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If We Fix Student Teaching, Will We Fix Teacher Shortages?

Washington

The president of the National Council on Teacher Quality presented what she sarcastically called a "radical" solution for both improving the pipeline of new teachers and filling specific teacher shortages: "Fix student teaching."

"There's a misalignment between what's needed [in districts] and what's provided out of higher ed," said Kate Walsh, speaking July 17 at an annual gathering of state teachers of the year. "This is nothing new—it's been going on for decades. And the solution is not going to come from higher ed." Instead it will come from districts being more choosey about who they let come in to student teach, she argued. 

NCTQ, Washington-based research and advocacy group, has been lambasting the state of teacher preparation for years now. The group has reviewed and rated thousands of teacher education programs across the country and found that the majority don't adequately prepare educators. 

But those reviews have also faced plenty of pushback, with critics calling the NCTQ methodology flawed (the group relied mainly on syllabuses and other documents to rate programs) and its conclusions inaccurate. 

Yet many in teacher preparation generally agree that student-teaching needs attention, as my colleague Stephen Sawchuk reported a few years back, even if they don't necessarily agree with the NCTQ's prescriptions. 

'Everyone's Given Up'

Walsh described student teaching, which is generally the culminating experience in a traditional teacher-preparation program, as "something everyone's given up on." Student-teaching assignments are often made with little regard for chemistry between the mentor and mentee or what the district really needs. 

Instead, districts should see student-teachers as a potential hiring pool—and should treat them as such. They should screen the student-teachers to see what they know and make sure they're a good fit for a particular mentor. "You're not assessing whether they can teach, because they haven't had that experience," said Walsh. "But they've just spent two years in a program learning how to teach. They don't come to you as a blank slate."

Incoming student-teachers should be expected to have basic knowledge about things like classroom management and literacy instruction, Walsh said.

A Test in the Works

NCTQ is developing an assessment to help districts determine what potential student teachers know, and whether they have the attitude and disposition to be a successful teacher. It will be piloted with preservice teachers at Western Governors University this fall.

Western Governors has gotten high marks from NCTQ before--the university's secondary math program was ranked No. 1 among teacher-prep programs nationally. The university is also one of the few to use a competency-based program, in which students demonstrate mastery of particular knowledge and skills to graduate rather than taking a fixed course sequence. 

"Your student teaching pipeline should be your best source of teachers," Walsh said. "If you're not getting really good candidates who you want to hire, it's because you're not taking really good candidates into your system."

The tool could ideally also help districts find student teachers who actually want to stay in the district, rather than find a different job or move to another part of the country. 

"If I'm in Chicago public schools, why am I going to donate my time and experience to someone who doesn't want to teach here?" said Walsh. "You're investing in your school district."

That comment irked some audience members, especially those who had transitioned from K-12 teaching into teacher education. Mentoring student-teachers, regardless of whether they stay in your district, is "for the good of the profession," Jennifer Rankin, the 2010 Maryland state teacher of the year, now an education professor at Frostburg State University, said in an interview after the presentation. 

Pamela Roggeman, a dean for the college of education at the University of Phoenix and former high school teacher, said her university already does assess student teachers' dispositions. 

Limiting Placements 

According to Walsh, districts should also commit to only placing student-teachers with the best mentor teachers—and they should pay those mentors a decent stipend. Her group is also piloting a program with charter schools in the Bay Area that would pay them about $2,500.

Plus, districts should limit the number of, say, elementary education teachers they accept. Too often, they take on more student teachers than they will have vacancies. That would eventually put market pressure on preservice teachers to consider being trained in high-needs areas. 

Districts can tell the universities, "if you want to place more, you need to start persuading those little 18-year-olds to get a dual certification, and teach [English-language learners] or special education," Walsh said. 

As an aside, she noted that her fixes wouldn't help with the nation's science, technology, engineering, and math teacher shortage. "The only way we'll fix the nation's STEM shortage is to pay them more, because they can make more money elsewhere," she said.

Some in the room scoffed at the notion that universities would tell students they'd have to give up their dream of being an elementary teacher because there were no student-teaching placements nearby.

"Don't get me wrong, teacher prep can improve," said Roggeman. Looking for "chemistry and fit" in those student teacher-mentor relationships is a good idea. But, she said, telling students what they can and can't study is a no-go. 


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