Pruning Teacher Education

“If half of the 1450 places that train teachers went out of business tomorrow, we’d be better off.” The Harvard professor paused. “And, with very few exceptions, it wouldn’t matter which half.”

His is a widely held view of teacher education: too many institutions doing a lousy job. Most teachers I’ve met over the years weren’t happy with, or proud of, their training, which, they said,  didn’t prepare them for the ‘real world’ of teaching.

And so the question is, HOW to put half of the institutions out of business?  Should we trust ‘the market’ or rely on government regulations?

The federal government thinks that tighter regulation of these institutions is the answer. After all, cars that come out of an automobile plant can be monitored for quality and dependability, thus allowing judgments about the plant.  Why not monitor the teachers who graduate from particular schools of education and draw conclusions about the quality of their training programs?

That’s the heart of the new regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Education this week: monitor the standardized test scores of students and analyze the institutions their teachers graduated from.  Over time, the logic goes, we’ll discover that teachers from Teacher Tech or Acme State Teachers College generally don’t move the needle on test scores. Eventually, those institutions will lose access to federal money and be forced out of business. Problem solved!

Education Secretary John B. King, Jr., announced the new regulations in Los Angeles.  “As a nation, there is so much more we can do to help prepare our teachers and create a diverse educator workforce. Prospective teachers need good information to select the right program; school districts need access to the best trained professionals for every opening in every school; and preparation programs need feedback about their graduates’ experiences in schools to refine their programs (emphasis added). These regulations will help strengthen teacher preparation so that prospective teachers get off to the best start they can, and preparation programs can meet the needs of students and schools for great educators.”

Work on the regulations began five years ago and reflect former Secretary Arne Duncan’s views.  “The system we have for training teachers lacks rigor, is out of step with the times, and is given to extreme grade inflation that leaves teachers unprepared and their future students at risk,” he wrote earlier this month in an ‘open letter’ to the deans of schools of education.  And, naturally, some see the Department’s actions as a continuation of Duncan’s discredited ‘test and punish’ approach with teachers.    “It is, quite simply, ludicrous to propose evaluating teacher preparation programs based on the performance of the students taught by a program’s graduates,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said, adding “It’s stunning that the department would evaluate teaching colleges based on the academic performance of the students of their graduates when ESSA—enacted by large bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate last December—prohibited the department from requiring school districts to do that kind of teacher evaluation.”

It’s a  classic Democratic approach to problem-solving: regulate, regulate, regulate. But the flaw here isn’t regulations per se. Unfortunately, the Administration not attacking the problem, which is not teacher-training but teaching itself!

Even if half of the 1450 training programs are mediocre or worse, the reason we have that many programs is the excessive churn in the field. Teaching has become a crummy job; teachers leave and have to be replaced; and those replacements have to be trained somewhere. Because about 40 percent of teachers leave the classroom sometime in their first five years of teaching, for an annual ‘churn’ rate of 8 percent, schools are constantly hiring.  Churn creates the market for training institutions. Improve the profession (higher pay at the outset, more opportunities for collegiality and cooperation, a greater say in curriculum, and a serious role in the assessment of students), and the exodus would slow down.

Consider one state, Illinois: In 2012, its institutions of higher education graduated over 43,000 education majors, presumably the majority of them trained to be teachers. The largest producer of teachers, Illinois State University, has more than 5000 would-be teachers enrolled, and its website reports that one of four new teachers hired in Illinois between 2008-2011 was an ISU graduate.  Illinois K-12 schools employ about 145,000 teachers. If 20% leave in a given year, that creates 29,000 vacancies–I.E., jobs for 29,000 replacements.  If 10% opt out, the K-12 schools need 14,500 trained replacements.

But if only 5% of Illinois’ teachers left every year, there would be just 7,250 job openings for the state’s 43,000 graduates who majored in education.  Soon, that training program would shrink, and lesser programs in Illinois would wither and die.

I don’t mean to pick on Illinois. You can find similar evidence in most states.

Strengthen training, increase starting pay and improve working conditions, and teaching might attract more of the so-called ‘best and brightest,’ whereas right now it’s having trouble attracting anyone, according to the Learning Policy Institute, which reported that

“Between 2009 and 2014, the most recent years of data available, teacher education enrollments dropped from 691,000 to 451,000, a 35% reduction. This amounts to a decrease of almost 240,000 professionals on their way to the classroom in the year 2014, as compared to 2009.”

Ironically, that’s ‘the market’ at work, but just not in the way we would like.  Aware of the so-called ‘war on teachers’ conducted by the Administration and the School Reform crowd, young people are making the rational decision to choose other lines of work.

However, if we act to improve the lives of teachers, ‘the market’ will work on our behalf.  And if we allow the market to end the constant churn, the need for 1400 training institutions will evaporate. Programs would have to compete for students, and many–maybe half–would not survive.

An improved profession will draw young people in and keep them. If that happens, substandard training, and the institutions that provide it, are likely to become a thing of the past

What we are doing reminds of the parable of the dangerous cliff:  A town playground abuts a cliff, and children keep falling off and getting seriously hurt. The town leaders gather to find a solution. One proposes building a fence to prevent injuries. Others recommend building a hospital at the base of the cliff, arguing that a hospital will mean more jobs for adults. What’s more, federal and state grants will pay for the building, so it won’t cost taxpayers anything.  In the parable, of course, they ignore the real problem and opt for building the hospital.  That’s what the Administration is doing here, it seems to me.

