Teaching matters. We know that it can make the difference between a child learning to read by third grade, being confident in math, and developing the mindset necessary for success. Yet skillful teaching is not commonplace, and it’s hurting our society. Three reasons stand out:
- We do not agree on a minimum competency level to enter the teaching profession.
- We do not have a professional system for preparing teachers.
- Our teaching force does not reflect the diversity of our nation’s school-age population. Although 44% of schoolchildren are students of color — a number expected to rise to 55% by 2023 —only 17% of teachers are from communities of color.
Improving teacher quality and preparation in this country is a massive undertaking. Our schools require four million teachers—a staggering number and second only to retail in workforce needs. There is also the high turnover rate, with more than 40% of all teachers leaving the profession within five years of entry.
This exodus, combined with expected retirements and the expanding school-age population, will mean we will need to hire nearly two million teachers in the next five years. It’s crucial that we build a system of high quality teacher preparation, and we build it now.
Current teacher preparation programs — there are more than 2,000 of them — vary greatly in the training and guidance they offer to novice teachers. This means the teaching profession lacks shared professional knowledge and a common specific curriculum for preparation.
The result is a widely shared view of teaching as a uniquely individual pursuit with skills that are learned on the job. In other words, there currently exists no common standard for entry to independent practice with young people. If this were pediatricians we were talking about, there would be outrage.
Complicating all of this are competing popular notions that teaching is simple; that really good teaching is rare; that some people are born to teach. There is little faith in professional training for teachers. In fact, teachers themselves often say things like: “Teaching has always come naturally to me.” Or “I can’t explain what I do. I have to follow my intuition a lot.” Or even “I was a mess for the first couple of years.”
These kinds of statements represent the dangerous (and utterly false) belief that teaching can’t really be taught—that people have to learn to do it on the job, through hard knocks and trial and error. The fact that many teachers do eventually figure out how to teach this way does not mean that this is a good or reliable approach to producing skillful teachers at scale. And for students who are learning from a teacher who is trying to figure things out on the fly, this is not only unfair, but also unjust.
This would be bad enough if it weren’t also the case that the children most likely to have under-prepared and under-supported teachers are students of color and low-income students.
So what’s the Next Idea?
For a new way forward, TeachingWorks, at the University of Michigan, took a closer look at how other skilled professionals — such as nurses, airplane pilots, and electricians — are prepared. Their training focuses on the core tasks of their work. They benefit from supervised and structured practice, with plenty of specific feedback. And they have consequential licensure exams that confirm their competence before independent practice. In an effort to bring this mindset to teaching, TeachingWorks has designed an approach that tackles the problem of inadequate professional training for teachers.
First, we have identified a set of core skills that are particularly important for new teachers. We call these high-leverage practices because they represent skills that, when used competently, increase the likelihood that teaching will be effective for students’ learning.
These are our “best bets,” warranted by research evidence, wisdom of practice, and logic, and include, for example, diagnosing common patterns of student thinking, leading whole-class discussions, and communicating effectively with families. To support these practices, we have developed video exemplars and curriculum materials that teacher preparation programs can use with their candidates. Beginning teachers should not be allowed to teach if they cannot carry out these practices with entry-level capability.
Second, TeachingWorks has developed a model of clinical training that includes deliberate, guided learning from skilled teachers, much like clinical rounds in the medical profession. It also includes the study of videos and other primary records of practice, and rehearsals of lessons before presenting them to children.
To scale this model nationally, we are launching what we call “teacher preparation program networks,” which are small clusters of teacher preparation programs and K-12 school districts that commit to increasing the number of graduates who are prepared for skillful classroom teaching.
The training offered through these networks will be systematic, with supervision and feedback, and will increase in complexity as the beginning teacher acquires and demonstrates skill.
Third, in partnership with the Educational Testing Service, TeachingWorks has developed a licensure exam that establishes a national standard for entry into the teaching profession. The National Observational Teaching Examination (NOTE), a first-of-its-kind assessment that measures readiness for responsible entry-level teaching by appraising candidates’ skills, knowledge, and judgment, is currently being field-tested in states across the country and will be ready for full adoption by the fall of 2016.
Underlying all of this is the need to recruit a diverse teaching workforce that more closely mirrors the demographics of our students.
Currently, black and brown youth rarely encounter teachers with whom they share identity, and the professional knowledge base lacks the cultural perspective and attunement needed to teach our young people. Addressing this is complex and we don’t have a clear path forward. However, we know it will require a deliberate shift in the messages we send about the profession — both in the way teaching is covered in the media and how teachers themselves talk about their work. It will also require the development of new tools and admissions standards to evaluate a broad range of prerequisite skills and experiences that applicants might bring to learning to teach.
The time is now. The future of our nation depends on every student in every classroom receiving skillful teaching every day. This is a fundamental civil right of every child.
Deborah Loewenberg Ball is the dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan and a nationally recognized expert on teacher preparation.