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The State of Teacher Preparation: 1997

This article, the first in a two-part series, focuses on the problems and the challenges of teacher preparation.

Ask people about the state of teacher preparation in the United States and many would respond that it borders the state of "Dismay." Others in the know would point to one or more of the outstanding university programs that are training competent, abundantly qualified teachers for today's schools.

The truth about the current state of teacher preparation probably lies somewhere in between.

The bottom line is that all institutions of teacher preparation should be following the lead(ers). They should be following the lead of model programs that are turning out teachers who know their subject and have the skills to teach it. Instead, many schools of education are virtual (not in the high-tech sense) diploma mills, cranking out teachers in much the same way they did twenty years ago. And twenty years before that.


Teacher preparation has been the subject of a few recent and well-publicized studies. A study by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future has drawn the most attention. The study, What Matters Most: Teaching for America's Future, calls for "a caring, competent, and qualified teacher for every child" by the year 2006. That, the report states, is the single most-important ingredient of school reform. Students are entitled to that!

But many obstacles stand in the way of achieving that goal.

"American students," the report states, "are entitled to teachers who know their subjects, understand their students and what they need, and have developed the skills required to make learning come alive." But among the barriers to that stand:

  • Low expectations for student achievement;
  • Standards for teachers that aren't enforced;
  • Major flaws in teacher preparation;
  • Inadequate induction for teachers just starting out in the classroom;
  • A lack of rewards for those who demonstrate superlative knowledge or skills.

To address those concerns, the Commission offers five major recommendations (which are detailed in the report). Those recommendations are:

  • Get serious about standards, for both students and teachers;
  • Reinvent teacher preparation and professional development;
  • Fix teacher recruitment and put qualified teachers in every classroom;
  • Encourage and reward teacher knowledge and skill;
  • Create schools that are organized for student and teacher success.

"This is not an insiders' report," Linda Darling-Hammond, the Commission's executive director and an authority on teacher preparation at Teachers College, Columbia University, told Education Week (see Teaching Focus Called the Key to Reform Push, 9/18/96). "It doesn't pat everyone on the back and say 'We're all doing fine and what we need is more money and respect.' It says we have to get serious about the tough stuff."

The challenge to teacher education institutions comes at an opportune time, the report says. Enrollment growth and retirements in U.S. schools will create the need for more than 2 million new teachers in the next ten years.


Take a look at a handful of the Statistics on Teaching in America that were included in the report, and the need for teacher reform becomes painfully clear:

  • More than 12 percent of all newly hired teachers enter the workforce without any training at all. Another 15 percent enter without having fully met state standards.
  • More than 50,000 people who lack the training for their job enter the teaching profession each year on emergency or substandard licenses.
  • Fewer than 75 percent of all teachers have studied child development, learning, and teaching methods; have degrees in their subject area; and have passed state licensing requirements.
  • More than half (56 percent) of high school students taking physical science courses, and 27 percent of those taking mathematics courses, are taught by teachers who don't have backgrounds in those fields. (The proportions are even higher in high-poverty schools and in lower track classes.)
  • The proportion of school staff classified as classroom teachers has fallen from 70 percent in 1950 to 52 percent in 1993 -- while the number of non-teaching staff increased by more than 40 percent.
  • A recent eight-nation study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development revealed that the U.S. has by far the lowest ratio of core teaching staff to non-teaching staff.
  • School districts spend only one to three percent of their resources on teacher development, as compared to much higher expenditures in most corporations and in other countries' schools.
  • Teachers earn substantially less than other professionals, including accountants, sales representatives, and engineers.


In its report, the Commission offered three suggestions for investment in improved teaching. Those recommendations are:

  • Reallocate $40 billion from non-teaching functions to classroom teaching. That's just half of the $80 billion currently spent on non-teaching costs.
  • Reallocate $10 billion to provide compensation systems that reward teacher knowledge and skill. That money would come from the $19 billion spent annually on teacher salary increases granted for education credits.
  • Spend $4.8 billion on improved recruitment, teacher education, and professional development. That amount includes scholarships for able recruits in high-need fields and areas; teacher education, including internships in professional development schools; mentoring supports and new licensing supports for all beginning teachers; and new funds for professional development.


Schools of education must give a firm commitment to strengthening teacher education, John Goodland, co-director of the Center for Educational Renewal at the University of Washington, told participants at a symposium to address issues of teacher preparation held last fall at the Teachers College, Columbia University. (See Symposium Puts Focus on Improving Teaching, Education Week, 11/6/96, for a complete report.)

"We need to approach it from two ends," said Wendy Koop, the director of Teach for America, at the forum sponsored by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Teachers College. "We need to improve schools of education, and we also need to improve ways school districts recruit, support, and develop teachers."

Teachers who participated in the conference see the need too. Melissa Martinez, a teacher at W. Haywood Burns School in Manhattan, said she would have benefited from a stronger apprenticeship program. As it was, she was forced to learn by "trial-and-error."

To have the opportunity to learn the "art" of teaching slowly, over a longer period of time, was the sentiment expressed by a number of teachers present at the forum.


The Council for Basic Education surveyed about 600 teachers across the grades and the consensus was that schools of education should commit to preparing teachers for the "practice" of teaching. Most agree that "theory" rather than practice dominates teacher ed and that that approach is ineffective. The focus of teacher education should be practice and school-based experiences. Future teachers must be in schools early -- and often.

From the responses of teachers, three major changes needed in the preparation of teachers are clear. Teacher preparation programs must:

  • Require all teachers to know the content of the subject they teach. "It's ludicrous to expect an elementary teacher to teach science or math on one course in each of those disciplines," wrote one teacher in response to the survey.
  • Teaching students how to teach academic content should be a focus of teacher preparation. "I didn't have any nuts-and-bolts knowledge to carry into battle," wrote one teacher recalling her first months in the classroom. Another wrote "As a supervising teacher for numerous student teachers, I am alarmed by what I see as a lack of preparation for classroom experience. Most students are unable to prepare adequate lesson plans, unit plans, and are weak in the areas of discipline and classroom management."
  • Offer prospective teachers many and varied school-based experiences. Student teaching for a few weeks in the senior year of college was the extent of many of the survey respondents' experience before they started teaching full-time. "Would-be teachers need to get into the classroom earlier -- not to observe but to assist, perhaps as instructional aides," wrote one teacher.

Some survey respondents are impressed with some of the changes they see in teacher education today. Some teacher preparation programs are sending students out into the field much earlier than in previous years.

[For a more complete report on this study, see How Teachers Would Change Teacher Education, Education Week, 12/11/96.]


Teachers should be eager and involved learners themselves, says an advisory panel on teacher preparation in California. The group felt that the most crucial ingredient in a future teacher would be that teacher's excitement about knowledge. They recalled Albert Shanker's "call for professionalism" in an address to the National Press Club in October, 1985: "even at the earliest grades, the motivation of a teacher to teach a child to read could not be very great if the teacher has not personally experienced the joy of reading great books. Motivation in teaching the elements of arithmetic could not be very great if at some point the teacher has not experienced the power of that knowledge."

This series will continue. Watch for Part 2 in the weeks ahead, when we'll focus on some exemplary teacher preparation programs.

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Article by Gary Hopkins, Editor-in-Chief
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