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NYT Piece: Teachers Aren't Dumb, But Teacher Prep Might Be

In case you missed it, University of Virginia psychology professor Daniel T. Willingham had an op-ed in The New York Times this week with the eye-catching title of "Teachers Aren't Dumb."

In the piece, Willingham seeks to counter the trendy policy notion that what the United States really needs to do to improve schools is to follow the lead of other, model-education countries (e.g., Finland, Japan) and "lure higher-scoring college graduates into teaching."

Willingham argues that the real problem (contrary to popular wisdom) is not that U.S. teachers rank poorly among college graduates—generally, they don't, he says—but that the training they receive to become teachers is, well, pretty woeful. He points to a number of studies suggesting, for example, that education schools do not give prospective teachers a strong enough grounding in concepts essential to teaching reading and math, instead focusing on pedagogical and child-development theory. This is not lost on teachers themselves, he writes:

"Teachers themselves know that their training focuses too much on high-level theory and not enough on nuts-and-bolts matters of teaching. In a 2012 survey, that was their top complaint about their training. The same survey showed that most thought the current system of training should be changed; a fifth thought it worked well."

To change this dynamic and improve the teacher-training sphere broadly, Willingham offers two "guiding principles." One is to evaluate training institutions based not on the later test scores of their graduates' students—another popular policy prescription—but on tests of the teachers themselves upon graduation. The second—which might actually make more sense coming first—is to identify exactly what teachers need to learn to be effective in the classroom:

"Second, use existing research to generate the list of things that a teacher ought to know. A good deal of evidence shows that students learn to read better from teachers who understand the structure of language and learn math better from teachers who know specific techniques for drawing analogies to explain mathematical ideas. A list like this could be used as the guiding framework not only to evaluate whether a teacher is well trained, but also whether he or she should be certified to teach and whether a training program should be accredited."

Aspects of what Willingham is talking about are already percolating in the teacher-prep field. There are serious efforts afoot to isolate key instructional practices and concepts needed by beginning teachers. And new performance-based assessments are being rolled out to better gauge teachers' knowledge and skills before they enter the classroom. Wholly new models of teacher prep that promise radical curriculum changes and greater exposure to classroom practice are also cropping up.

But whether or not any of this will rise to the top and be joined together to have a major impact on teacher prep is probably anyone's guess. As Willingham states: "For changes to be effective, they need to be coordinated."

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