An official with an influential foundation eager to transform teacher education was convinced that:
[T]eacher education could occur rapidly given the long tenure in classrooms already served by intending teachers:
The underlying assumption was that bright candidates, after spending sixteen years in elementary, secondary, and college classrooms, have inevitably absorbed a good deal of knowledge about classroom management and techniques of teaching, and that with this backlog of experience a high level of professional skill could be rapidly reached through special courses, seminars, classroom experience, and discussions.
Year? 1969. Program? Masters in Arts of Teaching. Person? Alvin Eurich, Vice-President of the Ford Foundation.
By the end of the 1970s, MATs had largely disappeared. But the belief that smart young people could be converted into smart teachers because they had been students for over 16 years, well, that lives on in Teach for America and similar programs that have brief summer programs for novice teachers before the initiates enter full time teaching.
Here’s Amanda Ripley comparing fighter pilot preparation to teacher training:
Before the Air Force technician George Deneault flew combat missions, he had to practice—a lot. “You can’t fool around on combat aircraft.” But when Deneault retired and became a special-ed math teacher, he walked into a Virginia classroom cold. When asked which was easier—being a military commander or being a teacher—he didn’t hesitate. “Commander.”
Now that researchers have quantified the impact that teachers make, we should do more to train them rigorously. And we could learn from the military, where a mantra of readiness is referred to as the “Eight P’s”: “Proper prior planning and preparation prevent piss-poor performance.”
The only way the brain learns to handle unpredictable environments is to practice. Before student teachers enter classes, Boston’s Match Teacher Residency program puts them through 100 hours of drills with students and adults acting like slouching, fiddling, back-talking kids. The brain learns to respond to routine misbehavior, so it can focus on the harder work of teaching. The Institute for Simulation and Training runs a virtual classroom at 12 education colleges nationwide—using artificial intelligence, five child avatars, and a behind-the-scenes actor. Some trainees find the simulation so arduous that they decide not to go into teaching after all.
But these innovations are rare. The average teacher-to-be does about 12 to 15 weeks of student teaching. Once on the job, most teachers get only nominal supervision, and 46 percent quit within five years.
It is time, finally, to start training teachers the way we train doctors and pilots, with intense, realistic practice, using humans, simulations, and master instructors—time to stop saying teaching is hard work and start acting like it.
What Amanda Ripley omitted from her comparison of fighter pilots and novice teachers is that flight training for U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy fighter pilots takes over a year of intense 12-hour days of academic and practice-focused training. Such a fact messes up her facile point.
Novice teachers do become effective teachers through supervised practice, knowing their subject matter, and practicing skills again and again for thousands of hours over three to five years of actual work in classrooms. It certainly takes more than a few weeks of lectures in a summer program for Teach for America and 100 hours in a boot-camp simulation of classroom lessons.
Even a new practice-focused graduate program for current charter school teachers and TFA-ers in regular schools requires two years of classes taken while novices are teaching full-time. These programs hold graduates accountable for their students’ academic achievement; they study and use Doug Lemov’s 49 strategies cataloged in “Teach Like a Champion,” a teacher and founder of a charter school.
Alvin Eurich’s assumption in 1969 that smart college graduates can learn to teach in short-term MAT programs appears quaint today. And comparisons to training fighter pilots are slippery because training is longer and more intense than quoted by one journalist. The press for quick, telescoped training programs for smart college graduates that are practical in focusing on asking the right questions, dealing with student wrong answers, and maintaining classroom control remains a staple of “no excuses” reformers who want to bake bread in an instant without ovens.