Sunday, September 13, 2015

New Teachers are Educated, Not Trained

It was gratifying the other morning to pick up the New York Times and see this headline on the Opinion Page: "Teachers Aren't Dumb." Gee thanks. The author of the piece, Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at The University of Virginia, says that Arne Duncan is wrong about prospective teachers scraping the bottom of the barrel of students admitted to colleges. When you look at the students who actually complete a teaching degree, their scores tend to fall around the average of other students completing degrees in other fields. Willingham says that college education school graduates are "smart enough" to do the job. I agree.

Willingham says quite a few smart things. For example he acknowledges that it takes more than intelligence to be a good teacher. And he recognizes that it is plain foolishness to try to assess the quality of a teacher preparation program on the basis of standardized test scores of the school children taught by their graduates. He also says, and I agree, that prospective teachers do not get enough course work in reading and math pedagogy.

Unfortunately when he tries to posit some solutions to the problems he sees in teacher education (I refuse to use the word "training"), Willingham says a lot of dumb things. He says that there are two things we should do to improve teacher preparation programs:

  1. Test students at the end of their schooling to see if they know what they need to know.
  2. Generate a list of what research says a teacher ought to know and use this list to decide if a teacher is well "trained" and should be certified to teach and whether the college's education program should be accredited.
So, even though we know that teaching is a complex human activity that requires more than "smarts" and rote knowledge, Willingham says we can assess a young graduate's preparedness with a test that rewards smarts and rote knowledge. Then we will generate a list of what teachers should know and use that list to determine their suitability to teach and the quality of the education program they attended. I would like to see that list. I bet that if Willingham and some of his colleagues started writing that list today, they might finish by the next millennium.

When will we begin to acknowledge that complex human processes cannot be boiled down to lists and measured by tests? This work of evaluating, certifying and accrediting is too messy to be easily measured. It takes time, money, dedication and human judgment. It can't be boiled down to numbers.

In my experience teacher education programs are actually quite sound, but too often they are removed from the context of the classroom. Most new teachers will tell you that they learn more about teaching in their student teaching experience and in their first couple of years of teaching than they did in the preparation courses. This is not because the courses are not good, but because they lack context. Prospective teachers need to be able to weigh what they are learning against the backdrop of real kids and real classrooms in order to make their learning concrete and to help them focus on what matters. Quality teacher education programs get students into the classroom quickly.

If we want high quality teacher education programs, here is what we need to do.

  • Provide all prospective teachers with a firm grounding in a liberal arts education: English, history, science, psychology, philosophy, arts and physical education
  • Provide a course of study that combines  the theoretical underpinnings of pedagogy with the practical application of the theory.
  • For elementary teachers provide multiple courses in reading and mathematics pedagogy.
  • For secondary school teachers provide courses in disciplines they will be teaching that combine content knowledge with pedagogical knowledge. One of the stranger aspects of teacher education is that students take college level courses in math or history that they will never teach. Certainly these higher level courses should be a part of their curriculum, but so should in depth looks at basic mathematics and history courses.
  • Get students into regular school classrooms beginning in the sophomore year, fist as observers and later to plan and teach occasional lessons.
  • Provide a student teaching experience where prospective teachers get regular feedback on their performance and suggestions for improvement.
  • Carefully select the teachers who will work with the student teachers to insure that all student teachers have good models to pattern themselves after.
  • Develop habits of mind that encourage reflective practice. Expect prospective teachers to be able to assess their own performance and develop plans for improvement.
  • Assess performance by observing practice based on a set of shared understandings of good teaching.

There is no inexpensive or quick way to educate a teacher and there is no test that can measure the tangible and intangible skills that are required of the successful teacher. Teaching is a human enterprise and like all human enterprises, it requires real human beings to interact in good faith and make judgments. These judgments will be subjective, they will be messy, they will be imprecise, but they will tell us much more about who is moving forward to be a good teacher than any tests and lists ever will.

If learning to teach was like training a dog, perhaps we could design a test and create a list that would demonstrate that the teacher was properly trained. But learning to teach requires a very complex process of educating and our systems for measuring the success of that educational process must be just as complex as the educating itself.