Teacher Colleges, We Need You to Step Up

“After 30 years of doing such work, I have concluded that classroom teaching…is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented. The only time a physician could possibly encounter a situation of comparable complexity would be in the emergency room of a hospital during or after a natural disaster.”—Lee Shulman, Educational Psychologist.

This is one of my favorite quotes. It pushes me to think of the quality of teacher that we must hire, coach, and support. It informs how we prepare our teachers for the classroom.

The vast majority of new teachers struggle, however, they should still enter the classroom with a basic understanding of who and what they will teach. That includes considering the cultural context of your students, trauma’s impact on learning and restorative practices. Schools should expect to coach, onboard and assign mentors to new teachers. However, there should also be a minimum that we expect all teachers to leave their programs with. Currently, we’re a long way from that.

The National Center for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) recently published an evaluation of 875 traditional undergraduate elementary teacher prep programs. 

The evaluation covers three main components:

  1. Admissions: how selective the program is in admitting candidates.
  2. Knowledge: what these teacher candidates are being taught.  
  3. Practice: the quality of the practical experience the teachers in training receive.

Although this study provides evidence that things are improving, as usual, improvement is not fast enough. In real numbers, schools spend between 25-60 percent of their time trying to find the best talent possible for their teams. Despite that time, many schools will not find the quality they need.

From the Start Teachers Are Behind

Once students are in teaching programs, there is a lot that they simply aren’t taught, even though districts and schools will require them to teach those ignored subjects to children.

For example, only 39 percent of the elementary programs in this study taught their undergraduates all five components of reading (phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary). Out of everything we are accountable to teach students, reading is by far the most complex. When students enter school with gaps in reading skills, the quest for literacy is even more fraught with challenges. Research indicates, students proficient at reading will have seen an average of 18,681 words of running text by the end of the first grade. Struggling students will have seen around half of that number. When students leave elementary school behind grade-level reading, the gap is compounded, and by high school, the chasm is vast.

Sixty percent of teacher programs are only teaching a part of what constitutes reading. From the start, these teachers are behind. When we put them in front of kids who are already behind, it spells disaster.

The study also found that only 13 percent of these teacher prep programs prepare their students in the level of math necessary to teach children conceptual math—a vital skill beyond basic procedures that so many of our elementary school students are taught.

And, only 5 percent of the programs hold the expectation that their training includes science, history, literature and composition. This is a huge red flag as many schools require their teachers to teach all four core content subjects.

After all the training, or lack thereof, teachers receive, most candidates are assigned a school to complete their student teaching. Despite it being a way to apply all that was learned, from this research, and my experiences, it is hardly an experience that colleges look at as a significant lever.

The Anti-Accountability Crowd

It is always amazing to me that certain groups routinely shun accountability. They don’t want principals and teachers held accountable for student performance. They reject schools and districts from being held accountable, and, more recently, they decried the U.S. Department of Education’s recommendations for states to be more invasive in teacher certification programs that are rated as at risk or low performing.

As much as traditionalist criticize districts for hiring Teach For America (TFA), there is no way that first-year TFA teachers compared to teacher college graduates should have even close to similar results during their first year of teaching—but, often, they do. In a recent study, there was evidence that, generally, TFA teachers are not outperformed by traditionally prepared teachers. That is great news for TFA and an alarming indictment on schools that claim to prepare teachers in four years.

People also love to cite Finland’s minimal testing. For them, the panacea for improving schools is to limit accountability through assessments. However, what’s not talked about is how Finland, like other high-performing nations, built a significant amount of their accountability into the teacher selection process. Anti-testing folks like to ignore the process for acquiring the quality of the teachers that make it into Finland’s schools—only candidates from the top quartile are accepted into their teaching programs. In contrast, 44 percent of schools in NCTQ’s study do not ensure most of their teachers-in-training are amongst the top half of the college students.

Accountability for student success should not rest solely on our K-12 teachers and schools. Programs, like teacher prep, must also hold themselves accountable for transparency and an urgent sense of continuous improvement. By using the research provided by NCTQ, and the feedback that can be provided by practitioners at K-12 schools, they can help us all reach new heights.

We know the complexity of teaching is like none other. Many things can be professionally developed, but there should be an expectation that our teacher colleges are raising the bar for what they provide to their students, setting these candidates up for success, and thus, setting our children up for success as well. Teacher colleges have a great opportunity to chart a different course and ensure their graduates can perform at the optimal levels when they enter our K-12 schools. Let’s see if they take it.

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


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