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Teacher Training Under Fire

With consensus mounting that teachers are the single most important in-school factor in student achievement, it's time to take a closer look at the programs designed to prepare them for the classroom. On Nov. 16, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed on the subject ("Training better teachers") and on the same day the Wall Street Journal ran a news article on the same issue ("Teacher Training Is Panned").

What emerges is a scathing indictment of the nation's 1,450 colleges and departments of education. Specifically, the charge is that too many teacher preparation programs focus far too heavily on theory at the expense of clinical experience. This criticism is not new. In 2004, David Labaree, professor in the School of Education at Stanford, wrote The Trouble With Ed Schools (Yale University Press), in which he acknowledged the shortcomings of some teacher training programs. Education Secretary Arne Duncan went a step further in a speech delivered at Teachers College at Columbia on Oct. 22, 2009, calling them "mediocre."

There's no question that changes are needed. But rather than repeat the familiar solutions, I think it's important to look at the matter another way. The numbers tell why. The responsibility for educating 50 million students in 90,000 public schools falls on the shoulders of 3.2 million teachers. Every year, schools hire more than 200,000 new teachers for the first day of class in the fall. But by the time summer rolls around, at least 22,000 have quit. Those who make it through the crucial first year aren't likely to stay. About 30 percent bail out after 3 years, and 45 percent are gone after five years.

Whether this churn-and-burn rate would decrease if teacher training were made more practical is the question. Certainly, it would help by providing aspiring teachers with the wherewithal to deal with the realities of the classroom. Nothing is more dispiriting to new teachers than finding themselves unable to cope with the day-to-day issues they face. When the stress becomes unbearable, teachers quit.

Recognizing a similar problem, England is considering the possibility of shifting teacher training from a partnership between universities and schools to making the training mainly school-based, according to the Independent ("Are universities still the best places to train our teachers?" Nov. 11). The issue is controversial because Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) rates almost 85 percent of the existing program as good or outstanding.

But let's not forget that recruiting and retaining the number of highly qualified teachers needed in the U.S. is a monumental task. Finland is often cited as a model for the U.S. because of the excellence of its schools. But Finland is a tiny country of just five million people. As a result, the number of teachers needed to fill its classrooms is infinitesimal. That's one of the reasons Finland will admit only 10 percent of applicants to its teacher training programs within universities, and why candidates are required to earn the equivalent of master's degrees, stressing subject matter and pedagogy. Finland can afford to be highly selective.

Nevertheless, there is one readily applicable part of Finland's approach: its policy of combining classroom instruction with teaching internships. New teachers are guided by mentor teachers who expose them to a variety of classroom situations throughout their entire training. As a result, when new teachers are finally put in charge of their own classrooms they don't suffer from the same shock as teachers in the U.S. This one step alone would help reduce the estimated $7.3 billion annually that the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future says it costs public schools to replace departing teachers.

Those responsible for teacher preparation are under rightful pressure to change. Whether they will is another story. Tradition dies hard.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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