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.