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A Lead Role for Districts in

Teacher Training

BY BARBARA NEMKO AND HAROLD J. KWALWASSER 

Complaining about the state of teacher education in our universities is hardly news. The training has been going on for decades with little improvement and even less prospect that it will get fundamentally better in the future.

We think it is time to stop trying to improve colleges of education. There is another option. Over the last 20 years, school districts and others have started to train larger and larger numbers of new teachers in so-called “alternative” certification programs.

It’s time to drop the word alternative. Districts (and even charter schools) should become the principal source of teacher training in this country. The money states have provided to colleges of education should be redirected to districts to carry on the work.

States then can eliminate education as a major for prospective teachers. Instead, they should require future teachers to major in a substantive subject matter (as states such as California already do), so they have a thorough understanding of the substance and skills of what it is they want to teach. Districts can contract with the graduates they want to hire and spend a year providing appropriate teacher training.

Disconcerting Duty
We recognize this proposal may discomfit some. Undoubtedly, superintendents and boards of education will worry they can barely address their current agenda. The last thing they think they need on their plate is another major responsibility.

We have five responses to them:

You can do it better because you have more at stake. These will be your teachers. Your success depends on theirs. Colleges of education will never have the same incentive.

You don’t have to do it all yourself. Today, many districts contract with third-party organizations, such as TNTP or universities, to provide some or all of the training required. However, in this era, every district should have a robust professional training program to support continuous staff improvement.

These programs emphasize helping new teachers. In California, the Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment program has made a successful advance in the way districts support new teachers. Extending this or like programs to preservice teachers seems a natural evolution.

Placing teacher training in schools will reduce time spent on history and theory. We need to recognize the best way to learn to teach is by doing it. We do not suggest theory doesn’t contribute to a teacher’s understanding of the job, but survey after survey indicates teachers wish they had learned more about practice and less about theory in college.

We no longer have a single, all-purpose model of instruction. Virtually every district today is trying to adapt to the demands of personalized instruction, the Common Core and the complexities of preparing students for the global workforce. Textbook-driven instruction is being supplanted by hundreds of different strategies, meaning a district now must teach new teachers its own way of doing things. Why should newcomers first need to “un-learn” what they’ve been taught in college?

Alternative certification is a great introduction to modern-day evaluation. Traditionally, teachers spent most of their careers as the only adult in the classroom, with a principal coming in once a year for a formal observation of 30 minutes, if that.

Education reformers were right to criticize that kind of evaluation, but their substitute, which often relies heavily on standardized test scores, won’t work much better unless the other components of the evaluation, such as observation and personalized improvement plans, are robust. Alternative certification is based on just such observations. If districts can do the right thing for new teachers, they can do the right thing for their existing faculty.

Financial Incentive
Finally, we want to address the qualms about alternative certification programs. We, too, have reservations about programs that run five to seven weeks, although we recognize even some brief training has yielded results no worse (and sometimes better) than those achieved by graduates of teacher colleges.

We believe training should optimally be a one-year effort, much like a medical internship where students learn and work under close supervision. And, of course, this intensive training should continue into the first two or three years of a teacher’s time in the classroom. The Elk Grove, Calif., district has built a successful program around this model. We think it’s worth duplicating.

State funds traditionally given to colleges of education should support much of this effort. Additional money may be needed. The public often overlooks the billions of dollars spent by districts every year because of extraordinary turnover among new teachers. Two key reasons new teachers leave are their feelings of being under-trained and under-supported. Our proposal attacks both problems head-on.

School districts have every incentive to provide quality training, and they have an even greater incentive to protect their investment through ongoing support. When the reduction of hidden turnover costs is considered, this significant and positive shift in training will yield a great improvement in public education at no additional cost to the taxpayer. What could be better?

Barbara Nemko is county superintendent in Napa County, Calif. E-mail: BNemko@napacoe.org. Harold Kwalwasser is an education writer and consultant in Washington, D.C.

 

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