How Much and What Kind of Teacher Education Do Novices Need?

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.

22 Comments

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22 responses to “How Much and What Kind of Teacher Education Do Novices Need?

  1. Pingback: Teach For America & Baking “Bread In An Instant Without The Ovens” | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…

  2. dlaufenberg

    “remains a staple of “no excuses” reformers who want to bake bread in an instant without ovens.” – Love it. Teaching and learning does not have short cuts. I believe strongly that the pre-service teacher programs could use their time more effectively, but not less of it. Teachers become better at teaching by being in front of a classroom, not being talked at without observation and practice. Students become better at learning by actually putting their learning into practice, creating and doing… not sitting and getting. See a trend here…

    Teacher prep programs should be revamped to put working with children as an integral part of the process, at the get go. A significant portion of the years spent in college should be spent in real classrooms. Seventeen years ago, I walked into a middle school classroom as part of my teacher prep program and said… I want to teach like this teacher – class fully engaged in learning, discussing, active. It was so helpful to see it, watch it and start to ‘get it’. This isn’t really all that tricky. We don’t even need to go to any other profession for comparison. Leading a room of young people toward learning is exhilarating and exhausting, and quite unlike most other professions. Some combinations of students feel like magic and others feel like mischief. The calculus of moving forward in either situation takes savvy that comes from experience. As far as I am concerned, there is no better solution to dealing with those levels of uncertainty, than to do it, see it, investigate it, take it apart… why aren’t our classrooms full of pre-service teachers all the time?

  3. heverlyj

    I found this recent article on young teachers completely fascinating. It isn’t 100% on the point of your post but I think it’s close enough: (I’ve forgotten whether you need a subscription to read this)
    http://educationviews.org/the-myth-of-the-fully-qualified-bright-young-teacher-3/

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  10. Something I always think about when I think of Lemov (and I think is pertinent to the question posed by your title) is whether teaching novice teachers how to respond to a myriad of possible class/student behaviors is an effective method of training teachers.

    In my own initial stages of teaching, I remember asking for ideas, or strategies, or “things I could try.” But I found after about three years that reading how-to-teach books and taking strategies from colleagues was far less useful than learning to diagnose reasons behind student behaviors and academic difficulties.

    Once I developed frameworks for understanding why students behaved certain ways, and what assessments suggested about their learning and skill level; I was MUCH more enabled to act with purpose, and to make positive change.

    Whenever new teachers ask me for advice on how to handle tough situations, I resist giving strategies or tips, but rather try walking them through identifying reasons their problem is occurring. I always thought figuring that out was the hard part. Finding solutions is sometimes just a matter of trial and error – that only comes after the problem has been identified.

    All this to say that I worry about Doug Lemov and his popularity. I’m sometimes afraid he’s training a temporary workforce with superficial strategies for getting themselves through a few years of teaching, and not cultivating reflective teachers who will last longer in the profession because they understand it.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, James, for your comment. The abiding tension facing those who prepare teachers in any program, either traditional or non-traditional, is between preparing novices for what occurs in classrooms daily and preparing them for how they ought to teach. The former is what Doug Lemov, Relay graduate school, and many district-based teacher ed programs do. The latter is what many university-based teacher ed programs try to do. Of course, there are programs that combine both.

      Your reflections suggest that conceptual frameworks that help explain student behaviors, student thinking, how schools are organized, social context, etc. have given you a grip on understanding what occurs in your classroom rather than the tips-and-tactics approach to teaching. Those conceptual frameworks are what traditional teacher ed programs in universities have tried to do (some well, many fairly well, and some poorly).

    • Would it be possible for you to give one or two examples of diagnoses you have done. I’m not sure I understand what you mean.

      • larrycuban

        All I meant to say in replying to James was that every teacher education program–from the one at Stanford University with about a hundred graduates a year entering classrooms to Michigan State with many hundreds annually to Relay Graduate School–faces a core dilemma. How much should their program be focused on the practical skills of teaching that novices need to succeed in teaching–the “what is” of teaching? How much of their program should be focused on the theory driving the teaching of different subjects (e.g., math, history), how students learn, child development, and the like–the conceptual knowledge of teaching and learning behind “good” and “successful” teaching? Stanford, Michigan State, and Relay have created programs that answer these questions in different ways.

  11. kay merseth

    Nice post Larry, but you do misrepresent the old MAT programs. The one I attended at Harvard was TWO YEARS IN LENGTH; hardly a short program.

    • larrycuban

      Yes, Kay, some MAT programs were more than a year long. The assumptions that drove the program was the point I tried to make and how those assumptions from a half-century ago are alive and well now.

  12. Ian Rae

    A big part of flight school involves flying real planes. How much of teacher training involves teaching real students? Flight school also does a tight daily loop: learn something, try it in a plane, and then receive feedback on your performance.

    Perhaps the more pressing issue is this: “Once on the job, most teachers get only nominal supervision”

    Not many other professions, except forest ranger, that does this to new hires!

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