Reforming Teacher Preparation Programs
The director of student teaching at the local state college calls my office a couple of days before school starts in the fall. Would we take a few more student teachers? She has lots of elementary education students (way more than will ever get jobs). And do we have any math or science teachers (especially physics) who would want a student teacher?
The director knows we take more than our share of student teachers because that I believe it’s part of our obligation to the profession and a chance to influence the next generation of teachers. Besides, I think that the teacher who agrees to take a student teacher learns something too while she is serving as an example and a mentor. She needs to be able to explain her plans, her decisions, and her judgment. She needs to be able to offer cogent and specific suggestions to the beginner. Having a student teacher is real work for a good master teacher who takes her responsibility seriously.
But at best the student teacher process is haphazard. Coordination between the college supervisor and the master teacher is rare. Placement depends on the good will of the school. Master teachers may receive vouchers for college courses, a small cash stipend (and I mean small), or maybe nothing at all. The college supervisor appears in the classroom maybe twice during the semester and seems to barely know who the student is.
Schools hire about 200,000 new teachers every fall. By the following summer 22,000 have quit. Another 60,000 leave after three years, and by the end of 5 years nearly half of the original hires have left the profession. Two years ago Arne Duncan referred to the nation’s nearly 15,000 colleges of education as “mediocre.”
A report sponsored by the National Council For Accreditation (NCATE) last year calls for teacher education programs to make field service the most important aspect of training. The report pointed out that currently programs are long on theory and short on practice.
There are, of course, teacher training programs that work better than the ones I worked with. Some use the school as a field center and coordinate training between professors and practitioners. Others treat the classroom like a lab, conferring adjunct status (and pay) on participating teachers. Still, in many cases, what should be the culminating experience for a teacher in training turns out to be catch as catch can. And frankly, even under the best circumstances, a semester of practice just isn’t enough to prepare teachers to be effective in the classroom.
As teachers retire, new recruits will take their place. Without reform of teacher preparation programs as well, sustained change seems unlikely.