Want to Improve Student Achievement? Invest in Teacher Education

10/25/2016 04:41 pm ET Updated Oct 26, 2017

Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently issued an open letter to schools of education criticizing how teachers are prepared. He writes at a time when school districts across the country, including Philadelphia, cannot find enough teachers for their students and when enrollment in teacher education programs has dropped precipitously across the country.

Some of Duncan's critiques are valid. Others miss the mark, or seem based in an outdated understanding of how many teacher education programs operate today. But two sentences in Duncan's introduction struck me: "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."

I agree. In fact, I have made the same argument about the vital importance of teachers. So have other education leaders. This is why many schools of education have been busy redesigning teaching programs so that our students receive the rigorous training to prepare them for the complex demands of the classroom.

In the past few years, we have seen teacher education programs place greater emphasis on practice, including more time spent working in classrooms, co-teaching lessons, managing classrooms, and analyzing student work. Research has shown that hands-on, mentored experience in a classroom is crucial for not only early career success, but for career longevity. That's why student teachers at Penn GSE, where I am dean, spend more than 900 hours in classrooms while earning their master's degree -- almost twice that of the typical teacher education program.

Like medical education, teacher education is also providing students with opportunities to practice new strategies before trying them out with young people. For example, we're creating opportunities for teachers in training to rehearse instructional strategies, so their instructors and peers can give them immediate feedback to help them improve. We do this so our students will already have a toolbox of strategies for handling challenging situations when they arrive in a classroom.

Many teacher education programs across the country also focus on practice by having students film their lessons. Professors can analyze their performance and provide targeted feedback to help them improve. The students themselves can reflect on how children in the classroom responded to their actions, and think about how they might be more effective in the future.

But we also know that not every future teacher is being trained with these advanced methods.

The scope of teacher education in this country -- more than 1,300 colleges prepare teachers, in addition to the scores of alternative training options -- presents an enormous challenge. For the sake of contrast, Finland, highly touted for its educational system, has eight universities that prepare teachers. Singapore, another high performer, has one. Given the wide variety of teacher education options in the United States, perhaps it's not surprising the quality of preparation varies so greatly.

Rather than attacking teacher education, once again, or focusing on grades, the federal government could invest in improving the quality of teacher preparation across institutions.

Inconsistency in quality across teaching programs matters. In their first year of teaching, many teachers struggle and generally have less impact on student achievement than their more experienced peers. But we also know that effective teacher education programs can turn out students whose impact on student achievement resembles that of a second year teacher. But we know too little about the factors that distinguish the best teacher education programs.

How can we change that?

The federal government could and should invest in research on the factors that distinguish effective teacher preparation, such as the work my colleagues and I have done in New York City. The federal government requires teacher education programs to collect reams of data, but the focus has been accountability rather than improvement. Instead, let's incentivize research that focuses on improvement and on the aggregation of knowledge across programs.

The government could also create opportunities for teacher educators to develop their own knowledge and skills. We know teachers matter enormously to student success. So do the educators who prepare teachers. And yet we invest very little in the preparation or continued development of those who teach teachers. Where are the institutes for teacher educators, similar to the NSF or NEH summer institutes for teachers, that allow teacher educators to learn the latest research on teaching English learners and how to infuse that into their courses, or how best to use new pedagogies, such as simulations, in their practice?

I helped found the Core Practice Consortium, a group of faculty from 13 top schools of education across the country, who are working together to understand the classroom practices every teacher needs before beginning their career -- and how we can best teach those practices. The opportunity to share materials, learn from one another, and create and examine rigorous, practice-based teacher education has been tremendous. Just as teachers need time to learn together to improve their practice, so do teacher educators.

This can't just be a conversation among a small collection of researchers, however. We need to find ways to bring more people into this conversation and to invest in developing ways to strengthen teacher education across the multitude of institutions charged with the task. With additional leadership and resources -- including from the Department of Education -- we can create a system of teacher preparation in which all our novice teachers are ready for the complexities of the classroom from day one.