4 Simple Steps to Train Teachers For the 21st Century

By this point, statistics about America’s educational woes are fairly ubiquitous. Whether lamenting about our math and science proficiency, particularly compared to emerging powerhouses like South Korea and China, or talking about college readiness and educational inequity, most Americans agree that our system of public education is seriously lacking. And despite disagreeing about nearly everything, nearly all commentators would coalesce around a central point: Quality education is impossible without quality teachers. To ensure quality teachers, quality training and recruitment is a necessity.  

Against this backdrop, it seems ironic that educational reform has focused so much on testing and learning standards, but so little on teacher education. After all, as most teachers already know and the recent National Council on Teacher Quality report makes clear, our model of teacher education is failing to meet today’s challenges. Fundamentally, this is ground zero in educational reform. Until we address teacher preparation, sustainable change will remain impossible.

How, though, should teaching programs change? In a society where classroom education fails to command adequate respect, how can teaching programs hope to recruit quality candidates? These questions cannot be answered in a single article. Nevertheless, by making preparation programs rigorous and highly practical, society can take a step in the right direction. Below are some ideas on how we could do exactly that.

-Tie education programs to teacher proficiency. By now, most states have developed some form of teacher evaluation that conforms to Obama’s Race to the Top. With these statistics available, why not put them to use? Just as law schools, medical schools, and business schools are partially ranked by employment statistics, education programs should partially be ranked by how well their teachers perform. If a school is consistently attracting and producing teachers who produce poor results, prospective applicants should have access to this information. Both for professional and financial reasons, underperforming programs would face market pressure to rethink their approach.

-Include both theoretical and practical elements. One criticism of teaching programs is that, somewhat counterintuitively, they fail to prepare teachers. Part of this may be class selection and curriculum focus, but part of this is more fundamental. As Jane Dimyan-Ehrenfeld aptly notes, educational professionals remain undecided as to whether teaching is more “craft” or “science.” Should we train teachers through rigorous coursework or through an apprenticeship model? How much of teaching can be taught abstractly and how much must be learned experientially? Dimyan-Ehrenfeld correctly argues that this is a false choice. Like medical schools, which have coursework and internship components, teaching programs should likewise involve coursework and guided practice in a classroom setting.

-Continue providing mentoring and opportunities for professional growth. Imagine, for a moment, that a doctor was initially certified in 1971. Since that point, she has received no training or exposure to medical advances. Indeed, notwithstanding an infusion of new technologies and best practices, her style and methodology have changed imperceptibly. Put bluntly, would you let her operate on your heart? Teaching is no different. Teachers need access to quality curricula and systems of professional development that challenge their methods, train them on new technologies, and expose them to the latest research surrounding cognitive development and teaching pedagogy.

-Include special education in basic training. Special education must be included in all teaching programs. While some individuals may wish to specialize further, receiving credentials for handling severe disabilities, the traditional distinction between “general education” and “special education” teachers needs to go. Why? Firstly, public education is moving increasingly toward a model of full inclusion. Until the 1970s, and partially as a legal consequence of Brown v. Board of Education, children with special needs were not even educated. Since that point, however, reauthorizations of the Individuals with Disabilities Act have taken us further and further toward a model of inclusion that educates “general education” and “special education” students side by side. In this context, every teacher is a special education teacher. Every teacher needs to understand learning modalities, Individualized Education Plans, and strategies to address emotional and cognitive barriers to learning – not only because this is necessary to serve their students with special needs, but because this is just good teaching. Learning to differentiate doesn’t just help students with disabilities. It helps everyone.

This is a list of ideas, not policy specifics. As we debate ways to improve our schools, though, this is an area that deserves our full attention. Without a successful mechanism of teacher training, America cannot and will not prepare its youth for the vast challenges that lie ahead.