Bill Gates, Dead Squirrels, and Teacher Preparation Programs

The National Council for Teacher Quality released their study describing the inadequacy of teacher training programs last week, and it caused quite a stir.  Although the methodology appears as sound as the reasoning behind New Coke and Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, sometimes even a blind squirrel finds a nut.

Or, falls out of a tree to its death.

But for an organization that is affiliated with Bill Gates, I thought NCTQ would have been smarter with its money.  I could have told them a similar story, and I work for cheap.

Bill:  Hey, Mike, are teacher training programs generally rigorous?  Do they require upper-level and intensive course and field work?  Are candidates expected to be well-rounded learners with the ability to problem solve, think critically, and possess the same higher-level skills we want taught to our students?

Me: No.

Bill: That’s it?

Me: Um.  No…Sir?  That will be one dollar.  Consider it a “query fee.”

Bill:  “Query fee?” How about 50 cents and a sealed copy of Windows 95?

It’s important to remember that the American education system is deeply and stubbornly entangled in its own history.  In the early days of public education, teaching was widely considered a temporary position.  Teachers simply taught until they were able to land what was considered their real job, which was mothering. Obviously, intensive training requirements for teaching were not on anyone’s priority list.  Low pay.  Temporary positions.  Inadquate training.  Two out of three still hold true today.  However, I suppose one could claim three for three, if considering how many teachers drop out of the profession within the first few years.

Sadly, the remnants and effects of this philosophy are ubiquitous, and they continue to haunt teaching well into the 21st century.  A teacher in the days of “stand and present” instruction could survive with a mediocre skill set, as long as it included classroom management.  Today, however, we are witnessing the need for increased talent at a time when the profession is under intense scrutiny, with very little support for improvement.   Futher, the intellect required to grasp and facilitate the Common Core Standards is also quite significant, yet very few training programs have identified and addressed this increased need for more rigorous expectations, training, and screening for those looking to teach.

Because, let’s be honest, how many people do you know who drop out of an elementary education program because it’s too rigorous?  Personally, I don’t know any, but I do know quite a few who have dropped out of teaching because it’s too hard.

It seems to me that we might have saved them some money, and all of us some time.

Today, teaching is even less about presenting.  It’s about actively facilitating learning experiences. This requires teachers to possess both strong intellect and a fully-stocked tool kit.  Yet, the cognitive processes required to be successful in the classroom as a teacher, far exceed those required to be sucessful in the classroom as an aspiring teacher.  Want to see intense cognitive processessing and demonstration of superior skill?  Watch a primary teacher lead a legitimate guided reading session or an intermediate teacher facilitate a book talk.  In short, these people are smart.  They have to be, and there is no scripted program that can replicate or replace the experience they provide.

It doesn’t take a flawed study to note few programs require advanced mathematics, for example, yet we fret over our system’s inability to deliver quality math instruction.  Very few programs require coursework in advanced policy studies, yet we wonder why educators are often silent and unaware of what is happening to, and around, their classroom due to outside forces.  And, most importantly, it certainly doesn’t require such a study to know that the most effective teachers teach because they want to, not because it was an easy-path degree.  These educators would have been successful in a program that included increased rigor that they found intellectually challenging, and screened out others.  Instead, they sat through a semester of “Social Studies Methods.”  And, quite often, they were sitting near someonewho should have never made it past year one.

By no means am I implying that an educator must have been through such coursework to be effective.  Thousands of teachers would prove that assertion indisputably wrong.  Nor am I implying that there aren’t quality programs available for aspiring teachers.  There are.  However, such programs certainly are not the norm.  To some degree, the blind squirrel was accidentally correct.

Teaching is no longer a placeholder until getting “real job.”  I’m hoping many of our teachers actually stay a while.   Being better vetted and prepared might help ensure that this wish comes true.

And, if we want problem solvers in charge of facilitating our students’ learning, let’s start by finding and training people who have actually solved challenging, complex, and real world problems, themselves.


Mike Lee

Mike Lee

Phoenix, Arizona

I am the Director of Outreach and Engagement for The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and certified as a Middle Childhood Generalist in 2004. In 2012, I received my doctorate in educational leadership from Northern Arizona University, however, I began my work in education serving as a para-educator in a special education program while still an undergraduate. My passions in the field include assessment and reporting strategies, the evolving role of technology, teacher leadership, and effective professional development that permanently impacts instruction. I consider myself a professional teacher first, as well as a professionally evolving lifelong learner, who is incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to impact the lives of children.

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