Panel explores future of teacher education and preparation

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The Reclaiming the Promise of Public Education Conversation Series, a monthly panel discussion jointly sponsored by the AFT and the Albert Shanker Institute, turned its attention in March to the current state of American teacher education and the growing, sometimes contentious, array of voices and proposals to improve it.

The March 12 event, held at AFT headquarters and also webcast, was moderated by AFT Executive Vice President Francine Lawrence. A longtime AFT union leader in Toledo, Ohio, Lawrence also chaired the AFT's teacher preparation task force that produced the 2012 report "Raising the Bar—Aligning and Elevating Teacher Preparation and the Teaching Profession." The task force consisted of leaders and members from the union's K-12 and higher education divisions, and their efforts underscored how, when it comes to teacher preparation, there is a fragmented and bureaucratic tangle of stakeholder groups with varied, sometimes overlapping responsibilities and blurred accountability lines, and "all have to be aligned to achieve systemic reform," said Lawrence, who also emphasized the need to "put practitioners in the forefront of setting standards" for their profession.

Among the featured speakers was Michael J. Feuer, dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development and a professor of education at George Washington University. Feuer, who is also principal author of "Evaluation of Teacher Preparation Programs: Purposes, Methods, and Policy Options," a 2013 report by the National Academy of Education, said that evaluation systems for teacher preparation programs must serve three "compelling and legitimate" purposes: holding programs accountable for producing well-trained and effective teachers; providing consumer information to prospective teachers; and supporting program improvement in a field that is always looking for best practices. Asking the right questions and verifying that evaluation is valid should be uppermost in people's minds, since there is "a long and sordid history of the misuse of data."

The conversation also featured Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, which last year released the first in what is slated to be an annual review of teacher education programs, the Teacher Prep Review. The review, she said, should serve as "a call to action to re-envision teacher education" and make it more attentive to the production of new teachers who can be effective in their first year. The statistics on teacher turnover and effectiveness tell why: Today, 1.6 million kids are being taught by first-year teachers, she said, and "evidence shows a high rate of learning loss by those kids as compared with what children learn in classes taught by third-year teachers.

"First-year teaching should not be a trial by fire. It's unfair to students and to the teachers, many of whom end up teaching students disadvantaged by income and race," she said.

Currently, according to the NCTQ, teacher preparation adds little to the odds that new teachers can be good teachers and that students will make adequate learning gains in their classes. Its review found that 78 percent of teacher preparation programs are rated as "weak."

Claire Sylvan, executive director for Internationals Network for Public Schools, described a program that trains teachers to work with one of the hardest student demographics—English language learners. The network devised its own teacher preparation program when it found itself expanding but not having an effective pool of new teachers to draw from. The network's 18-credit program puts practitioners at the center, employing them as mentors and program designers who work in collaboration with Long Island University's School of Education and the New York City Department of Education. The students are apprentice teachers who are assigned to one mentor but work with a team of experienced teachers. "The core principle is that adult learning and student learning mirror each other."

Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan and a former middle and high school teacher, described TeachingWorks, an effort to design a comprehensive professional training curriculum that carries prospective teachers through the first three years of teaching. The curriculum focuses on a set of core skills and knowledge that she calls "high leverage for responsible teaching."

Ball joined the other presenters in emphasizing the "moral imperative" to strengthen teacher preparation: Students have the right to effective teachers, and therefore, the entry-level teacher should be the critical focus of teacher training programs. She called for training programs that ensure teachers are "safe to practice" their profession and can meet the emotional, academic and physical needs of students for an effective school environment.

[Barbara McKenna, Mike Rose]

March 14, 2014