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Commentary: Why Fixing Teacher Prep is So Difficult

LA School Report | June 10, 2013

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This is a guest commentary written by Paul Bruno (@MrPABruno), a middle school science teacher in Southern California, about the possibility of new energy surrounding teacher preparation reform:

I don’t know if — as LA School Report editor Alexander suggests — we are on the cusp of a national rethinking of teacher preparation programs.

I do, however, agree with Core Knowledge blogger Lisa Hansel that many programs could be improved by focusing less on issues of social justice and more on preparing new teachers to teach specific content to their students.

In my mind the problems Lisa identifies in existing standards are mostly related to excessive vagueness. After all, most programs are already subject to standards that require some sort of training in, say, organizing curricula coherently.

The real problem is that programs can fulfill that requirement in too many ways.

So, for example, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) requires that teacher training programs prepare teachers to “select or adapt instructional strategies, grouping strategies, and instructional materials to meet student learning goals and needs.”

Significantly, the standards do not specify what strategies or materials should be considered best for different purposes. Arguably this is an appropriate amount of flexibility to provide an education school but it does mean that in practice many programs get away with providing very little of this instruction at all.

Similarly, the CTC requires that teachers “learn how to plan and differentiate instruction based on student assessment data and the diverse learning needs of a full range of learners”. Many teachers nevertheless earn their credentials with little background in assessment design or believing incorrectly that they should differentiate their instruction for student learning styles.

In other words, much (though by no means all) of the “structure” provided by credentialing program standards is illusory; the requirements are sufficiently vague that schools can demonstrate their compliance in virtually countless ways.

What would-be reformers should remember is that their efforts are likely to be hampered by lack of robust consensus among educators on many important issues of teaching and learning. This has major implications for creating standards for teacher preparation programs.

If standards are too specific, various groups of stakeholders will resist their adoption. So, for example, the sorts of reforms Lisa and I might favor are likely to be opposed by the very teacher educators currently overemphasizing (in our view) social justice at the expense of pedagogy.

On the other hand, standards that are too vague cannot be usefully enforced. This will leave programs with enough wiggle room to continue doing more or less what they are doing now even as they claim alignment with the new requirements.

Cross-posted from This Week In Education.

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