A tale of two studies

From the earliest days of teacher preparation programs, higher education institutions have been building pathways for entry to the teaching profession, often with insufficient resources and reduced status on campus—a particularly acute problem at historically black- and Hispanic-serving institutions.

The problems with teacher education programs have been evident for years, but little has been done to rectify them and ensure these programs are able to produce high-quality teachers for every child. Two reports released today aim to shed light on the problems of and potential solutions for our country's struggling teacher preparation system—but these reports also provide an opportunity to reflect on the radically different approaches that underlie current approaches to this work.

The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) report Easy A's and What's Behind Them (link is external) purports to answer the questions of whether teacher candidates are graded too easily and whether their course work is rigorous enough. Using data from 500 higher education institutions, NCTQ finds that grading standards for teacher candidates are lower than for students in other majors, and that their course work fails to develop the critical skills and knowledge new teachers need. This is nothing that previous research has not shown, and it reveals how NCTQ has come to make such vague and weak recommendations around common standards of excellence and ensuring assignments are "criterion-referenced."

In contrast, the AFT and our members have, for more than a decade, called for specific improvements to teacher preparation programs so that these programs can provide new teachers with the real-world skills and knowledge necessary to help the broad and diverse spectrum of students they'll teach. While NCTQ employs a strategy to embarrass and shame (and the U.S. Department of Education continues its unproductive fixation on test scores), Urban Teacher Residency United (UTRU) has focused on the same strategy of "move forward and improve" as we did in our 2012 report Raising the Bar.

UTRU works to develop, support and sustain a network of teacher residency programs across the nation. Teacher residencies, modeled after medical residencies that prepare aspiring physicians through intense clinical practice and expert instruction and supervision, prepare aspiring teachers through a rigorous yearlong classroom apprenticeship and an aligned sequence of course work at a local university. Research demonstrates that such teacher residency programs not only reduce teacher attrition, which saves districts money on hiring and professional development, but also produce first-year teachers who lead students to higher levels of performance.

In its new report, Building Effective Teacher Residencies (link is external), UTRU reveals the most important practices of successful teacher residencies by taking a close look at two existing programs, the Aspire Teacher Residency program in California and the Denver Teacher Residency program. These programs offer:

  • A selection process for residents and mentors that assesses them not only on characteristics known to produce strong outcomes for students, such as perseverance, but also on their ability to accept constructive criticism, or "coachability."
  • Course work for residents and mentors that is aligned with district standards and can be immediately applied in the classroom.
  • A structure for providing residents with effective coaching and feedback as they learn to teach.
  • An evaluation system that focuses on continual improvement—for residents, mentors and the residency program itself.

They also host school systems with the same values and practices as the residency programs: a collaborative culture, clear teach¬er effectiveness rubrics, alignment between destination and learning, and a commitment to professional growth.

We owe it to new teachers to help prepare them for our profession—and that means providing robust course work and a high-quality clinical experience. While the National Council on Teacher Quality seems to have expended much to survey and rank schools, it offers little guidance on how to actually help preparation programs improve, while the opposite is true of Urban Teacher Residency United. The examples provided by UTRU combine what we know about best practices to support new teachers, such as mentoring and rigorous course work. The addition of clinical, hands-on experiences will strengthen teachers' skills and knowledge in preparation for the diverse needs of future students.

Although these residency and clinical practices may be time-consuming and resource-intensive, we can learn a lot from the work going on in these teacher residency sites to strengthen and improve teacher preparation. The question is: Having learned these lessons, how can we make this the norm, not the exception, and the basis of policy?