Blog: The Educated Reporter

Raising the Bar For Teacher Colleges

Left to right: Stephen Sawchuk, Education Week; Jim Cibulka, CAEP; Segun Eubanks, NEA; Kate Walsh, NCTQ at the Detroit Center, Oct. 21, 2014. (Source: NEA Media)

As the nation centers its attention on the Common Core State Standards battle brewing across the states, a lesser known overhaul is underway for America’s teachers-to-be.

In the face of states’ implementing higher academic standards for American students to be college- and career-ready by the time they graduate high school, the need for teachers to possess the knowledge and skills to boost student achievement is increasingly pertinent. But no standard set of benchmarks currently exists to ensure that educators are truly prepared for the challenges of the classroom, and there is “remarkably little” information about the issue, said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, at a recent EWA seminar panel on teacher college accountability.

“This is a field that is basically the Wild West,” Walsh added.

The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, the new professional organization for U.S. teacher education programs, is in the process of designing an accreditation system for teacher preparation through its Commission on Standards and Performance Reporting. Among its working design for the system is a set of standards that are based on “evidence, continuous improvement, innovation, and clinical practice,” in addition to multiple measures of public accountability reporting.

“Moving forward, what we need to do is strengthen the education profession – we need to emulate medicine, law, but the answer is not to pile on more and more regulation at the government level,” CAEP President Jim Cibulka told the EWA audience in Detroit on Oct. 21. “These standards focus very much on performance, on the kinds of people we admit to the programs, on the depth of their content knowledge, how they can teach it to diverse learners, and how the graduates perform in the classroom once they’re out – the quality of instruction they provide.”

But even as advocates seek accreditation reform, enrollment in university teacher-preparation programs are on the decline – falling about 10 percent between 2004 and 2012, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Education. (For more on this front, take a look at recent reporting by Stephen Sawchuk of Education Week, who moderated the EWA panel.) With changes in the labor force and teaching’s being seen as an increasingly less stable profession, recruitment, particularly of minority educators, has been challenging. 

At the root of the problem is university-based programs haven’t felt the need to recruit or work closely with school districts to develop a pool of future teachers, Cibulka said. The K-12 minority student population in America has, for the first time, surpassed the 50 percent mark, but the diversity of American educators is continually lackluster.

“It’s not something we’ll fix overnight, but we’re deluding ourselves if we think that the present level of performance around diversity is adequate,” Cibulka said. “We can’t rest on our laurels.”

Smaller alternative teacher education programs have seen substantial success in recruiting a diverse pool of future teachers, but the ground they’ve gained pales in comparison to the huge contingent of educators across America, said Walsh. Fixing the “broken” teacher education system in the U.S. is the key to improving the education system, she suggested. Success stories out of Finland and Singapore, for example, were built on foundational reforms in teacher preparation: Finland shut down all of its education schools and opened new, more effective ones in the 1970s, and all of Singapore’s new teachers last year were hired from a single institution. Compare that to New York City, which hired all of its teachers from 300 institutions.

“How do you control the quality of your teachers that way?” Walsh asked. “Systems that have really turned things around changed who goes into their education system before they go into the classroom.”

And the National Education Association doesn’t oppose all alternative routes to teacher certification, “just bad ones,” said Segun Eubanks, director of teacher quality for the National Education Association.

“Teachers need to show pedagogical skills on day one. If you can’t, we’ll call you something different – like an intern,” Eubanks said. “Too many teachers are learning on the job, and they’re in America’s highest-need schools…. But after research, it’s all about politics and money.”

Those very politics are what makes Walsh skeptical that shuttering ineffective teacher-preparation programs is attainable, pointing to a case in Louisiana where state leaders couldn’t muster the political fortitude to shutter just one bad program with strong evidence against it.

“It’s not that there’s incompetence in the field, which is what I used to think – that people just weren’t very good at their jobs to prepare teachers – but the real problem is there’s a predominant view that their job is not to train teachers because ‘training’ is a bad word,” Walsh said. “They think their job is to form a teacher and develop the intuition to be able to lead a classroom. There’s a deep philosophical divide that ‘our job is not to train you, that’s beneath us.’ It’s an articulated view where teacher prep says ‘we got rid of the training module.’”

Recently proposed federal guidelines for teacher education programs should be noted, and the government commended for lifting the issue to federal attention – but the real impetus for change lies in the states and locally, panelists said. And is there a way to ensure accountability across programs? Walsh suggested a marketplace, with well-informed consumers choosing the best programs, would provide quality control. Cibulka disagreed, noting that a marketplace is the current model, and stressed the need for evidence and data. Eubanks pushed for improvements after graduation.

“School districts have a discrete responsibility to supply professional development,” Eubanks said. “If we transform teacher prep and don’t get significantly more serious about the quality of mentoring, induction and professional supports for teachers, we’re wasting our time.”


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