Training Must Focus on Content and Pedagogy

Forum: The Quest for Better Educators

What happens inside the classroom is the most critical ingredient in ensuring that all students are able to achieve their career goals. Improving educational attainment for all students in today’s schools can only happen if we improve the quality of teaching.

Just over 30 years ago, I decided to become a classroom teacher, specifically a teacher of mathematics and chemistry. I was prepared at a midsize university in the Midwest. Despite the university’s great reputation for teacher preparation, faculties in mathematics and chemistry discouraged me from the profession, noting that I was not going to be adequately compensated, would work in difficult conditions, and would be much happier in industry. This should have been a message to me that as a society we had moved down a path that dissuades the best and brightest from seeing teaching as a viable career option.

Nevertheless, I was hired to teach mathematics in California in 1985. At the time, like today, far fewer individuals were being prepared to be mathematics teachers in California than the state needed. Many of us were hired from the Midwest and from eastern states, and given emergency certification in California conditioned on passing a course on California history and the National Teacher Exam in mathematics. I didn’t realize then that my experience in California was the beginning of 30 years of slow but steady decline in the quality of candidates we were attracting and preparing to teach in our schools.

Over that period, it has become clear that current state control of teacher preparation and licensing does not ensure that teachers will be of high quality. State regulations that promote a one-size-fits-all approach to teacher preparation have limited our ability to innovate, customize, and study features of preparation programs that may positively affect student achievement. Bold new approaches to teacher preparation that are thoroughly evaluated for effectiveness in the classroom are long overdue.

What’s Wrong with the System

Each state sets standards for teacher certification largely through its regulation of the teacher preparation programs that are operated by the institutions of higher education located within its boundaries. With few exceptions, this approach is unsatisfactory. In most states, in order for a program to recommend teachers for certification, it must meet a series of requirements that read like a laundry list. In my home state of Texas, for example, the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) requires that in addition to the content standards specified for each grade band, the curriculum for teacher preparation programs must include 17 specific subjects of study. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with any of them. However, given as a list, none appear to have any particular emphasis (i.e., learning theories (#5) seems as important as parent communication (#13) and motivation (#4)); they are not tailored to fit the needs of teachers in any specific context (i.e., urban or rural, turnaround or successful); and they do not consider the developmental stage of the student as it relates to each topic. Perhaps most importantly, this approach assumes a state-held knowledge base on optimal teacher preparation, which simply doesn’t exist. The insistence that all preparation programs cover these topics discourages innovation or research on more effective approaches to teacher preparation.

What Makes Teachers Effective?

By all accounts, it is difficult to define precisely what sets good teachers apart from ineffective teachers or even average teachers. We do know that effectiveness in today’s classroom is multidimensional.

It is difficult to conceive of an effective teacher who doesn’t have a deep understanding of content knowledge. Deep understanding starts with the content itself (e.g., proportional reasoning, Shakespeare, the Krebs cycle), learned through disciplinary study. Content knowledge has to be backed up with experience in designing instruction that conveys content most effectively, enabling students to achieve mastery. In other words, knowing how to solve mathematical problems using proportions falls short of the content knowledge needed for teaching proportional reasoning. An effective teacher must be able to determine where students’ understanding has broken down and how to support their cognition.

Unfortunately, it is difficult and time-consuming to master content knowledge and even more so to become an expert teacher. Mastery comes only with adequate experience and professional support. Certainly, in the process of preparation, we can instruct new teachers in how to recognize when students don’t understand and how to identify their needs, but the numerous possible variations that underlie students’ difficulties reduce the likelihood that new teachers will be experts from the start.

Pedagogical knowledge and skills require an understanding of a child’s development involving biology, developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, linguistics, behavioral psychology, and cultural anthropology. That’s just to work with one child. When we place students together in groups, we have to consider sociocultural factors, systems dynamics, learning histories, and relationship histories. Then we get down to the engineering of instruction: how to plan and deliver content to groups of students who enter the classroom each day or each period. Teachers must estimate students’ level of understanding and take an approach to teaching that will stimulate curiosity and engagement with the content.

I highlight these two components of teaching because they seem to be the most central to the work of teacher preparation programs. In short, they represent the development of a teacher’s knowledge of the “what” and “how” of teaching. Recent advancements in education research have brought a new lens to these two areas and suggest that in many cases, teacher preparation programs are not currently designed to provide adequate content knowledge or to teach pedagogical practices that are supported by research evidence. The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) (see “21st-Century Teacher Education,” features, Summer 2013) has launched an initiative that will identify those teacher-preparation programs that set high standards with regard to content and pedagogy. As NCTQ found in its analysis, far too few teacher-preparation programs currently provide what is necessary for a new teacher to be successful.

