Where teachers learn to teach matters

I teach future teachers. I teach them in a traditional undergraduate program, and in a Master in the Art of Teaching program. And if feedback from my former students, and their principals is any indication, I do a pretty good job. Teacher preparation is a bit in the news now because the new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now known as Every Student Succeeds Act, included some language around teacher preparation that has people like me — people who teacher future teachers — worried, angry, and flummoxed. And how teachers become teachers matters to anyone with a connection to schools: public, private, or charter.

State Board of Educator Certification data

I won’t go into the whole history of teaching and teacher education here — it’s a blog post after all. Though I will recommend Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein. The book is a great over view of how things got the way they are, though I disagree with some of her arguments about recent developments. For a more scholarly read, Schoolteacher, is a classic sociological study of the profession of teaching.

What matters for now, though, is that some of the language in the new law appears to allow for (yes, I’m hedging, but the hedge is about the difference between the spirit and the implementation of the policy) something called teaching academies to prepare teachers. Academies seem to be similar to the various “fast-track” teacher preparation programs like Teach for America or local alternative certification programs. The irony being that the ESSA backed off federal meddling in education at the classroom and test level (sort of), but it meddled more in the teacher preparation side.

What’s the problem with fast-track certification programs? To answer that, consider an analogy, one you may be familiar with: teachers are like doctors. Alternative certification for teaching would be like this: taking an undergrad who couldn’t get into medical school, or a mid-career professional wanting to become a doctor, and saying, “You want to be a doctor? Step right up!” Maybe (and that’s a big maybe) this program is picky about who it admits: applicants had to have a C average in college. But all programs aren’t like this. The program might then train this individual for a year, maybe even letting them see patients in clinical settings  — practicing to be a “real doctor.” Then, after a year of courses and some supervised experiences in the clinic, the program says, “Okay, you’ve done our program, go forth and see patients!” Do you want to go see that doctor? Do you want to send your kid to that doctor? Do you want other people to have to send their kid to that doctor?

And, here’s the kicker, that doctor doesn’t see the 30-year-olds who eat well and exercise 5 days a week. That doctor practices in a clinic that sees patients with diverse needs, complicated cases, and chronic illnesses (likely brought on by substandard housing, inadequate nutrition, and a whole host of societal ills outside the control of that one individual). Is that the best doctor for that situation? Can that doctor practice high-quality medicine?

Lastly, after practicing for two years in this highly-demanding clinic experience, the doctor probably leaves. They go either to a much easier clinic setting with those healthy 30-year-olds, or leave medicine all together. Their patients, though, are still there, putting up with a new doctor who went through the same program. Is that how you want your medical care delivered? Your children’s? Other people’s children’s? Again, probably not.

To extend the medical metaphor: there are alternative pathways to teacher certification, usually done as a post-baccalaureate or graduate program, that might be the equivalent of a nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant. In other words, a professional you’d be happy to visit — or who you would send your child to — who would have had rigorous training, if different from a DO or an MD.

Are there individuals who could flourish as doctors having attended fast-track programs? Are there teachers who go through alternative certification programs who are amazing and do great work and invest in their communities and schools? Of course… I know many! But research points to very real challenges with those pathways into teaching, so federal policy to support such paths is troubling. Traditionally prepared teachers — in undergraduate and graduate programs — teach better and stay longer than fast-track teachers.

So if you know a child who goes to school, whether public, charter, or private, that kiddo deserves the best. The best is a teacher prepared as a professional. The best is a teacher prepared in a high-quality program build around extensive field experiences and classroom learning. So if you want schools populated with the best teachers, particularly those most under-served schools with students who need the most support, ask about your children’s teachers’ certification, encourage your school’s principal to hire high-quality teachers from traditional undergraduate and graduate programs. And, if you’re so inclined, tell your elected representative that farming out the training of teachers to fast-track programs isn’t good for the long-term economic viability of the country.

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