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Teaching the teachers: Do we know how to create real professionals?
After decades of school reform and accountability conflict, confusion still lingers over how to train great teachers. - photo by Eric Schulzke
A new teacher training program announced by the Boston-based Woodrow Wilson Foundation in partnership with MIT aims to upend teacher training by awarding degrees based on mastery of specific skills, not time in the classroom. (See a Q&A with Patrick Riccards of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation here.)

But the Woodrow Wilson project is not the first or only forray into competency-based teacher training. In fact, professionalizing teachers with core competencies is one of two major strands of education reform. The other, made famous (or infamous depending on your viewpoint) by the 2001 No Child Left Behind legislation, seeks to hold teachers accountable by measuring their results.

The teacher accountability approach, critics say, rests on the assumption that teaching is a natural talent that hinges on intelligence and passion more than skills and training. But a growing movement within the teacher training world holds that teaching is not a gift, but a skilled profession, like nursing, with specific skills that can be taught and must be learned.

Not natural

Teaching is not a natural skill, argues Jenny DeMonte, a consultant at the American Institutes of Research, nor is passion for teaching a substitute for learned skill.

DeMonte challenges the notion that passion for teaching is critical to making an effective teacher. "When future lawyers enter law school," DeMonte said, "they may or may not have passion. We don't measure their passion when they leave. We measure their skills."

By critiquing passion, DeMonte takes on a core premise of Teach for America, the controversial teacher preparation that recruits bright students from elite schools, trains them for five weeks, and puts them in the classroom.

But everyone thinks they know how to teach, DeMonte notes, because everyone has spent at least 12 years being taught. And for the same reason, most people end up teaching the way they were taught. It was Dan Lortie, an education professor at the University of Chicago, who pointed this out back in 1975, calling it the "apprenticeship of observation."

After 12 years of observing teaching as a student, the critique goes, future teachers think they already know how to teach and it is nearly impossible to change how they teach.

This is a dangerous fallacy, according to DeMonte. "Being a student doesn't make you a teacher anymore than being a patient makes you a doctor," she said.

"Being quick and fluid in other fields might be an asset," Ball said, "but that's not always the case in teaching, where there are always students who don't get it." A teacher, Ball says, must able to discern what a student is thinking, give them room to test a new approach, but also gently nudge them back from a blind alley. "This is not at all the same as getting good grades in college," she said.

High leverage

Advocates of professionalizing teachers have long argued that teachers are not factory workers. The teacher's job, the argument goes, consists of skills that can be taught, mastered and tested

"Our position is that (the) profession should take responsibility for this," said Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education and director of TeachingWorks, a nonprofit research organization that works to change how teachers are trained, certified to enter the classroom and mentored once they get there.

TeachingWorks focuses on specific "high leverage practices," or skills a teacher must master to survive in the classroom, Ball said. These include how to elicit and interpret a student's thinking, give effective feedback to students, communicate with parents, manage small-group work, recognize and respond effectively to common student thinking patterns in a given content area, to name a few.

TeachingWorks is currently working with various state governments and the Educational Testing Service to develop new licensing exams that states will use to test the classroom competency of teachers in a lifelike setting. And TeachingWorks is also using the same principles of competency to work with large, urban school districts, Ball said, to help them review how they select, mentor and retain new teachers.

Building a profession

Demonte released a report last month, noting that in the next decade more than 1.5 million new teachers will enter the American school system and arguing that it is well past time to finally professionalize the teaching profession.

While many critics have emphasized tighter selection of those entering the profession, DeMonte argues that teaching cannot be an elite profession simply because we need too many of them.

"Teaching is the largest occupation in the nation," she says, "with over 3.4 million teachers, more than the total of practicing lawyers, physicians, commercial pilots, and architects combined."

Nurses, Demonte argues, are drawn from roughly the same academic profiles as future teachers. They are good, but are not the most elite students. As with teachers, we simply need too many of them.

"But no one is up in arms about nurses killing people," she notes.

The parallel, as least in sheer numbers, is very close. In 2013 the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration estimated that there were 3.5 million practicing nurses in the U.S.

The difference, DeMonte argues, is not that nursing is an elite profession, but that it is a clearly understood profession. Nursing schools teach a very similar curriculum, and newly licensed graduates clearly understood and proved their skills.

"I am less concerned with how they come in and more concerned about how they leave," Demonte said.

In contrast to nursing, DeMonte said, the curriculum of teacher preparation programs are haphazard, and there is still little consensus on what skills a new teacher needs to avoid malpractice in the classroom.

What are the hallmarks of competent teachers? What specific skills should well-trained new teachers have? "The field needs to coalesce around actual knowledge, competencies and activities," DeMonte said. "Right now there is no coherence. We are not systematic."

Rating programs

With the Woodrow Wilson Foundation launching competency based teacher training and TeachingWorks about to launch observational teaching exams, is there now a strong consensus on what teaching preparation programs ought to teach?

The answer, it seems, is kind of sort of.

"There is a consensus now that teacher prep is in need of some serious attention." "There is less agreement on specifics," said Sandi Jacobs, vice president at the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Founded in 2000, NCTQ has been a steady advocate for more rigorous teacher training and tougher teacher entrance requirements.

"We call it an industry of mediocrity," said Jacobs, who, like Arthur Levine at the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, doesn't mince words.

NCTQ's controversial teacher preparation program ratings have stirred the ire of teaching colleges around the country. Critics argue that NCTQ ratings are based purely on paper factors, such as course requirements, syllabi and selection criteria, not on quality outputs or graduate performance.

Unlike TeachingWorks, NCTQ has focused purely on "shining a flashlight," on teaching programs, Jacobs said, offering "a checklist of what teaching schools need to get done, and a ratings system to see if they have done it."

Deborah Ball at Michigan was one of a limited number of education school leaders who fully cooperated, even though she does not really endorse their approach.

"We focus on what students should be able to do," Ball said, "and that's a bit different than what programs should cover. But we do agree [with NCTQ] that teaching preparation is really important and that it's time to be much more deliberate about examining whether we are doing a good job."
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