• November 28, 2014

A Fix for Teacher Education: the 3-Year Degree

"An Industry of Mediocrity"—The Chronicle of Higher Education

"Teacher Training's Low Grade"—The Wall Street Journal

"Are Teacher Prep Programs Worth the Money?" ­—Marketplace

Headlines were unanimous after the June release of the National Council on Teacher Quality's national study of teacher-preparation programs. The study's conclusions were precisely what the public had expected, bolstered by decades of critiques all adding up to the same conclusion: Teacher education is broken. Fortunately, there is a solution that can produce better teachers and do it faster and at less cost.

In the past, education schools were seen as the proverbial stepchild of higher education—a poor fit with the "more rigorous" academic disciplines, singled out for criticism, lowest on the scales of pay and prestige. These days, though, the criticisms leveled at teacher education have begun to resemble those aimed at higher education over all, including that it is too expensive and ineffective.

For example, a four- or even five-year education degree costs the same as other degrees, yet our field has failed to show that teachers who have these degrees are any more effective in the classroom than those licensed through alternative programs, or (in some cases) those who enter teaching with minimal preparation. Programs like Teach for America have capitalized on this point to their great advantage.

Another criticism is the lack of accountability. This has allowed teacher-education programs to carry on with their traditional coursework, despite decades of research concluding that hands-on experience focused on student achievement and guided by expert educators is the key to producing high-quality teachers. States have just begun to respond to this issue by tracking the performance of new teachers and tying that performance back to those teachers' preparation programs.

The sheer persistence of criticism of teacher education over the past several decades has compelled Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—and many other influential names in the field of education—to advocate for revolutionary change in teacher education.

What would revolutionary change in teacher education entail? Duncan and others point to one of the most effective and promising models in teacher education, the teacher residency. The residency is a postbaccalaureate program involving a yearlong internship supported by intensive mentoring. Residents and field-based teacher educators collaborate to provide a seamless integration of coursework, based on the academic performance of elementary- and high-school students.

These 40-odd programs, located primarily in large urban areas, are based on the model of the medical residency and are supported with financing from the federal government, private foundations, and nonprofit and for-profit institutions. Unfortunately, the sheer amount and type of support make it difficult to disburse the model widely.

That is a major reason residencies and other "high-quality alternative certification routes" (as perceived by Duncan), including Teach for America, prepare very few teachers. In fact, colleges prepare more than 20 times the number of teachers that all of these programs do, combined. Therefore, even Duncan concludes that the future of teacher preparation still rests in the hands of the nation's schools of education.

So what will it take to move the elephant in the room, those 1,450 college-and university-based preparation programs? Let's consider the foundation of the residency—the one-year, highly selective internship with extensive support from knowledgeable educators—and ask whether we have the capacity to bring this model to our colleges and universities.

Can we find enough effective teachers in our local communities? Can we offer a one-year internship instead of the traditional one-semester student-teaching placement? Can we wrap coursework around practical experience to replace our traditional separate-systems approach? Can we place teacher educators in our local schools instead of relegating them to our ivory towers? Absolutely. We can, and we must.

But how can this new model of teacher preparation respond to current needs in higher education? That is, how can the model cut costs, respond to issues of supply and demand, improve accountability, and maintain its selectivity and rigor? The answer is the three-year bachelor's degree.

A typical four-year degree in education involves two years of liberal-arts education and two years of professional education, primarily traditional coursework with a half-year culminating in student-teaching experience. Using the basics of the residency model outlined above, why not place this yearlong internship directly after completion of the liberal-arts education requirements, rather than waiting until prospective teachers have completed a four- or five-year degree, sometimes in an unrelated field?

Designing new internships in conjunction with local schools would encourage alignment of theory and practice, and ameliorate shortages in high-need teaching areas like mathematics, science, and special education. It would cut costs for college students and create competition among students, resulting in greater selectivity than exists now in traditional education programs, which are known for low standards for both entry and exit.

Many people have argued that the three-year degree cannot maintain the quality or rigor of the four- or five-year program. However, this proposal does not change liberal-arts education requirements; it simply alters the format of professional education to align with what research tells us is the best model for teacher training.

The proposal increases quality and rigor by forcing institutions to rethink professional education and the role of the teacher educator. We have nothing to lose. In fact, what we have to gain is the cornerstone of the argument that education expert Robert Zemsky has made for supporting a shift to the three-year bachelor's degree: the rethinking of curriculum and instruction, the implementation and tracking of performance measures, the effective use of technology, and a shift in the balance between general and specialized education.

Many of my colleagues from around the country would agree that it is well past time to effect a sea change in teacher education in our colleges and universities. On a recent visit to the Boston Teacher Residency, one of the nation's oldest residencies, which proffers a decade of glowing data, I was struck by an immediate connection to my counterpart, a teacher educator in special education. We clearly shared a vision of teaching and learning, and we reacted identically to each resident's classroom performance. I realized suddenly the extent to which I am constrained as a teacher educator by a system that so rarely provides for this kind of close, daily contact in the field with our own students.

Designing a new model of teacher education—based on one with recognized efficiency and outcomes—could turn the tide for this nation's schools of education. In the words of Secretary Duncan, "with courage and commitment, our teacher-preparation programs absolutely can provide dynamic and effective teacher preparation for the 21st century."

It is time for teacher educators to stand up and claim the right to practice what we preach, using our own student data to transform results in our field.

Leah Wasburn-Moses is an associate professor of special education at Miami University, in Ohio, and director of Campus Mentors, a teacher-preparation program that helps youths who are at risk of dropping out.

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