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Teacher Prep Overhaul

After a lull of more than a decade, it may finally be happening.

By Alexander Russo | Winter 2013

Arguably, there’s nothing more important in terms of improving education than making new teachers better at their jobs, and more likely to thrive in the long run.

And yet, teacher preparation—the massive system through which college students are trained and certified to become teachers—is one of education’s most glaring weaknesses, and has been left unaddressed for too long.

For more than a decade, there’s been little that resembles a national or even multistate push to improve the roughly 500 alternative and 1,400 traditional teacher preparation programs that recruit and prepare 170,000 new teachers each year.

Why so little attention for so many years?

Teacher preparation is just one of many things in education that need fixing—from facilities to funding. The focus in recent years has been on innovation and accountability initiatives that seem fresher, newer, and possibly more fun than taking on teacher preparation. Education schools make K–12 systems and teachers unions look like pushovers. And there’s no “secret sauce” that researchers have found to help you figure out which teachers—or which preparation programs—are going to work out.

For all those reasons, it’s very good and somewhat surprising news that there are now a handful of broad-based efforts and initiatives focused on teacher preparation in 2013 that might actually stand a chance of improving the quality and effectiveness of teachers.

Since 2009, the California-based NewSchools Venture Fund, with the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, has been convening Learning to Teach, a 40-member group of teacher prep organizations that includes both ­traditional and alternative providers.

A coalition called the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which includes 17 universities in three states (Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio), is pushing to make comprehensive changes to traditional programs. The Council of Chief State School Officers is working with 10 states on a similar effort.

The American Federation of Teachers has recently proposed a new “bar exam” for teaching candidates—and longtime AFT adversary Joel Klein, former head of the New York City Schools, agrees that such an approach might be useful.
The Education Teacher Performance Assessment—or edTPA, conceived in California and in some stage of adoption or use in roughly 25 states—could end up being a prototype for such a preservice exam.

There’s still no silver bullet. Finding the right mix of autonomy and accountability will be no mean feat—especially for traditional programs long used to self-policing and regional accreditation. And changing the requirements for all teachers before they enter the classroom could result in a substantial upgrade ... or the same old, same old.

There are predictable disagreements about how hard to make any new preservice exam—and whether to encourage or even require specific elements, or to rely entirely on outcomes such as longevity, evaluation, and effectiveness.

And the question remains: Will the higher education community—as well as state policymakers and the powerful national associations—block or water down the current momentum as they have in the past?

But for the first time in a long time there is activity—and with it, at least, the possibility of substantial progress.

—Summer 2013—

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