Just before the holidays, the National Center for Teacher Quality released a report evaluating 53 institutions* that train and educate students for the teaching profession in Illinois. Immediately and predictably, all hell broke loose. Schools responded that the report methods and data collection were skewed and lazy—the NCTQ responded back that its methods are well-founded and that great volumes of data were reviewed to inform their judgment.
The debate swirls on with US News and World Report’s recent announcement that it will be using NCTQ’s rating system to form its annual ranking of education prep programs. That’s okay. Debate is good, particularly around something like education, which is an undeniably big deal. But debate can also be obscuring.
At almost exactly the same time that NCTQ revealed its findings about Illinois’ teacher prep programs, another report was released, to relatively little fanfare, let alone debate. Prepared by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, the 40-page document argues that the training of teachers needs to be “turned upside down”—more clinical experience, more rigor, more accountability, more careful placement for new teachers. In short, pre-ed should look a lot more like pre-med.
Citing both medicine and education as practice-based fields, the NCATE report argues that a doctor can’t practice from books alone. In fact, she can’t even begin to conceptualize practice without actual patients. Education works similarly.
This report is also hardly alone in the analogy—the National Research Council points out that this argument has been made in various forms since the ‘80s, and at least one Boston program has been placing “teacher residents” in city classrooms since 2003.
There are clear similarities between education and medicine: both draw from a rich body of knowledge, scientific inquiry, and multi-disciplinary information. Both seek to impact the body or mind to some degree, dealing both with internal structures and external stimuli. Both aim for betterment and regulation, though differently defined.
The biggest disconnect between the two might be the argument that education is not practiced to achieve a singular, universally agreed upon outcome—though I think any randomized sample of doctors would might have more to say (medicine to heal, to prevent, to improve, to harmonize, etc.). In both fields, technique is easy once you know the basics. And opinions on the purpose of your vocation will ultimately be self-generating. In education, it’s a common starting point that’s missing.
What would it look like if we were to train teachers they way we train doctors?
It would look interdisciplinary. It would look reflective. It would look more holistic than it does today—meaning, technique (how to get your 17-year-olds to pay attention to you for 42 minutes) and theory (17-year-olds are at a particular developmental phase, are suffering from over-taxed short-term memory, and are having difficulty building cognitive schemas that they need to organize and access information) would be linked, rather than siloed into separate classes or disciplines.
And it would look hard, I think. There’s a reason for the high attrition in freshman O-Chem courses. There’s no reason to assume that the demands of learning to teach should be any less. Being able to nurture an intellectual life is just as important as being able to save one on the operating table.
The old axiom “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach” is standing in the way. But if we also value the statement that “Education is the silver bullet” (I’m quoting West Wing there, but the idea behind this statement saturates the panic about educational achievement we live with today) maybe it’s time to change axioms for good.
Making it happen, of course, is the sticky wicket. The NCATE report suggests that the solution might be in the change itself. It advocates involving clinical hosts (districts, schools, principals and individual teacher mentors) at the start of the training process.
This means not only co-designing goals and strategies for their achievement, not just providing placements, but also allowing for networks of critical reflection and feedback between the college classroom and K-12 learning site. Going beyond superficial partnership to create a deeply interconnected learning system does more than just give stakeholders a seat at the table—it changes the way they think about that table, and allows for a ripple effect of changing values.
Teach for America has long grounded its successes in the quick leap from its participants’ boot camp training to their presence in actual classrooms, and some charter schools or alternative certification programs have followed their lead to create their own quick-start or feet-wetting recruitment programs that often bypass traditional, certification-earning coursework for teachers—and often lead to high attrition and rapid teacher turnover.
Instead of squabbling over efficacy, traditional teaching colleges and university programs should learn from the best these programs have to offer (rapid introduction to clinical practice) and incorporate it into the just-as-necessary academic content they’re most equipped to provide: study in cognitive and learning sciences, developmental and psychological theories, and the most recent neurological findings that impact kids’ learning.
It’s not the NCATE report that’s ignited the firestorm of debate. But I would argue it should be. We’re used to a few key scapegoats for kids’ low achievement in schools (unions, assessment measures, etc.). But placing blame at that level disregards the source of the problem.
Re-tooling how teachers are educated seems to get us much closer to the root of the problem of our broken educational system. If nothing else, training teachers on a med-school model might provide some desperately lacking consistency in the field. The single-word summation of the NCTQ Illinois report was not, despite the responses it garnered, “evil” or “incompetent.” It was “inconsistent.” So maybe that’s the surest foothold to climb out of the teacher quality trap, stop placing blame, and start doing something.
*I would be remiss not to note, as a student and employee at DePaul University, one of the institutions in reviewed in the NCTQ Illinois report, that my views here are wholly my own and are not to be considered representative of the school.