I am a firm believer in the adage, “Harder to Become, Easier to Be.” We need to raise the bar for entry into the field and at the same time make it easier for teachers to succeed. This approach will do the opposite; it will make teaching more test-centric and less rewarding.

This latest attempt to influence teaching and learning is classic School Reform stuff. It worships at the altar of test scores and grows out of an unwillingness to face the real issues in education (and in society).  While it may be well-meaning, it’s misguided and, at the end of the day, harmful.


13 thoughts on “Pruning Teacher Education

  1. John, thanks for making the point that we need to improve the attractiveness of teaching, so that more people stay in.

    However, I think it’s a mistake to lump all people trying to reform/improve public schools “the School Reform Crowd,” as you put it, with the US Dept of Education decision.

    There are many of us who believe in multiple measures, who have worked for decades on this, and who also have been working in other ways to make teaching more attractive.

    One of the latest examples is the teacher powered school effort that seeks to give district as well as charter public school teachers opportunities to create public schools based on their ideas and philosophy. A meeting in Minnesota last year attracted hundreds of educators from across the country. This included both district & charter educators.

    IN 2016, a broad coalition convinced Mn legislators to allocate $500,000 to help start teacher led/teacher powered schools in traditional districts.

    These efforts include the belief that schools should NOT be judged only on the basis of test scores – a wide variety of measures should be used.


  2. John,
    I have been on an interesting journey the past year. I found a list of schools of higher ed that train teachers, and have been slowly but surely reading the web pages of each (I’ve read 450 so far), and in particular the bios of the faculty. My initial reason was to find faculty who would be interested in our films–profs who might want in-depth examples of whole child teaching/learning or of what a collegial and philosophically united teaching staff looks like. In the process I am noticing lots about the make-up of these programs.

    If I were a young person thinking about going into education today I would really look closely at those faculty bios. Some schools have none, and their write up about their programs are vague cliches about “quality education”. Sometimes a very large proportion of the faculty is relating their professional work to understanding “data” (which I read as standardized tests). Sometimes you will find that almost all of the faculty are “adjunct”–maybe a sign that the university has a lot of “churn” itself. But there are also faculties where you see a strong effort to represent a wide range of philosophies and viewpoints–and this is not necessarily because the university is a big one. There are fascinating examples of schools of education that state right out front a clear emphasis, and you see in the faculty’s research work that they are collaborating with each other, and passionate. I also find schools where there are only one or two profs who stand out, but they shine so clearly that it might be worth slogging through other classes just to have them.

    So how does this relate to your post? Absolutely judging by test scores is absurd. Absolutely we need to improve the lives of teachers, and that would eliminate much of the churn. But in the meantime people choosing to go into the field might avoid being unprepared by looking not at test score ratings, but at the work of the actual people who will be their mentors, as well as at what kinds of guided practice in real classrooms they will have. Then let the pruning begin!


  3. This is very thoughtful, sound advice. I hope you are having some luck connecting with some of the ed schools.
    Re adjunct faculty, I was a trustee at Teachers College for 8 or 9 years. That institution relied on adjuncts because they brought specific expertise and because they were cost-effective. I think that’s pretty common on colleges generally. I’ve done some reporting on the use of part-time faculty in community and 4-year colleges, and it’s a depressing picture, tough on teachers, tough on students…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. John:

    You raise a very valid point which I deal with in my book, “Every School.” Basically, there are two monopolies in the education system–unions and education schools. Both are detrimental to the education of our children. Eliminating the union monopoly is happening in many states that are now going to “right to work” state; Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan.

    The other monopoly is education schools. This monopoly was created by the passage of certification laws that mandate a “certified’ teacher in every classroom. You can only be certified (in most cases) by attending an education school. However, as we all know, “certified is no guarantee of qualified.” Until it is, why bother. Fastest way to close half of the education schools is to terminate certification laws. That would force education schools to justify their existence or go out of business. Either would benefit our children.

    Senior Fellow
    Discovery Institute
    Author: “Every School.”


  5. Has anyone considered how using these test scores in this manner is yet another way to segregate poor and minorities away from their much needed resources. If we are to beat up on teachers and colleges for test scores wont some of them only encourage their graduates to go to places where the test scores are higher, further increasing our trends of segregation by ensuring that poor and minority students get even less numbers of qualified, experienced teachers then they do now. How many more ways can we use test scores to further segregation of students, teachers, and resources?


    • Jeff,
      Thanks for these thoughts. You are on to something. And (plug coming), I hope you will read my forthcoming book, “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue American Education.”


  6. I have a Masters degree in education and I taught HS physics for three years.

    The main thing in teacher training that needs to change (and which none of you “experts” seems to notice) is that teacher training needs to be subject (and age) specific.

    Can you learn Chinese from a Spanish teacher who knows no Chinese?

    This pretty much sums up my teacher training, including “inservice” sessions while I was a teacher.


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