A better way to teach teachers

July 20, 2013 

When the National Council on Teacher Quality released last month its report on teacher training programs, I was not shocked to read that the vast majority of colleges and universities do a poor job of preparing their students to teach. I imagine that many other people who have gone through such programs were equally unsurprised.

I went to a highly ranked liberal arts college and graduated with a special major in sociology, anthropology and education as well as an elementary teaching certificate. I immediately found a job teaching breathtakingly underprivileged students in a persistently failing elementary school in Prince George’s County, Md.

I wasn’t prepared to teach my students how to tie their shoes, much less to make up for years of institutional neglect, hunger, poverty, family transience, isolation and other ills. My first year was a nightmarish blur; my second was only slightly less awful. My third had its highlights but was still a daily struggle. There are stories from that time that my parents never heard.

One of the perpetual concerns I held through those three years was how to teach the many special-needs students in my third- and fourth-grade classes who were not being served by the school’s special-education teacher. To gain practical skills to serve the students I now understood would be in my classes, regardless of where I taught, I decided to go to graduate school for special education. I started a one-year master’s program at Teachers College, Columbia University, which has long been regarded as among the best education programs in the country.

I quickly realized that I had made a terrible mistake. My professors seemed uninterested in teaching me anything practical. At that time, in 2000, the academic hero du jour was Lev Vygotsky, with his theory of the zone of proximal development. It seemed not to matter what I did in my teaching placement as long as I wrote every paper and approached all of my lesson planning from a Vygotskian perspective.

By that December I was frustrated and bored. I decided to attempt switching programs for my final semester, or else I would simply drop out. Luckily for me, the chair of the anthropology and education department was happy to let me fill out my final term with anthropology classes and anything else I wanted to take. So I finished my program with no more practical teaching knowledge than I had when I started – and with the realization that I would have to look elsewhere to learn the skills I had gone to graduate school to obtain.

The Washington Post’s June news story on the National Council on Teacher Quality report quoted Arthur Levine, the former president of Teachers College, as saying: “We don’t know how to prepare teachers. We can’t decide whether it’s a craft or a profession. Do you need a lot of education as you would in a profession, or do you need a little bit and then learn on the job, like a craft?” I agree with Levine, but I think his remarks expose a false dichotomy that could be reconciled if the political and academic will existed to do so.


To see why the teaching world need not choose between training craftspeople or professionals, look to medicine. In this country, medical students go to school for four years of highly specialized education. They spend their first two years learning the fundamentals and the theories of medicine. Their second two years are spent mainly in clinical rotations, learning the craft of patient care through observation and guided practice.

Students also take the first two steps in a series of rigorous licensing exams that test their theoretical and practical knowledge. If they survive the schooling and the tests, they proceed to on-the-job learning under the tutelage of master practitioners and take more tests.

Only after they have made it through the required intellectual and practical education are they considered qualified to practice medicine. No one would question that they are professionals. The hands-on portion of their training is also indispensable.

Why not adopt this model for education? Educators could be required to complete a period of schooling in which they learn the theories and ideas that will be most valuable to them as teachers and hone their skills at thinking and talking about education from an intellectual standpoint. Then, perhaps, one to two years of guided practice under the supervision of master teachers could be required, with lots of coaching and meaningful feedback.

We could even throw in some rigorous exams. In a few years, it would be possible to see whether our teaching corps and our schools have improved dramatically. My guess is that we would all be pleasantly surprised.

The Washington Post

The writer practices education and civil rights law in Washington.

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