AFT Task Force Takes New Look at Teacher Preparation

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The AFT recently convened a new task force on teacher preparation. This issue is at the fulcrum of successful teaching: K-12 teachers care about it because it affects their newest colleagues, their own professional development and the quality of their schools. Higher education faculty depend on solid teacher training to turn out future generations of prepared college applicants. And, of course, education faculty are at the center of college and university teacher preparation programs.

The AFT is in a unique position to lead in teacher education: "We're in a different place than people who just point fingers," AFT president Randi Weingarten told the task force, which met Jan. 25-27 in Washington, D.C. She noted that as representatives of both K-12 teachers and college faculty, we can utilize everything from the nitty-gritty of the classroom to more theory-based college coursework, and work together toward a solution. 

The task force has a good start: the AFT publication, "Building a Profession: Strengthening Teacher Preparation and Induction," is highly regarded as a visionary outline for ensuring teacher quality from the very beginning. Now, the 14 task force members, carefully chosen for their expertise and positions in education schools and K-12 unions, will revisit the findings, update them with current research and produce a new report to release in July.

Several issues surfaced repeatedly as the most important elements of teacher preparation: clinical experience, from an early point in the education of a teacher; strong command of subject material; admissions standards and exit requirements for teacher preparation programs; continued training, especially during the first years of classroom experience; and evaluation of teacher education programs.

Task force members shared their experiences, from early days in the classroom ("I made too many assumptions," said Andrew Spar, president of Volusia Teachers Organization in Florida and a music teacher, who learned that students did not know in advance that they could not drop their violins without breaking them) to triumphs (Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, remembered a residency program whose graduates were markedly better prepared than teachers who did not attend; the program has since been cut). And there were suggestions about everything from differentiated teaching to stricter entry requirements, and the degrees of importance given to content mastery and pedagogy.

Susan Moore Johnson, the Jerome T. Murphy professor in education from Harvard University, helped lay the background of teacher preparation for the task force, describing its trajectory from a generation ago, when teachers came directly from college and expected teaching would be their only career, to current teachers who choose from a proliferation of training programs (not all of them high-quality) and subsidized fast-track programs, experience low status due to easy entry into such programs, and generate high turnover rates. Johnson raised a number of important questions involving sequencing of skills learned, responsibility for competence assessment and continued learning, and alternative approaches such as coaching, online resources and video reviews.

Francesca Forzani shared her experience as associate director of "Teaching Works," a just-launched streaming seminar series for teacher preparation. The program emphasizes the importance of a common curriculum; performance assessments of teacher readiness; support for those who teach, coach and mentor teachers; and reliable data about responsible teaching.

Finally, guests Jim Cibulka, president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education; Susan Petroff, senior director of programs and development for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education; and Ann Coffman of the National Education Association, laid out current thinking on teacher preparation and how teachers, faculty and policymakers might work together to improve it.

While some of the basics have not changed since "Building a Profession" was released, the landscape of education has, with more widespread use of technology and additional research into effective teaching practice. The task force will incorporate this new information as it continues to work with AFT staff, members and outside experts toward new teacher preparation recommendations. [Virginia Myers]

January 31, 2012