Arne Duncan to U.S. teacher training programs: Raise your standards

Arne Duncan is former U.S. U.S. Secretary of Education and Nonresident Senior Fellow in Governance StudiesBrown Center on Education Policy. In this column from the Brookings’ Brown Center Chalkboard, Duncan asks colleges of education to step up their game and their standards.

By Arne Duncan

The world’s strongest economy relies on a skilled and creative workforce. The world’s oldest democracy relies on an informed citizenry. We all know that teaching is a complex and challenging profession on a par with medicine, law, and engineering. Like those other fields, teachers save lives, advance the cause of justice and build stronger societies.

Yet, 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. According to a 2014 report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, many of our biggest teacher training programs are twice as likely to graduate students with honors than other programs in the same academic settings.

The NCTQ report looked at more than 500 institutions of higher education, which annually graduate more than half of the country’s new teachers. It found that just 30 percent of all students graduate with honors compared to 44 percent of education majors. In 51 of these institutions, the number of education majors graduating with honors is twice as high as the other programs at the same schools.

For example, at Cedar Crest College in Pennsylvania, 80 percent of the education students graduated with honors compared to 26 percent of all students, a gap of 54 points. At the University of Louisville in Kentucky, the gap is 49 points. At North Carolina Central University, the gap is 46 points. At Penn State in Harrisburg, the gap is 44 points. At Delaware State it’s 43 points. There are dozens of other examples of gaps in the 30’s and 20’s and hundreds in the teens.

There can only be two explanations for this unsettling phenomenon: either your teacher training programs are attracting an unusually gifted group of students or the standard for honors in education is too low. We know from other studies that it is not the first explanation.

The NCTQ report also looks at rigor and concludes that many of our teacher training programs are simply not giving our future teachers the training they need. Assignments are often vague and grading the results is extremely subjective. Too often, teachers in training are asked to share their philosophy about teaching certain kinds of kids but they are not asked to show specifics.

On the other hand, good teacher training programs challenge students with specific assignments. Say, for example, a student is asked to develop a lesson plan for fifth graders based on a specific standard and a specific curriculum, and adapted for a child with dyslexia. The results are much easier to evaluate.

Hunter College-CUNY, for example, requires their teacher candidates to record themselves teaching on video and then later document and analyze their own instruction; this allows professors to see both the instruction choices and the candidates’ analysis of their work. Doing so creates an environment of constant feedback and improvement.

In fact, at 62 of the institutions studied by NCTQ, the honors gap is reversed: a smaller proportion of teachers receive honors than do other students across campus.

There are other promising signs that your sector is trying to improve. Deans for Impact is a new organization committed to holding future teachers to a high standard, by supporting school leaders who are data-driven and outcomes-focused.

Seven years ago, I spoke at Columbia University’s Teacher College and challenged the sector to step up, to create revolutionary change. I applaud the positive steps some of you have taken in that direction but systemic change has yet to happen.

I’ve talked to thousands of teachers throughout my career and I can almost count on one hand the ones who said they were ready to teach on day one. Of course, there’s a learning curve in every career and a certain amount of on-the-job training is expected. But given the typical response, teacher preparation programs are not living up to their responsibility to train teachers, effectively costing students years of learning over their K-12 careers.

Lowering our expectations not only does a disservice to the teaching candidates in these programs, but also to the students they’ll soon teach. We owe it to them to challenge our future teachers. We should ensure that they’re held to high standards like engineering, business, and medical students, and we should only be giving the best grades to those teacher candidates who are most prepared for the classroom. The path to change begins with the will to change. And that starts with you.


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