To Improve Teacher Training, Start With a Clean Slate

More than three decades ago, deans of education schools across the country formed the Holmes Group to critique their institutions and call for change. But those reforms never materialized, and to this day reformers continue to push for changes such as increasing the selectivity of education schools, creating closer links between course work and classroom practices, and improving the student-teaching component of teacher prep.

We’ve known for a long time what needs to happen to fix our education schools, and the reason those reforms haven’t taken root isn’t because they are controversial or unproven. It is because most of those efforts don’t acknowledge that education schools are driven by the wrong incentives and that to bring about real change their business models must be completely rebuilt so that incentives focus instead on teacher quality.

The current problems stem from the fact that teaching is not a high-status or highly paid profession in the United States. Because schools do not pay their teachers salaries that are competitive with other fields requiring a college education, and fail to offer teachers a career ladder with attractive growth opportunities, many college students are reluctant to major in education and instead choose fields with better career prospects. Further, those who do enter the profession often expect to be the secondary earners in their households, causing them to select an education school based on convenience rather than quality. As a result, regardless of how selective an education school aspires to be, the career prospects for its graduates make it difficult to attract the best and brightest students.

As reformers call for education schools to increase their selectivity, many of the most selective universities, such as Harvard and Yale, have either limited the scale of their teacher-­preparation programs or eliminated their education schools altogether. Motivated to increase their status, elite institutions have chosen to focus on education research and preparing education-­system administrators rather than on professional training for the low-status field of teaching.

In contrast, state university systems, which prepare the vast majority of America’s teachers, aren’t bothered by the low-status work of preparing teachers because they aren’t reaching for the top rungs of the prestige ladder. Instead, they have found that teacher education is a “cash cow.” Students at those institutions all pay the same price for a semester of graduate school, but some programs cost more to operate than others — and teacher education is one of the lowest-cost programs on campus. Thus, incentives for education programs at state colleges and universities lead them to focus on serving high volumes of students at low costs, sidelining most efforts to improve quality.

Current government policies also work against improving teacher education. In order for a school of education to operate legally, issue teaching certificates, and offer its students federal financial aid, it must demonstrate that it meets the standards set by state departments of education and regional accreditation agencies. While the standards set by those entities are all well intentioned, they tend to emphasize institutions’ inputs (such as governance structures and faculty credentials) rather than the quality of their output (effective teachers). When it comes to gaining approval to operate and bringing in federal dollars, research and curriculum standards become central priorities, while few education schools really pay attention to how well graduates perform as teachers.

In short, the incentives that shape colleges’ business models make them incapable of changing how they operate, even if they wanted to. And given the vested interests of all the players that make up the teacher-education system, few institutions have any real interest in change that goes beyond lip service.

Last year the federal Department of Education proposed new rules that would rate teacher-education programs in part on graduates’ job retention and test scores, making poor-performing schools ineligible to offer their students federal Teach grants. It’s still unclear whether those rule changes will happen and whether they will have any substantial effect, but they showcase the importance of tying financial incentives to results. Unfortunately, they have faced strong opposition from established institutions.

Government-led efforts focused on reforming established institutions are unlikely to produce the real changes we need in teacher education. When policy makers try to alter the fundamental job that large, successful organizations have built their business models around, those organizations will predictably fight the changes.

A better way to improve teacher education is to build new institutions from the ground up with entirely different business models. That could be done by structuring incentives that focus on teacher quality, which could include:

  • Allowing program participants to defer tuition payments until they secure employment as full-time teachers.
  • Not charging tuition to program participants who exit the program before completion or who leave teaching within the first two years after graduation.
  • Actively placing program graduates in teaching positions, and requiring the schools and districts that hire them to pay a fee for each graduate they hire.
  • Allowing schools that hire program graduates to have their fees refunded for any teacher with whom they are not satisfied.
  • Avoiding making research a primary aim of the institution.

To be clear, those ideas do not guarantee quality teacher education. Rather, they create conditions that motivate an institution to focus on producing teachers who can improve student achievement. In other words, those business-model arrangements give an institution the right incentives to prioritize practices like establishing selective admissions requirements, setting competency-based graduation requirements, creating close partnerships with local schools, designing high-quality curricula, and supporting graduates during their induction into the profession. The Sposato Graduate School of Education, in Boston, is a leading example of a new teacher-education institution that has already adopted many of those business-model features and teacher-training practices.

When the incentives change, programmatic change becomes a necessity rather than merely a suggestion. Under these new circumstances, established programs will have to either adapt or be replaced by new institutions.

This piece was originally published by the Chronicle of Higher Education in the September 18, 2015 issue and online at http://chronicle.com/article/To-Improve-Teacher-Training-/232961.