We are finally nearing the chasm. Two months ago, the nation was rightly applauding K–12 educators for having to make the adjustment to a virtual classroom with almost no warning or planning. Now, we have Fordham’s Mike Petrilli calling for an overhaul of the entire school day and we have New York City looking to work with the Gates Foundation to redesign school itself. School, as we have long known it, will need to change.
Despite the best hopes and wishes, this is our new reality. While many want to go back to the good old days of January 2020, the coronavirus challenge has shown that our schools are largely unprepared for the world we live in today and will live in tomorrow. And it has demonstrated that far too few teachers are equipped with the knowledge, skills, and abilities to nimbly adapt in real time. No amount of hard work or positive attitude can substitute for an educator’s inability to effectively teach in an uncertain or unstable environment. No amount of knowledge of classroom pedagogy can substitute for how to manage an online classroom one week and a traditional one the next.
More simply, our collective educational experiences over the past several months have demonstrated an acute need to transform how teachers are prepared.
We’ve started down this path before, recognizing a general need to improve teacher education, only to pull back in the face of status quo–ism and the absence of urgency. Twenty years after the release of the National Reading Panel’s groundbreaking report, we have now devolved into the age-old battles between content and pedagogy and between a research-based phonics approach and a philosophy-based whole language one. A recent study from the National Council on Teacher Quality celebrated the fact that—for the first time ever—more than half (51 percent) of education schools were preparing prospective English language arts teachers in at least four of the five necessary components identified by the NRP two decades ago, neglecting that the other 49 percent still aren’t following the research.
Teacher education, post-coronavirus, needs to change. Many of the essential adjustments necessarily focus on technology and the need to teach virtually. But the challenge is greater than adjusting pedagogy and classroom management to include Zoom or Google Classroom. Our colleges of education need to better understand the shortcomings of their current preparation programs and adapt to meet the needs of the teachers of both today and tomorrow. Just as New York City Schools Chancellor said he shouldn’t “waste a good crisis,” as he plans to overhaul the largest public school system in the United States, we should look at this chasm as a meaningful opportunity to explore what the ideal college-based teacher preparation programs would look like, and what is or has been restricting our thinking. Whether it’s the most traditional college of education or the most untraditional of alternative program, all successful teacher education must do four things:
- Provide clear, performance-based, formative, interim, and summative assessments of aspiring teachers during and at the close of their preparation. If such tests are needed to improve instruction and boost achievement in K–12, clearly there is the same value in teacher education. While higher education has long resisted any kind of such assessments, they are necessary to ensure novice teachers know and are able to do what is necessary to succeed as educators from the beginning.
- Be based on quality scientific research on what kids should know and be able to do to be successful. That means educators are knowledgeable about what their students are expected to know and experts on proven methods on how to effectively teach it to all learners in their classrooms.
- Recognize that world-class teachers are deeply prepared in their content areas. English language arts teachers skilled in composition instruction and literature. Social studies teachers knowledgeable in history, geography, and economics. Educators with content and pedagogy knowledge, whether they teach a foreign language, music, or physical education
- Be rooted in a robust liberal education for all teacher candidates. A liberal education—whether it’s the “twenty-first-century skills” of a decade ago or the “soft skills” of today—ensures that learners are empowered to effectively deal with the complexity, diversity, and change that will continue to show its face in the classrooms of tomorrow. If we expect K–12 educators to teach students these skills, we must prepare teacher candidates in an undergraduate program that includes them.
We can’t expect an English teacher to teach without access to literature. We can’t expect a music teacher to teach without employing actual music. We can’t expect a history teacher to teach without a working knowledge of the past. It’s common sense that we provide teachers with the knowledge and tools needed to effectively teach. That means more than just the necessary novel sets or science labs. It also includes a comprehensive preparation program that begins when they first set foot on a college campus and continues until they have become a teacher of record.
To become a world-class teacher, an educator must bring a balance of both strong content knowledge and strong pedagogy, both the strong inputs demonstrated through formative assessments and the stronger results evidenced by the performance of the learners in her classroom. She must have a comprehensive liberal education and an iron-strong grip on the best in research and assessment. Some may say these are pie-in-the-sky expectations. But when it comes to K–12 teachers, we should expect the highest ceiling, not the lowest floor. We can only begin to reach that by transforming teacher preparation.