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America’s Teachers Are Sharing Their Low Grades With America’s Children (Forbes.com) July 14, 2013

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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Nobody likes bad grades on a report card, especially not educators whose life work is teaching and grading. It was an unhappy day, then, when a recent and exhaustive national study of teacher training in America’s schools and departments of education came back with grades largely ranging from mediocre to poor. Not only is this a black eye on the colleges and universities that prepare teachers, but it brings into sharp relief a key reason why America’s elementary and secondary schools are delivering such poor results educating our kids.

Your intuitive sense that teachers are crucial to student learning—based on recalling how a classroom works, or how much a particular teacher could inspire you or bore you—is absolutely right. An earlier study by Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution shows that removing or improving the bottom 5-10% of teachers would itself move American education near the top of highest-performing countries. Professor Dan Goldhaber of the University of Washington confirms that teacher quality is the biggest single factor influencing student achievement.

And it is also true that how teachers are prepared is a crucial element in the quality of their performance. Unfortunately, as the new and comprehensive study by the National Council on Teacher Quality demonstrates, teacher preparation is overwhelmingly mediocre in the U.S., and sometimes downright bad. After studying over 1100 teacher training programs, experts found that only 4 programs received the top grade (4 stars) and fewer than 10% received even 3 stars. As a consequence, new teachers simply are not well prepared, and it shows up in poor classroom management by novice teachers. One study in Los Angeles showed that first-year teachers actually have a negative impact on student learning.

One problem is that schools of education do not believe it is their job to teach skills or knowledge of the content their graduates will teach. You might logically ask, if they don’t teach skills or content, what do they teach? According to the recent study, the field of teacher education feels it is their job to “prepare” teachers, but not to train them. They view their role as “forming the professional identities of teachers.” I suppose it is what we call in law school, learning to think like a lawyer. That is nice, I suppose, but not when teachers go “live” in the classroom with almost no supervision and a roomful of students who need help.

Failure to require that teachers learn the content they will teach—math or history—seems at least as troublesome, especially in the higher grades where the subject matter is more complex. When one of our children moved from public schools to a private boarding school for one year, the main difference we noticed is that the teachers were often young men and women with master’s degrees in the subject they were teaching. They often did not have the teaching credential required in public schools, but instead a master’s degree in history or science that brought tremendous knowledge and enthusiasm that the students quickly caught. Rather than some of the dull and poorly managed classrooms our child experienced at home, this school was on fire with teacher/student enthusiasm and learning.

By allowing teacher training programs to emphasize professional identity, rather than skills or content, young teachers are not ready to teach even basic skills such as reading. The NCTQ study found that teachers were by and large encouraged to find their own methods for teaching reading and, as a result, children are failing to become proficient readers. Similarly few programs help aspiring teachers learn anything as practical as classroom management skills, for which their later students pay a huge price.
Further, student teaching preparation is described by the study as rarely rigorous.

Hats off then to the 4 programs (out of 1100) that are judged to be doing a great job: Vanderbilt and Lipscomb, both in Nashville, along with Ohio State and Furman in South Carolina. If you plan to be a teacher, you should consider preparing in these star programs and, indeed, the rest of the field should be paying attention to what they are doing right. As we recently learned at nearby San Francisco airport, having pilots land airplanes without sufficient preparation can be fatal. Can we be any less committed to training the people who will educate our own children and America’s future leaders and workers?

Link to Forbes.com op/ed: http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2013/07/14/americas-teachers-are-sharing-their-low-grades-with-americas-children/

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