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Getting The Whole Process Backwards

One of the key tenants of education reform in this country is that students need good teachers.

Even NCLB, as screwed up as it is, mandates that there be a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom, although the law’s definition of that term leaves a lot to be desired.

Ignoring the legal definition from NCLB, what exactly are the qualities of a “good” teacher? How long does it take someone to reach that point?

And is having good teachers really that important to our current educational system? I’m not so sure it is.

In a recent post, Larry Cuban recently addressed that issue of how long it takes to become a “good” teacher and started with the premise (most recently popularized by Malcolm Gladwell) that 10,000 hours of practice is required to master a particular skill or profession.

Cuban sets the bar lower by assuming it takes half that time to merely get “good” at teaching, which is still around five academic years based on the schedule used by most American schools.

Unfortunately, a large number of new teachers don’t stick around that long.

Participants in Teach for America (TFA), one of the higher profile “alternative” certification programs, are only committed to two years of teaching and, as Cuban notes, more than 2/3 of them leave the classroom after that time.

Which is only part of the problem since many studies over the years have shown that overall something like 30 – 40% of beginning teachers leave before by the end of their fifth year.

I would imagine a corporation with that kind of “burn and churn” would be closely reviewing their HR practices since high turnover rates hurt the bottom line. School districts don’t have time or resources for introspection along those lines.

Anyway, keeping teachers long enough to get good at their profession is one issue but what about the process by which they are trained to do the job in the first place?

A large topic of the educational reform debate involves whether traditional university-based teacher training programs or short time frame alternatives like TFA are better paths to the classroom.

Maybe the answer is neither since a recently released study indicates that there’s “not enough evidence to suggest that teachers who take alternative pathways into the classroom are any worse –or any better –than those who finish traditional college-based preparation programs”.

Nationwide, an estimated 20 percent to 30 percent of new teachers enter the classroom through nontraditional, or alternative, routes, such as Teach For America or the New York City Teaching Fellows program. That number has grown exponentially over the last 20 years, and over time, many of those programs have become closely linked to postsecondary education programs.

Studies commissioned by the committee and others show, in fact, that differences among various alternative-certification programs are often as great as those between alternative programs and the traditional ones.

If we assume, as the report notes, “a growing body of evidence suggests that teachers are the single most important school-based influence on children’s learning” then the issue of how to recruit, train, and keep good teachers should be at the core of any education reform program.

But it’s not.

Here in the US we spend far more time, money, and effort on standardized testing (plus all the penalties that result when kids don’t get high enough scores), narrowing and scripting the curriculum, and basically preserving the educational status quo, than we do on improving the quality of teaching.

We certainly don’t provide nearly enough training and support for teachers once they are in the classroom.

It’s as if our current educational system is a company that puts almost all it’s efforts into inspecting products and very little into the process of designing and building a quality product in the first place.*

*I hate business analogies applied to education but this one fits!


  1. Tom

    Unassailable logic and dead simple. Nice combination. When are you running for VA superintendent?

  2. Eric

    I agree, Tim … even with the depressing parts. While I wouldn’t say the teacher-prep stuff doesn’t matter, I think what we do with teachers once they hit the classroom matters a whole lot more. And I think the best thing we can do with new teachers is pair them with experienced teachers who have also demonstrated that they are effective. (Without unpacking “effective” here, let’s keep that term broad and far beyond the restriction of bubble-tests.) Of course, those experienced teachers need to have some extra freedom in their schedule to really work effectively with the new teachers. And, you know, some extra pay for that kind of work wouldn’t be bad, either.

    I think this kind of approach could also address the tenture/merit pay controversy. I did some preliminary writing about that here and hope to write more soon. I would love to get some thoughts from other educators about whether or not my ideas there are worth anything, whether something like that is already in practice elsewhere (or has already been tried and found not effective), etc.

    At any rate, thanks for keeping this blog interesting for so many years. Cheers!

  3. Tim

    Thanks, Eric. I agree that the best training new teachers could get is supervised and mentored experience in the classroom. The ideal would be something similar to the residency programs most doctors go through. That would be much more expensive than anything we now have and, of course, is out of the question.

    I’ll be interested to read your thoughts on tenure and merit pay. Having been through a merit pay program around here, I don’t think the idea has much merit (pun intended :-) but I’m open to new approaches.

  4. Tim

    Thanks, Tom. And also for the nomination. However, I have enough problems coping with the bureaucracy I’m already in. I can’t imagine taking on the DOE in Richmond. :-)

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