This is a Test, This is Only a Test (Of Teacher Prep)

In The Mirage, our recent paper on teacher development, we argue that we have collectively oversimplified and underestimated the challenge of teacher improvement.

The Mirage focuses on professional development for practicing teachers. But we believe the distance between where we are now and where we need to be extends to the training we provide teachers before they enter the classroom—teacher preparation.

Reinventing teacher preparation holds much potential. In data we collected for The Mirage, we found that more than half of teachers said their preparation did very little to actually get them ready to teach. And just over half agreed that their prep program included sufficient classroom practice opportunities to help them master the basic skills they needed to be a teacher.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. For years, researchers have been documenting how differences in teacher performance across various pathways into the classroom are paltry, even when differences across incoming teacher qualifications are quite large and when preparation models differ sharply in content, duration, and philosophy. If selectivity and program structure don’t seem to be the keys to better preparation and higher quality teacher pipelines, how should we be rethinking teacher preparation? 

Answering this question feels ever more urgent as enrollment in preparation programs has declined and some districts have begun to face challenges filling their teacher vacancies.

To do this, we need to test various innovations at multiple levels—districts, states, within preparation programs, and through career ladders in schools—to see if any of these approaches yield better results for new teachers. Here are some ideas we would put to the test:

Test 1: Districts Drive the Market

Districts can play a pivotal role in creating new approaches to the current teacher prep market in at least three ways:

Becoming a provider of prep themselves. Districts could use their existing infrastructure for teacher professional development to build in-house preparation programs in which teachers are trained specifically on the district’s vision for instruction, largely in the classroom and at lower cost to candidates.

Using their leverage as employer to drive the local labor market. Districts could, for example, allocate slots for teachers coming from programs that are willing to train in ways that align to local needs. 

Accepting student teachers as a key component of their pipeline strategy. Districts could design a “tryout period” for teaching that uses the student teaching experience as an opportunity not only for teachers-in-training to practice their skills, but also for the assessment of their potential.  

Test 2: Support Innovation in State-Level Policy

There are several things state regulators can do to lead the way with new approaches to teacher prep, too:

Create a teacher prep “innovation zone.” State regulators should encourage innovation in teacher preparation by enabling new and existing providers to test new approaches to training. For example, providers that agree to be evaluated and held accountable for providing effective teachers in areas of need for school systems (like bilingual education, special education, and science) would have regulations like seat time hours waived, enabling the creation of new prep models and facilitating the participation of a wider pool of potential teacher candidates. 

Establish a high bar for prep program approval. State regulators should set a bar relying on district or third-party evaluations of program graduates as a condition for program approval and renewal. States might consider offering districts the chance to become authorizing bodies for their own local prep programs, which could encourage districts to advocate for prep programs that fill their hiring needs.

Reform licensure systems. States can start by creating faster tracks to licensure and removing needless barriers so students don’t have to walk away from academic majors in order to earn a teaching license, especially as higher academic standards for students will demand more and more content knowledge from teachers. A physics major who wants to teach middle school science shouldn’t have to take 24 education credits (which research shows add little to a teacher’s effectiveness) in order to be certified. And states should push for performance-based licensure systems that support progression toward full certification based on demonstrated skills in the classroom.

Test 3: Expand On-the-Job Teacher Training

Finally, innovation is possible at the school level by creating pathways into the classroom for professionals who are already building valuable instructional experience in other roles:

Create classroom pathways for instructional aides. Schools and districts could create on-the-job training programs that prepare instructional aides to become teachers by building on their experience in existing roles, and allow these professionals to earn certification without giving up their current jobs. (States can facilitate this by waiving regulatory obstacles for districts operating in innovation zones with clear accountability for outcomes.) This would be an opportunity to build a lower-cost training model that draws on existing talent—and demonstrated effectiveness with students would be a requirement to transition from one role to the next.


These are just a few ideas among many—hardly an exhaustive list. The real point is to try something new. Nearly a quarter-century after the introduction of “alternative certification,” there is still very little innovation in teacher preparation. Until that changes, school districts will continue to confront a set of problems that have gone unsolved for a generation: a teacher workforce that fails to meet local needs in terms of quantity, quality, and diversity.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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