Time to think bigger on teacher prep

If you haven't seen it already, this article in this month's??Atlantic is well worth a read, and will certainly get a lot of attention from people on all sides of the education debate.

The article focuses on how Teach for America has been tracking data and conducting extensive retroactive analyses in an attempt to determine what makes teachers effective (and whether they are selecting for indicators that do)--something that virtually nobody has been able to reliably do.

What struck me most about the article, though, was not the subtle conclusions from this work but the real obvious one that keeps staring us in the face: Inexperienced teachers without traditional certification--ala TFA--perform at??least as well as, if not better than, their more experienced, certified peers. Or to put it another way, the billions of dollars we spent on teacher training and certification every year appear to be adding little value when it comes to student achievement gains.

In the midst of the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, when every policy change is evaluated by how much money it will save, why aren't reformers clamoring to end arguably one of the most wasteful (and potentially least effective) requirements in education?

Perhaps it's a failure of imagination? While it's common knowledge that existing teacher certification programs as a whole add very little value, even the education reform community has been forced to adopt a "if you can't beat ???em, join ???em" mentality when it comes to the issue of teacher preparation.

Take for example, Teacher U. The leaders of three of the most successful CMOs in the nation--including, in full disclosure, my previous employer, Achievement First--have come together to reclaim teacher preparation by starting their own training program in the service of the existing mandates on teachers. I know that these leaders are committed to trying to figure out what really drives achievement in the classroom and to working to align teacher preparation courses to those indicators, so the fact that they're starting their own teacher preparation program is not troubling. What troubles me is that the existence of one or two quality programs--lead by reformers--will make it that much harder to eliminate these courses as barriers to entry into the classroom. And we all know that the exception does not prove the rule. That a quality teacher preparation program exists does not mean 100% of all teachers to be forced into preparation programs of varying quality across the country.

Instead, why don't take advantage of the current push for savings anywhere we can find them, by redoubling our efforts to tear these certification walls down. At the same time, let's make sure that in the push for better data systems under Race to the Top we put accountability for teacher training programs at the top of the list. Only then, under a voluntary system accountable to the teachers who choose to attend and the schools that hire them, we will be able to create the kinds of training programs that can nimbly respond to the needs of individual teachers and schools and to help attract more of the gritty teachers we need.

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