Are America’s colleges of education in need of radical change in how they prepare teachers for classroom challenges? 
Photo: Steve Schaefer
Photo: Steve Schaefer

Opinion: Miseducation of teachers costly to profession and students

Should teacher prep programs concentrate on classroom immersion rather than education theory? 

Longtime education writer Walt Gardner tackles colleges of education today in a guest column, recommending the programs shift from education theory to education practice by immersing aspiring teacher in the classroom. 

Gardner, who taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District, writes about education at theedhed.com.

By Walt Gardner

If confidence in public schools were not already precarious enough, it was further shaken by the news that 41 percent of teachers hired during the 2012-13 school year in the New York City system quit during the first five years on the job. The turnover, which City Comptroller Scott Stringer charged is destroying classroom continuity, has several causes, but none as flagrant as the failure of schools of education to adequately prepare teachers for the realities of the classroom. 

Yet criticism of teacher colleges is hardly new. It echoes many of the points made by Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College, in “Educating School Teachers” in 2006 and by David F. Labaree in “The Trouble With Ed Schools” in 2004. In fact, the nation’s 1,206 university-based education schools have long received low grades because of their lax admission and graduation standards, coupled with overemphasis on theory.  

But can the situation ever significantly change in light of the disconnect between supply and demand? 

There are some 50 million students in 90,000 public schools in the U.S. who are taught by 3.2 million teachers. Every year, schools hire more than 200,000 new teachers for the first day of class in the fall. By the time summer rolls around, however, at least 22,000 have quit.  

This churn-and-burn rate not only costs public schools an estimated $7.3 billion annually, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, but it makes it extremely difficult to maintain teacher quality. The problem is only expected to get worse in the next decade, since some 37% of the education workforce is over 50 and considering retirement, according to the National Education Association. 

As a result, the United States is faced with a double whammy: Tens of thousands of new teachers will leave the profession yearly because they can’t take it anymore, just as many or even more veterans are retiring. Where will qualified replacements come from? 

Schools of education, however, can do only so much to solve the problem since there is a distinct difference between qualified and inspired teachers. What students from chaotic backgrounds need the most are the latter. But no one has ever figured out how to create virtuosos. 

In the final analysis, teaching is more art than science. How many Frank McCourts, Pat Conroys or Jaime Escalantes exist? And how did they come to possess the wherewithal to post their remarkable results with students from appalling backgrounds? It’s highly unlikely it came from teacher colleges.

Walt Gardner, who taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District, writes about education at theedhed.com.

The best that teacher colleges can do under the circumstances is to ditch theory in favor of immersion. 

The best that teacher colleges can do under the circumstances is to ditch theory in favor of immersion.

One successful immersive model is the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship, which has sent more than a thousand STEM teachers into high-needs classrooms in partnerships with teacher prep programs and school districts in Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and New Jersey. (For information on the Georgia program, go here.) Teaching fellows in the program have a year of clinical practice in a high-needs urban or rural school. Once they graduate, they continue to be mentored during a three-year teaching commitment. Research shows students in the program outperform their peers and have retention 2.5 times the rate of teachers in traditional programs.

Ultimately, however, colleges of education may need a version of the Flexner Report. Concerned about the state of medical education in 1908, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council of Medical Education jointly commissioned Abraham Flexner to study and report on medical schools in North America. In 1910, Flexner recommended that only 76 of the 155 medical schools in existence at the time remain open. 

Unless colleges of education implement a more rigorous and empirical approach to preparing future teachers, they also run the risk of being shuttered. They can’t continue along the same line when the stakes are so high.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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