There’s More Than One Way to Train a Great Teacher
If you only listened to members of the traditional education establishment, you would be forgiven for thinking the recent State University of New York proposal to allow high-quality public charter schools to train their own aspiring teachers is sacrilege.
But rather than blindly trusting the opinions of an industry where success is measured largely by your ability to endure hours of theoretical coursework and exams, we should be looking at what really produces great teachers. Every school leader, teacher, and parent wants teachers to prove themselves by overcoming a high bar. But we do a great disservice to kids when that bar has little to do with the ability to inspire students and help them succeed.
Academic research as well as our experience training tens of thousands of teachers in New York City has shown that sitting for coursework doesn't help teachers to lead an engaging class, and passing graduate school exams doesn't mean someone can help students master the skills they need for college. Instead of raising the bar, these hurdles create tripping hazards for talented people from all walks of life who could make a difference in the classroom.
That's not to say that aspiring teachers should not be rigorously trained or that teacher preparation programs shouldn't meet standards of excellence. But successful teaching candidates should demonstrate an ability to help students learn, and successful preparation programs should produce teachers who can meet that bar, not just spend the requisite number of hours doing coursework. To make sure the teachers we train meet that standard, candidates must pass an Assessment of Classroom Effectiveness that uses multiple measures, including student learning, to make sure they are prepared for a successful first year.
In our programs, we provide aspiring teachers with opportunities to focus on key skills and academic content, to engage in intensive hands-on practice, and to learn from coaches who can help them fine-tune their approach. That's exactly the kind of training that's found in some of New York's most successful charter schools — many of which have a strong track record in reversing the achievement gap. Since 2013, state exam results show New York City charter students have improved twice as much as those in district schools on math, and by 60 percent more in English Language Arts, while serving primarily low-income children of color.
Many public charter schools have spent years developing their own in-house training programs that cover not just teaching skills, but rigorous academic content, during intensive summer sessions and throughout the year. Most importantly, high-performing charter networks ultimately judge their training programs by their teachers' impact on students — a bar that we'd urge SUNY to make more explicit in the new regulations.
It's a blueprint for how teacher certification should look in all public schools. The teaching profession should be a magnet for talented people who want to make a difference in children's lives. The size of your bank account or your ability to clear your schedule for graduate school shouldn't be a qualification for entering a training program.
The most vocal critics of this approach are entrenched in traditional university schools of education. With some notable exceptions, universities fail to train the teaching force that kids need. For decades, there have been severe shortages, felt most acutely by low-income kids and kids of color, of secondary STEM teachers, special education teachers, ESL and bilingual teachers. Most of the teachers these programs do train have not had to demonstrate success in their most important role: helping students learn.
Traditional programs have also failed to open the profession to teachers from all backgrounds. Enrollment in these costly and time-intensive programs is overwhelmingly and disproportionately white and female. As a result, only 17 percent of teachers nationwide are nonwhite, compared to more than half of public school students. That lack of diversity can have lifelong consequences for kids. Research has shown that students are more likely to be referred to gifted programs and less likely to be suspended by teachers of their own race.
Traditional schools of education have guarded their departments by planting seeds of doubt about new training models—including proven programs.
That's backward. A training program that culminates in a true performance screen tells us everything we need to know. Is this person a master of the content they teach? Can they get kids inspired, engaged and excited for what's next?
In any school, that's the experience students deserve.
Daniel Weisberg is the chief executive officer of TNTP, formerly The New Teacher Project.