Ideally, our system of teacher preparation would also determine who has the personality and disposition to be a teacher before preparation begins, and ensure that they develop the skills and professionalism needed to be effective within a school. These areas lie on the margin of what is currently in the purview of teacher preparation programs. In addition, there is compelling evidence that the quality of the individuals who are attracted to the field may be more powerful than differences in teacher preparation programs. Recent efforts by the newly formed Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) to establish stronger criteria for selecting top-notch candidates are a step in the right direction.

Setting the bar higher is only the first step, however. Over the past several decades, fewer and fewer well-qualified candidates have seen teaching as an acceptable career choice. On average, U.S. teachers earn only about two-thirds of the salaries of other professions with comparable preparation, there is little room for advancement within the profession, and the working conditions in many public schools are challenging at best. Teacher preparation programs alone can’t adequately attract a pool of strong new teachers to the field. One of the most promising outcomes of initiatives such as Teach For America (TFA) is that it helps bring to schools well-educated college graduates who might otherwise not have considered education as a career option. But even TFA falls short of filling the need for new teachers in the next decade. Without powerful new incentives, it seems fewer high-quality teachers will be drawn to the field.

What’s the Solution?

In an effort to create immediate and enduring improvements in student outcomes, most states have adopted Common Core State Standards or other content standards that reflect higher expectations for student learning than previous iterations. Efforts to establish similarly comprehensive standards for teacher preparation, such as those being developed by CAEP, should be applauded. We should not simply adopt new teacher competencies, however, without a thoughtful and strategic plan for evaluation and evidence-based revision of our teacher-preparation programs.

I envision the first steps in this process to be a broad and inclusive conversation that brings the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors together to forge a concrete plan for studying and strengthening teacher preparation. While the conversation would be broad, the agenda should be narrow and focus on three immediate needs: 1) radically improving the quality of candidates coming to the field; 2) identifying the specific content of coursework necessary to improve teacher knowledge; and 3) and detailing the practical experiences that new teachers need in order to ensure they are effective in the types of classroom contexts in which they plan to teach. This conversation will require a thoughtful analysis of why our system of teacher preparation has not changed appreciably for decades and what we need to do to make needed changes happen.

In terms of the optimal content of teacher preparation programs, we have only begun to understand what specific amounts of knowledge and skills one needs to possess to be an effective classroom teacher. We also know very little about how those needs change depending on students’ developmental stages (e.g., pre-K, middle school) and the teaching context (e.g., urban, suburban, rural). It’s easy to see where content is absent, however. Even without empirical evidence, we can make logical decisions about how to improve the quality and quantity of the most important knowledge and skills. For example, it is common in many elementary-educator preparation programs to see few courses on the science of reading instruction or on mathematics content. These limitations should be immediately addressed. Another example involves how little teachers understand about the home language and culture of their students. This is particularly important given the dramatic demographic shifts we are witnessing in most of our country. Efforts to understand the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that are critical to sustained success in the classroom are under way, but further state and federal investment in research is needed to guide the reform of preparation programs.

Finally, we need to encourage experimentation with the practical requirements of teacher preparation. At my institution, we assume that more experience in the classroom than is required by state regulation provides teacher candidates with valuable practice and important information regarding their choices of where to teach. However, the “more is better” approach has not been adequately evaluated. As an example, teacher residency programs have captured interest nationally, but we have only limited evidence of their effectiveness compared to more traditional teacher-preparation programs. Again, logical analyses remain our only short-term tool for making informed decisions, but more evidence is needed to improve our practice.

At a recent dinner for incoming merit scholars to our university, I asked several of them whether they had considered teaching as an option. There was collective nervous laughter. One young lady said that they would never teach because they knew it paid poorly, the working conditions were not good, there was little respect for teachers, and there were no opportunities to advance and lead. Here was a high school senior unwittingly communicating key changes that need to be made to attract high-quality teachers to our field. We will need to set a significantly higher bar for admission to the teaching field and, at the same time, muster financial and professional incentives (e.g., salary, retirement, and career opportunities) to boost interest among our very best candidates for teaching. In addition, attracting top-notch teachers will require more investment in our knowledge of the impact of pay-for-performance models.

Shortly after the turn of the last century, physician preparation in the United States was examined critically for its quality. The results were significant improvements in medical school quality, higher standards for admission, and higher medical costs overall. Similar improvements to teacher preparation could result in better teaching and improved learning outcomes for students. Likewise, these changes will likely require a significant investment in research and development to fuel improved practices and to inform teacher preparation. If we want better teaching, we will have to pay for it.

This article is part of a forum on developing better educators. For another take, please see Strengthen State Oversight of Teacher Preparation by James G. Cibulka.

This article appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Chard, D., and Cibulka, J.G. (2013). The Quest for Better Educators. Education Next, 13(4), 50-57.

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