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What No Teacher-Prep Program Can Do

There is widespread agreement that the most important in-school factor in student performance is the quality of teachers.  Much has been written about the subject, but I think it's worthwhile taking another look at the programs that are responsible for preparing teachers ("It Takes a Village: Why Teacher Preparation Alone Cannot Raise the Bar for Teachers," Teachers College Record, Jul. 11).  

Unlike medical schools, education schools vary greatly in quality.  One of the reasons is that there are so many of them: 1,400 vs. 146.  They have produced the present 3.2 million public school teachers and 936,000 physicians, respectively.  Putting aside the sheer difference in numbers, however, there is also the matter of a double standard at work.

The public demands that ed schools produce teachers who can "fix" broken students.  Yet the public understands that med schools cannot possibly produce doctors who can cure all sick patients.  They realize that patients often present with diseases brought on by conditions beyond the control of doctors.  The public is not as forgiving, however, with ed schools. They forget that even the best teachers cannot control what happens outside of school to students.

Disadvantaged students come to school with huge deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development through no fault of their own.  Schools are not Lourdes. Yes, some teachers can manage to help their students overcome their backgrounds.  They deserve the highest praise.  But they're aberrations.

None of this means that ed schools cannot do a better job of getting their graduates ready to meet the needs and interests of their future students.  One of the ways of doing so is to raise admissions standards.  But let's not forget that the huge number of teachers required to take the place of thousands of retiring teachers means something has to give.  It's easy to label teacher preparation as "an industry of mediocrity," which is what the National Council on Teacher Quality did last summer.  It's quite another to offer realistic solutions.

As a starter, I urge education schools to place aspiring teachers much sooner in public school classrooms, where most of them will eventually work.  This early exposure will help weed out those who are not committed to teaching.  It will also help make the classes they take to become licensed more meaningful.  But remember that there are limitations to what any education school can do.


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