave their assignments or the profession after a brief period of time. Because alternative route programs are often designed to help hard-to-staff schools, new alternatively prepared teachers frequently are assigned classrooms that would challenge the most accomplished teachers, thus setting new teachers up for frustration and failure. Nevertheless, some studies indicate that, given the same working conditions, well-prepared alternative route teachers are just as effective and dedicated as traditionally prepared teachers. The problem is that, just like traditional teacher preparation programs, not all alternative routes are equal in quality.

Key Policy Issues and Questions
  • How can we ensure teacher preparation programs adequately equip teachers to meet the challenges of teaching in today's classrooms and in a standards-based environment?

  • What are the key components of successful traditional and alternative route teacher preparation programs?

  • Does the appropriate balance of subject-matter and pedagogical preparation for teacher candidates depend upon the kinds of students they will be teaching?

  • What is the appropriate state role in ensuring the quality of teacher preparation programs?

  • How can teacher preparation programs, districts and states do more to enable new teachers to succeed in challenging schools and classrooms?

 

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