Do teacher preparation programs spend too much time on methods and too little on content? No

Content knowledge and effective practices are both critical

This question contains both an assumption and a false dichotomy. The assumption is that "teacher training programs" are similar, from one university to the next — and have not changed substantially since the days when "methods" courses made up the bulk of teacher preparation coursework. The false dichotomy pits two essential aspects of effective teaching — content expertise and mastery of pedagogical tools — against each other. All good teachers have deep content knowledge and equally deep skill in managing and monitoring student learning. High quality teacher preparation programs can neglect neither.

I am currently working with diverse groups of novice teachers in virtual mentoring communities. Some of the new teachers I work with were trained in well-regarded teacher preparation programs at research universities. Others are mature adults, second-career science, mathematics and technology teachers once employed by a major technology corporation, entering teaching through a number of alternative certification programs. The career switchers come to the teacher preparation process with decades of demonstrated deep, applied knowledge about mathematics and science.

And yet — the questions from both groups, now in their first years of teaching or in field placements (student teaching) are the same: How do I get these kids motivated? How do I break a complex model in chemistry into understandable chunks — and then design engaging lessons to teach those concepts? How can I measure learning besides multiple choice quizzes, which only tell me which students have memorized the text? Why don’t they bring their books and pencils to class? Why don’t I get help from my principal with my instructional struggles? Half of my honors class gets it, but the other half doesn’t — I taught them, but they didn’t learn!

We took care, with the career switchers, to provide exemplary math and science teachers as mentors, but — beyond sharing tested-in-the-trenches educational resources and lesson plans — there have been no discussions on content. The lack of a technical core of acknowledged research and wisdom on pedagogy is well-known — but doesn’t mean that there isn’t a critical need for training and support for novice teachers in building a professional teaching practice.

Constructing an effective personal teaching system includes much more than classroom management strategies (although it’s very easy for outsiders to underestimate the difficulties of working with 30 teenagers who aren’t particularly interested in algebra). Professional teachers must be able to diagnose learning difficulties, prescribe effective strategies to address them, monitor up to 150 students’ progress through credible data collection, design and deliver upwards of 300 lessons each year, select engaging and appropriate materials and work effectively with colleagues, parents and the community. As Lee Shulman, formerly of Michigan State University and now president of the Carnegie Foundation, is fond of saying: Teaching is impossible.

While strong content knowledge is vitally important, knowing something does not automatically include the ability to teach it. Many of our best, brightest and most idealistic college graduates with disciplinary majors, looking to contribute to high-needs communities through programs like Teach for America, find the daily work of teaching far more challenging and complex than anticipated. While they "catch up" to traditionally certified teachers by year three, they are much more likely to leave the classroom; only 18 percent of TFA teachers remain in their schools by year five. Reducing their pedagogical preparation to a summer "boot camp" model has not resulted in retention or better results in their first years of teaching.

Perhaps our goals in improving teaching in America need to go beyond weighing the relative importance of disciplinary and pedagogical coursework or getting teachers into the classroom quickly. There may well be universities where education coursework does not lead to understanding of the critical competencies of teaching — fix those programs or close them down, but do not eliminate serious study of effective practice for those who wish to teach.

Nancy Flanagan recently retired, after 31 years as a K-12 music specialist with the Hartland Consolidated Schools, to pursue a doctoral degree in education policy at Michigan State University. She was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993, is a National Board Certified Teacher and has extensive experience in writing and leading initiatives on teacher leadership, education policy, mentoring and music curriculum.