By: Terry Donnelly

The January 7, 2016 “Making Sentences” column praised the reforms granted to schools by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) as a chance to get out from under the assessment laden, federal regulations of what it is replacing; No Child Left Behind. With states now in control, next is to grant the local districts autonomy in creating benchmark assessments that measure student growth across the span of a school year.

The second facet of the race to the top (“Making Sentences”, Jan. 12, 2016) is to have curricula developed that will allow for seamless instruction in each content area. This is the area where the feds can provide the service. If done correctly, Common Core standards will provide teachers a platform for instruction.

Finally, we must face the fact that the best content standards, fair expectations, and oversight will not assure success. We must train teachers who are knowledgeable and possess the skills to perform the magic that happens in superior classrooms staffed with professional educators.

The awesome responsibility of educating our nation’s children requires a partnership led by the states, supported by the federal government, and initiated by teacher training institutes across the country.

The first line of offense in eliminating incompetent teachers and recruiting scholars into programs is the proactive measure of education. If teacher candidates work through a rigorous university program that enables them to feel competent and comfortable entering classrooms as professional educators, teacher failures would drop to near null.

As it stands most training programs are 120 hours (full load of courses for four college years) that include one semester of student teaching in an established classroom. These students take content classes to build their knowledge of math, English, science, and other subjects they will teach mixed with a variety of classes in sociology, psychology, and pedagogy. Many preservice candidates see limited work with live students and seldom experience large groups until their last semester when they are unceremoniously dropped into a classroom as the student teacher.

These students have invested many thousands of dollars in their education and, during that last frantic semester, some find that they really don’t cherish the work. They find themselves trapped, especially elementary trained students who don’t have a content major. Typically, elementary studies include three or more minors, as teachers will be expected to instruct in multiple contents. Secondary teachers generally have a specific major that can be transferred into other professions, but still, upon graduation, they will be licensed and recruited into a school district. They will take the job to pay off loans or keep peace at home and never like teaching. Simply, the job is too tough and not well enough paid to do the work necessary to excel if one doesn’t love it.

I have been lucky enough to be involved with two separate programs at state universities that worked diligently to address these problems. The first was at Michigan State University’s Institute for Research on Teaching. The program has been granted multi-million dollar federal funding starting in 1976 and continues today. The process includes placement of pre-service students into functioning classrooms from the time they are sophomores. Tons of data and graduate level study on training teachers comes from this investment.

Students begin working in classrooms as monitors and graduate into working with individuals, small groups, and even overseeing whole group activities. The trade-off for the public schools is that MSU provides a reservoir of matriculated interns who help make classroom teachers’ jobs more productive. These education majors are in real classrooms for two and a half years before being fed to the wolves as a student teacher. Attrition of students who find teaching is not for them happens as underclassmen when changing majors is more the norm than exception, long before finding as a first year teacher, under contract, that they want out.

The other program was at the University of Colorado and the Seattle, Washington based National Network for Educational Renewal. Their teacher education curriculum was a true professional study that required a five-year commitment. The teaching license was awarded post B.A. from an additional year of study wherein the recent graduates were student teachers their tenth semester. Unfortunately, this successful program was eliminated due to (what else?) fiscal considerations.

There are data available to teacher training institutes that can lead to better competency in beginning educators. The key is engaging the models with a priority toward practical experience plus university study rather than simply providing a basic program in the most economical fashion. If we truly want quality teachers, now is not the time to cut university educational training programs.