This article in the New York Times got me pretty excited. I witnessed more than enough evidence of mediocre schools of education during my two years in the classroom to think that evaluating teachers’ colleges is a wonderful and overdue idea. As Arne Duncan noted, “it is time to start holding teacher-preparation programs more accountable for the impact of their graduates on student learning.”
This, like most issues in education, is one that has a tendency to get people pretty riled up. First, you have the people who believe that at the end of the day, teachers just don’t have the power to overcome other barriers to student achievement, like poverty. Those people believe that regardless of how much teachers know about instruction, they can’t erase the damage that the socioeconomic lottery has already inflicted on their students. A teacher’s performance isn’t a reflection of the quality of his or her training; it’s a reflection of a sad social truth.
Then there are the people who are convinced that you can’t be a good teacher unless you’ve been “officially” trained to be one by a school of education. They reject the potential of Teach For America recruits or others like them who are trained in a matter of weeks before entering the classroom. There is only one formula for producing a good teacher, and an essential ingredient of that formula is the time and courses required for traditional licensure.
It’s tough. I’m pretty sure all of my teachers went through schools of education, and the worst teachers I had were just mediocre, not actually bad. But… maybe they would have been bad if they hadn’t been teaching privileged students like me. I can definitely think of a few of my teachers who wouldn’t have stood a chance in a school like the one where I taught. The point is that there are plenty of good teachers who come out of traditional programs, and it’s important to remember that. But there are also a lot of mediocre to bad teachers who might not result in a net loss of learning for students like me but could do real damage in a struggling school. As the product of a non-traditional certification route (Teach For America), I can say that the same is true on my side: there are some great teachers who come through a different route to teaching, and there are some teachers who might have benefited from longer training or just aren’t cut out for teaching. It’s a two-way street.
So, I’m all for evaluation and oversight of teacher preparation programs, whether they’re university-affiliated or not. Is US News & World Report the best group for that job? It depends on the criteria they use. This article mentions courses, textbooks, and admissions selectivity as among the parts being evaluated. Personally, I don’t see how any of those is relevant. I’d prefer to see data about the classroom records of the faculty – how did THEY do as teachers? – and the types of student teaching experiences that students have. (Student teaching – that is, shadowing another teacher and occasionally taking over instruction – is the one thing missing from my Teach For America preparation that I think would have significantly helped me.) Admissions selectivity? Please. Unless that selectivity is based on things that I know make teachers successful in challenging schools (like perseverance, creativity, tenacity, dedication, organization, and sense of possibility), I don’t see how that’s relevant. I’ll tell you right now: Teach For America is very hard to get into, but that doesn’t mean all of us went to Harvard. There are corps members from schools I’ve never heard of who do great things, and there are corps members from the schools everyone has heard of who drop out or don’t lead their students to academic gains.
At the end of the day, the origin and type of training that a new teacher has received isn’t the only determinant of that teacher’s success, just like skin color or zipcode isn’t a definitive determinant of how well kids do in school. Other factors matter too, and some of those are harder to identify and measure. Evaluating teacher preparation programs is one key to education reform that will make a difference, but it won’t fix things. Is it worth the battle? Yes.