Wither Pre-Service?

There has been a pretty raging debate in education for some time about teacher training that and alternative certification of teachers.   Overall the spectrum of views runs from those arguing that every teacher should complete a medical school-like training regimen with classroom and practical experience to those arguing that basically anyone with a bachelor’s degree and without a criminal record should be able apply for a teaching job.  

In general the evidence from methodologically solid studies is not encouraging in terms of the value of traditionally prepared teachers being more effective relative to those coming through other routes.   This also raises some serious cost-benefit issues given the public and non-public resources teacher training consumes.  But a lot of people on both sides of the debate, myself included, have figured this state of affairs owed more to the low-quality of most training programs than anything inherent to the work of training new teachers.   I’ve long believed that as a policy matter the question of teacher training is one of sequencing –when teachers should get training — rather than one of whether training matters.   That’s why ideas like Teach For America, The Academy for Urban School Leadership, and the work The New Teacher Project does in multiple states and cities all makes sense to me:  It’s not that training doesn’t matter, but training on the job does seem to make a lot more sense than the traditional education school approach.

But, there are thoughtful people who have argued that because the evidence on teacher preparation is weak and the best predictor of who will be a good teacher is actual performance in the classroom that perhaps a pretty radical redirection of resources is the best policy strategy.  In other words start to invest in teachers through much higher salaries, intensive professional training and growth opportunities, etc…after a few years in the classroom with demonstrated effectiveness and pretty aggressively weed out the lower performers.   I have no problem weeding out the low-performers but I’ve been somewhat skeptical of the idea of “backloading” too much training and salary preferring instead to see training and induction restructured and re-sequenced so that people get training in supervised settings in schools.   Now the evidence is starting to make me reconsider whether we shouldn’t be encouraging much more radical ideas and evaluating and learning from them.

In just the past few weeks two rigorous studies have called into question different professional growth and training strategies.   MRDC found little effect on student learning from pretty structured reading training and more surprisingly IES found no effect from the Cadillac training and induction model used by the New Teacher Center at Santa Cruz in a randomized trial.   These are not weak programs so both of these surprise me.   Of course, both these studies have some caveats.  In particular the New Teacher Center study was of the early parts of the program not the entire process so it’s wise to withhold final judgement on that initiative for a while.  [Update:  Ed Week on all that here.]    Still, these studies, along with the other research out there, do point to a problem.   Perhaps when it comes to recruiting and training teachers we should be more prepared as a field to suspend disbelief and existing belief systems and really foster some innovative ideas here because there is a lot to learn and we may have our own little black swan issue going on here in our field when it comes to one of the most vital components of our work — selecting and training our labor force.  

2 Replies to “Wither Pre-Service?”

  1. Just some speculation here, without being able to vouch authoritatively on the quality of there research, here are two findings that impress me. Firstly, high verbal dexterity are a predictor of teacher success. Secondly, regardless of the quality of training there will be a washout rate. So, we need to efficiently remove ineffective teachers at a pretty early data.

    But I’m curious about the term teacher “training” as opposed to teacher education. It implies something that misrepresents teaching as it actually is. Teaching requires “broken-field running.” You’ve got to improvise constantly.

    Secondly, teaching (like education) is much more of an emotional process than an intellectual one. Young teachers need to be educated/taught how to listen to the kids. Then they need to learn how to read body language. On the other hand, they need to be trained to avoid mistakes. As with education policy, its much easier to avoid unforced errors than to clean up afterwards, and in schools it is actual kids who are hurt by mistakes. On the other hand, we all make so many mistakes every day that its more important to learn from your mistakes and not blame yourself.

    For all of those reasons, I’m partial to programs for recruiting older career changers with more life experience. On the other hand, no profesion needs new blood more than education. By definition, our job is the new blood.

    So, and I could be wrong, I suspect that people are frustrated with teacher education because they over-estimate the state of proven, researched knowledge. We are still a lot closer to the times of Plato than a time when research will give answers. Teaching is still fundamentally a people-process. Teaching still is fundamentally a political process. Teaching is still about balancing trade-offs. Teaching still is about intuition and timing. So, we shouldn’t expect to have much – or any – more wisdom than previous generations.

    If there are two things an induction program should definitely teach, I’d say they are:

    1. Care enough to say “No.” (with experience, you won’t have to worry so much about setting boundaries, but in the first years this is the key.)
    2. Listen to the students and they will teach you how to teach them.

    and 3. Get plenty of sleep. Be easy on yourself and roll with the punches.

  2. Your use of the word sequencing intrigues me. After I completed my student teaching practicum, I longed for another semester-long methods course. Before the practicum, I didn’t know enough about teaching to know what I didn’t know. It always felt, to me, like everything was out of sequence, but then it was too late and I was off to the job market.

    I’ve been trying to learn how to teach ever since.

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