Like any good teacher, I try to spend the waning days of summer sorting through my desk, taking inventory of the past year and preparing for the next.
A few weeks ago, I was sifting through the mountain of papers, studies and newspaper clippings that had accumulated there, when I came across a booklet titled “Building a Profession: Strengthening Teacher Preparation and Induction.”
The booklet, published by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) more than a decade ago, summarizes a report from an AFT task force appointed to look at teacher preparation and how to improve it. Thumbing through it now, I was struck by how timely our task force’s observations and recommendations still are.
This is both good and bad. It’s good that many of the suggestions of our task force, which included AFT leaders from both higher education and K-12 education, were excellent and ahead of their time. In fact, most of the ideas put forward in the report have become conventional wisdom among school reformers.
The task force talked about the need to raise entrance standards for teacher preparation programs, and to require core liberal arts and sciences courses for teaching candidates in their freshmen and sophomore years. It talked about the need for a rigorous core curriculum in pedagogy based on the best research into how students learn. And it talked about the need to strengthen the clinical experience for prospective teachers, making sure our future educators are exposed to the best classroom models and the most skillful practitioners.
But it’s very disappointing that there hasn’t been the kind of progress we had hoped for in turning these ideas into action. More than a decade after our report, the nation still struggles to ensure our schools of education adequately train and prepare teachers, especially the new generation of highly qualified math and science instructors we need to be competitive and productive in the global economy of the 21st century.
Just as troubling, new teachers still don’t get the kind of mentoring and other support they need and deserve from high-quality induction programs. The problem manifests itself in economic as well as academic terms: Teacher turnover costs our nation $7.34 billion each year, a price tag that is both unsustainable and unacceptable. The response by many states is to lower the standards it takes to become a teacher and to drop novice instructors with little training into our most challenging classrooms with little support.
We know the world’s top-performing school systems don’t operate that way. Countries like Finland and Singapore make sure all their teachers enter high-quality preparation programs, usually at a master’s degree level. The training is free, and they receive a stipend or salary while they are studying. They are exposed to research-based teaching strategies and train with experts in model schools often attached to their universities.
And when they enter the field, their work is valued. In Singapore, beginning teachers earn as much or more than beginning doctors. Contrast that with the United States, where young people preparing for a teaching career go deeply into debt to enter a profession where they will earn, by some estimates, 60 percent of the salaries earned by other college graduates.
In Ontario, Canada, teacher preparation is designed and closely monitored by the Ontario College of Teachers. Its high standards ensure that every graduate has the instructional skill to address the needs of a diverse classroom of students. This is why Ontario has one of the lowest achievement gaps among immigrant and native students, making it one of the best school systems in the world.
Don’t get me wrong: For decades, education colleges across the United States have produced many excellent teachers who have made significant differences in the lives of the children they have taught. But the challenges we face today require a new approach. We can and should do better.
Last year, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) issued a report that echoed many of the concerns we raised a decade ago. A panel of experts that NCATE convened concluded we need to provide clinical experience for teacher candidates, forge stronger partnerships with school districts, focus on both content knowledge and pedagogy, and improve selection and placement of teacher candidates. I said at the time that NCATE used research, common sense and the experience of everyday educators to create a blueprint for thoughtful and dramatic improvements in the way America’s teachers are prepared for their careers.
While some may use accountability to prod others to act, the AFT itself is committed to taking action. In the coming months we will be bringing together a new generation of AFT leaders from K-12 and higher education, as well as outside experts on teacher preparation, to examine what pre-service programs in the 21st century should look like, how those programs should be evaluated, and what resources those programs need to ensure every child has a great teacher. Just as the AFT has stressed in our work on teacher development and evaluation in K-12, we will also ask everyone to share the collective responsibility for the success of our students. Our higher education partners are a key to that success.
The AFT will do this within the framework we have established to create a quality education agenda based on evidence, equity, scalability and sustainability. Already, the AFT has done far-reaching work on developing a core curriculum and evaluating teacher quality, and our ideas about teacher development and evaluation are being used by more than 100 school districts around the country to support the work of frontline teachers and staff.
For the AFT, looking at the needs of our teacher preparation programs is the logical next step. We have said that the development and evaluation of teachers already on the job should always foster continuous improvement. That philosophy should extend to pre-service teaching programs as well.
The ideas contained in that decade-old report made a lot of sense in 2000. They make even more sense now.
Randi Weingarten is the president of the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers, committed to improving schools, hospitals and public institutions for children, families and communities.