Learning to Teach … Better

December 20, 2010

Earlier this month, when the Tennessee state board of education released data showing that teachers trained by Teach For America were among the most effective new teachers in the state, the blogosphere sounded off with the familiar strains of a TFA debate. Critics searched for ways to discredit the report’s conclusions and boosters enthusiastically called for TFA to take over all of teacher training.

This debate misses the point. 

Whether through recruitment, selection, training, or, more likely, a combination thereof, TFA is doing something right in Tennessee. So, too, is Vanderbilt University, which was found to have prepared the most effective new math teachers in the state. Neither TFA nor Vanderbilt is poised to train every teacher in Tennessee. However, better understanding about each program’s approach is likely to move the field towards a higher standard of teacher preparation. Critics who deride TFA’s five-week summer institute might do well to open the hood and actually find out what occurs there. Similarly, those calling for an end to ed schools might investigate what it is about Vanderbilt’s approach to content pedagogy that produces such exceptional novice math teachers.

That is the spirit underlying a gathering of leading practitioners and thinkers — in our lingo, a “community of practice” — that NewSchools first convened with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Carnegie Corporation of New York in late 2009. The community includes both institutions of higher education, such as Stanford, University of Southern California, University of Michigan, and University of Washington, and entrepreneurial teacher preparation programs, including Teacher U, Urban Teacher Center, Boston Teacher Residency, Academy for Urban School Leadership, MATCH Teacher Residency, The New Teacher Project, and TFA itself.

In all, the community comprises nearly 40 organizations. Together, they represent a range of program models, yet share a belief that, in the words of a New York Times Magazine cover story earlier this year, better teachers can be built. They believe that practices that measurably improve student learning can be identified and that programs can be redesigned to more reliably prepare educators to raise achievement. There is no “best” model. Instead, transparent, easily accessible data about program effectiveness (like that produced in Tennessee) — combined with inquiry into what works — has the potential to improve the quality of multiple pathways into teaching, while shining light on those programs that consistently produce ineffective teachers.

At the community’s most recent meeting this month, topics included the identification of high-leverage teaching practices, creation of assessment tools for teacher preparation, healthy exit of low performers, the development of mentor teachers, and training to support rigorous academic discourse. Between meetings, members of the community have visited each other’s programs, observed trainings, studied materials, and collaborated to restructure program components.

To be sure, there is disagreement among these programs. However, rather than apologize or squabble over labels, most programs in the community are committed to learning from one another – with the goal of revamping existing pathways into teaching or creating entirely new pathways to “learn to teach.” This entrepreneurial energy – from both non-university innovators as well as traditional ed schools – is necessary if we, as a nation, are serious about enacting a sea change in teacher preparation.