Teacher Preparation Programs: Under Pressure and Making Progress
The critical place of teacher preparation
In debates about education, the idea that teaching and teachers are crucially important to students’ learning is virtually universally accepted.
This idea is, of course, at the foundation of work that educators are doing to understand and cultivate effective teaching practice. It is also central to pushes for greater accountability from schools that focus on teachers. And it is even assumed in the bursts of public criticism that locate blame for school and system failures with the teaching corps.
The centrality of teachers puts teacher preparation programs in a vital and challenging spot. On top of their already daunting charge—attracting and developing new teachers ready to serve the needs of all student learners—programs are facing and responding to pressures parallel to those facing P-12 schools while they are also pursuing and implementing improvements designed to advance their mission and the profession.
Interconnected challenges for the profession and for programs
The pressures that programs face are familiar but perhaps especially intense right now. Strong scrutiny in the forms of accountability requirements and public criticism of the profession is coming at a time when years of low enrollment in programs have exacerbated financial pressures.
The challenges for the profession and for programs are interconnected. Says Mark LaCelle-Peterson, Senior Vice President for Policy & Programs at the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education (AACTE), “Teaching, and by association teacher preparation, is suffering from negative public perceptions; people hear about the long hours, low wages relative to other professions, and they see teachers blamed for everything from economic problems to social ills.”
As a result, says LaCelle-Peterson, “We’re experiencing something of an unprecedented moment that makes attracting and retaining highly skilled educators challenging, starting with attracting them to preparation programs.”
Pressures of accountability
Accountability requirements present programs with pressures of a different kind. With changes to accreditation and with more states developing requirements for regular program report cards, programs are doing more structured data collection and reporting.
Most required information is important for the programs themselves, e.g., indicators of candidate success and evidence-based measures of performance. Also, the objectives of documenting program quality and continuous improvement are unexceptionable. However, the burdens of collection and reporting are real, not to speak of the ever-present risk that faulty interpretations of data will lead to mistaken decisions about programs or policies.
Progress in the face of challenges
So, programs face challenges of enrollment, finances, and greater formal and informal scrutiny in a context where the public P-12 population is continuing to grow in size and diversity, and in a public policy environment that has schools and programs called on to do more with less. Even so, we can see real progress.
Says LaCelle-Peterson, “Despite these challenges, the academic qualifications of candidates are going up. Clinical partnerships are getting stronger. And we have developed much better assessments to ensure that new teachers can demonstrate that they are able to perform in the classroom.”
These developments all fit with a priority of professionalizing teacher education identified by, among others, the Teacher Education Task Force of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Work to professionalize teacher education might, in the longer term, help with public perceptions and teacher pay rates. The work being done now that fits this priority includes research into understanding effective teaching practices. It includes reorientation of programs toward practice-focused preparation and practical progress toward greater—and more collaborative—clinical experience that is integrated into the program.
This integrated approach to training is grounded in the simple idea that “School districts have the best sense of what kids need,” in the words of Francesca Forzani, associate director of TeachingWorks at the University of Michigan. As Forzani describes the approach, “Teacher preparation should be a joint and coherent effort, grounded in the needs of students, between pre-service training programs and district professional learning systems.”
The fact that programs are making progress toward this approach to preparation in a time of pressure shows that teacher educators—working collaboratively and relying on what they know—will find ways to navigate the current challenges toward an end point that is better for teachers, teaching, and, of course, students.