An abundance of research shows that teacher quality is the single most important determinate of student learning. It’s also the conclusion of a report by the National Council on Teacher Quality — part of a $5 million project funded by major U.S. foundations.
Unfortunately, the same report found that colleges and their schools of educations do a poor job of training teachers and preparing them for real-life challenges in the classroom.
“We don’t know how to prepare teachers,” says Arthur Levine, former president of Columbia University Teachers College and a critic of current teacher preparation. “We can’t decide whether it’s a craft or a profession. I don’t know of any other profession that’s so uncertain about how to educate their professionals.”
Mr. Levine blames low admission standards, less-than-relevant academic work, and an out-of-touch faculty in schools of education — some of whom haven’t set foot in a school for years.
Part of the problem is that the teaching profession does not attract, in general, the nation’s most talented students. Less than one in four of U.S. teachers graduated in the top third of their high school class, the report states, compared to 100 percent in Singapore and Finland.
The American Federation of Teachers, a union, recommends a minimum 3.0 grade-point average to enroll in teacher preparation programs.
Colleges should also develop the equivalent of a bar exam — a rigorous professional test — for prospective teachers, as the AFT has recommended. Such an exam should includes questions that relate to practice, including economic and racial diversity.
Schools of education must better prepare teachers for the actual classroom, whether their first job is in Ottawa Hills, East Toledo, Detroit, or Boise, Idaho.
The best teacher-preparation programs — at Ohio State, Vanderbilt, and Furman — de-emphasize abstractions and theories and focus on best practices. Now, most student-teaching work comes just before a student graduates. Often, students, even in their senior year of college, have little feel for how real classrooms work.
Students should work in the classroom — if only briefly — during their first two years of college. That would help them integrate theory and practice. Giving student teachers an experienced mentor would also help them learn how to resolve conflicts and solve problems in the classroom. Teaching is a matter of skill and experience, not theories.
Without question, attracting the most talented students to the teaching profession — and adequately preparing them to teach — will demand that school districts pay teachers better.
The council actually ranks schools for teacher preparation — one to four stars. Ohio State, Ohio Northern, and Marietta College rank high. The University of Toledo and Bowling Green get mediocre grades.
The council’s findings should not discourage the public. They suggest good teachers alone — even without new school buildings and the latest computer equipment — could do a lot to raise the nation’s educational standards and provide hope and opportunity to even the most disadvantaged students.
To get there, however, teachers must be better prepared and better paid.