Conscious incompetence: New ed-school grads are unprepared to teach—and we seem fine with that

“Nobody expects new surgeons to be any good. It wasn’t until my fortieth or fiftieth bypass surgery that I started feel like I knew what I was doing.”

 “I wish I could go back and retry those cases from my first year. If I knew then what I know now, they’d never have been convicted.”

“Look, every rookie shoots an innocent bystander by mistake or arrests the wrong guy. That doesn’t make you a bad cop. Your first year on the job is all about learning from your mistakes.”

Odds are pretty good that you’ve never heard anything like the three statements above. Hopefully you never will. But ask a teacher about his or her first year in the classroom and you’ll hear, either with a smile or a shudder, how “nothing prepared me for my first year as a teacher.”

Funny thing, if you think about it. Other fields rarely send unprepared recruits off to their first jobs. In education, we not only expect it, but we seem proud of it. You haven’t earned your stripes as a teacher until you’ve earned your scars. I’ve said it myself to grad students and new teachers, thinking I was giving sage advice and comfort: “Your first year in the classroom is about moving from unconscious incompetence—not knowing what you don’t know—to conscious incompetence—knowing what you don’t know and need to improve.”

I wonder how many unconsciously incompetent air traffic controllers are on the job and on public payrolls right now?

The newly issued 2014 Teacher Prep Review from the National Council on Teacher Quality reminds us of two big things: the vast majority of ed schools are not very good at training teachers. And “training” is a dirty word.

…a substantial portion of teacher educators believe it to be professionally irresponsible to use the time spent in preservice preparation to prepare the novice teacher for a seamless transition from student teacher to teacher of record. A majority of programs studiously avoid any content that suggests that their role is to “train” teacher candidates or to suggest that there is a right (or wrong) way to teach. Anything that might reduce a teacher’s latitude and ability to make professional choices in the context of each unique classroom is off the table (which explains the aversion to focusing on any specific curricula). Anything that appears to be focused on training is perceived to increase the risk of a school of education being seen as a vocational entity.

Wipe that haughty smirk off your face, ed reformers. The report pointedly notes the fact that new teachers enter the classroom ill-prepared “serves the political agenda of both teacher education and education reformers alike.”

Both teacher educators and reformers tend to propose solutions that begin after the candidate has graduated and becomes the teacher of record (e.g., increasing supports, adding more professional development, and finding less challenging placements). Critics of teacher preparation argue that teaching can only be learned on the job, that learning loss and high attrition can perhaps be mitigated, but not much more.

Other professions, from medicine to accounting, don’t get hung up on the word “training.” What makes education different? I asked David Steiner, Dean at the Hunter College School of Education, one of the highest-ranked schools in the NCTQ report. “The issue here is one of history,” he observed.

“Because the cultural norm is to see teaching as a modest to low skills profession, there is great sensitivity in the field to terminology that reinforces that stereotype,” says Steiner. He notes the Harvard Medical School doesn’t think twice about offering a Residency Training Program “because no one is going to assume it is a low-skills endeavor.”

How to break the logjam? NCTQ’s Arthur McKee, the report’s lead author, notes the “dominant ethos” of the field is opposed to training as a mission. “For training to take hold and for professionals to be capable of adding to the field's stock of knowledge, people have to understand why certain techniques actually work,” he says.

Steiner agrees. “The key to progress here is to realize that the mastery of key skills is in itself a very challenging thing to teach future teachers—just as the mastery of surgical procedures is a hard thing to teach future surgeons.”

It’s worth asking why teachers put up with mediocre training rather than kicking up a fuss through their unions or alumni associations. Teachers could start by demanding better practical preparation, including—no, especially—mastery of teaching procedures.

Schools of education have largely been given a pass in ed reform’s Age of Accountability. They are essentially allowed to say, "Don't judge us on quality, but require us for entrance." If training and certification is mandatory, then there should be no reason to accept first-year teaching as a hazing ritual. Failing that, we can eliminate certification requirements.

Pick one. 

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