3 Reactions to Our Teacher Prep Reports

In case you missed it, Ashley LiBetti Mitchel and I have two new reports out on teacher preparation.

In one of our reports, “No Guarantees,” we step back and survey the landscape on teacher preparation. We come to a rather sobering conclusion: As a field, we don’t actually know very much about how to prepare teachers or help them improve. Our title was deliberate–we cannot point to any combination of individual- or program-level characteristics that can guarantee who will become a great teacher. From there we propose some ideas on how to embed this lesson into policy.

Naturally, it’s this more controversial piece that has generated the most feedback, good and bad. The majority of the feedback has been positive, but the main objections to our approach can be lumped into three broad categories:

1. Existing barriers to the teaching profession may not be that great, but that’s because we’ve set the bar too low. 

This argument says that the solution to our teacher prep problems is to “professionalize” (in quotes because not everyone means the same thing when they use the term) teaching. And in order to professionalize teaching, they argue, we should keep doing the same things, just better. Higher standards for entry. Longer programs. More and better student teaching opportunities.

This argument is well-encapsulated in a post by Deans for Impact’s Ben Riley, when he deplores a low-cost, online, for-profit teacher prep program in Texas that advertises on highway billboards with the slogan “Want to teach? When can you start?” Implied in Riley’s comment is the notion that it would be impossible for teachers coming through this route to somehow compete with teachers going through a more rigorous process. (I’d note that this same critique is often lobbed at Teach For America, but I suspect Riley’s perception of TFA is different.)

I can’t and won’t defend this particular program, and I share Riley’s gut-level dislike of a program that portrays teaching as easy. But setting our feelings aside, there’s no evidence this program is actually worse than any other. In fact, there’s a recent study looking at exactly this question in Texas. The Lonestar State has a wide variety of teacher preparation programs. It has 100 different providers, ranging from large for-profits (the three biggest programs in Texas are all for-profits) to more typical regional universities to district-run programs. The study is titled “Fooled By Randomness,” because that’s what it found: virtually no differences across all 100 providers. The variations within each provider swamped any differences between them.

Here’s what it looks like visually for all 100 programs. Each solid black dot represents one preparation program. The lighter gray lines denote confidence intervals. Note how wide those confidence intervals are. We can’t say with any certainty that the program at the far right is actually any better than the one at the far left.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

In other words, our snap judgments aren’t telling us much, and we can’t say for sure if programs that advertise with giant billboard signs are any worse than ones that do not.

2. While teacher prep may not be that great, we aren’t very good at evaluating or helping teachers improve after they get into the profession either. 

Matt Barnum raises this concern at The Seventy Four. He notes that, “teacher evaluation has its own challenges,” and, “Giving schools and districts the flexibility over teacher training and certification may be a very good idea; there’s just no guarantee many will rise to the challenge.”

We grappled with this issue as well but ultimately decided it didn’t make sense to ask teacher prep to solve these problems. For starters, we don’t see evidence the current strategy is working either. New teacher candidates today are spending nearly $5 billion and 302 million hours of their time on requirements that won’t help them become a good teacher. Districts may not be any better at evaluating teachers, but it’s not worth keeping these burdens unless we are sure the requirements are meaningful. Teacher prep should be judged on its own merits, not out of fear of the alternative.

3. We’ve seen proposals to open up the teaching profession before. 

On Twitter, Mike Petrilli observed that we’ve seen proposals like this before. He pointed to a 2006 Hamilton Project paper from Robert Gordon, Thomas Kane, and Douglas Staiger that Malcolm Gladwell later popularized in an article for The New Yorker. Dana Goldstein’s book The Teacher Wars traces versions of this idea going back for more than a century.

We recognize this is not an entirely new idea, but the difference is that we now know even more about why and how this could work. For example, in just the last 10 years we’ve learned much more about the importance of teachers, how to evaluate teachers more effectively, and how they grow into the profession. We’ve also learned more about how bad existing preparation and professional development programs are at training and supporting teachers before and after they enter the classroom. Our proposal is also different in that we don’t advocate trying to fire our way to excellence. Instead, we emphasize the need for new teachers to have low-stakes learning and growth opportunities, and we believe there are compelling arguments for the potential of a performance-based licensure system.

Still have questions about why we came to the conclusions or recommendations we did? Read both of the reports here.

—Chad Aldeman

This post originally appeared on Ahead of the Heard.

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