Are Teacher Preparation Programs the Smartest Investment We Can Make?

Written by: Amy Auletto

Primary Source:  Green & Write, December 13, 2016

Elementary teacher preparation programs have made recent gains in reading instruction but still struggle with math and classroom management. Photo courtesy of Ilmicrofono Oggiono.

Elementary teacher preparation programs have made recent gains in reading instruction but still struggle with math and classroom management.
Photo courtesy of Ilmicrofono Oggiono.

Undergraduate elementary teacher programs have made progress recently, but still have room for improvement according to a recent report released by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). NCTQ examined 875 university-based teacher education programs and found that there have been improvements in a number of areas. More programs now include research-supported elements of reading instruction; many have become more selective while still maintaining diversity; and content requirements for prospective teachers have increased. On the other hand, NCTQ found that many programs were still lacking in terms of math preparation, classroom management preparation, and the selectivity of mentor teachers for student teachers.

Teacher Preparation Doesn’t Fully Explain a Teacher’s Future Success

Given these findings from NCTQ, it might seem that a commonsense response would be for teacher preparation programs to take a hard look at how they are faring and make improvements where necessary. However, before programs begin making any sweeping changes, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at what the research says on how much teacher preparation actually matters in the first place.

Research linking teacher preparation to teachers’ later outcomes, such as how long they remain in the profession and how much their students learn, is still relatively new, and there remains a lot we don’t know. A 2013 study by Dan Goldhaber and colleagues, The Gateway to the Profession: Assessing Teacher Preparation Programs Based on Student Achievement, found that while there is a relationship between a teacher’s preparation program and how much her students learn, this explains less than 1% of the variation in how well teachers perform. In a more recent study, Goldhaber and colleagues identified student teaching experiences specifically as being slightly more important, accounting for over 3% of the variation in outcomes. So while a teacher’s experiences prior to having her own classroom are important, they may not matter as much as we think.

Shifting the Focus to Recruitment

Given the effects of teacher preparation only go so far, I propose we shift our focus to stronger recruitment practices. If teacher preparation only explains a few percentage points of the variation in teacher quality, investing our efforts into strengthening these programs, as suggested by NCTQ, is not the most efficient approach to improving the teaching workforce. Let’s instead make sure teacher preparation programs know how to recruit the right individuals into teaching in the first place.

One approach might be to generate interest in the teaching profession while students are still in high school, specifically recruiting high-achieving students who may not know yet what they want to study in college. Up to 50% of students enter college without having decided on a major, so high school is an ideal time to get students thinking about teaching. In light of dwindling interest in the profession, teacher preparation programs ought to begin the recruitment process early. The Center for Public Education also suggests establishing paid teacher residencies, loan forgiveness, and peer cohort teams as other approaches to draw individuals into teaching.

Predicting Who Will Be Successful

Recruitment isn’t simply a matter of getting anyone willing to teach into a classroom. We need to make sure that the individuals who are being recruited are going to be successful. However, we have yet to figure out how to detect an aptitude for teaching early on. Assessment tools, such as the Educator Professional Inventory, claim they can predict which teachers will be successful – but only after they’ve completed teacher training. Other research has found that job candidates’ content knowledge and interview scores also predict whether they will be successful. However, there are yet to be any comparable measures developed for prospective teachers. While strong teacher preparation programs are undoubtedly important, more effort needs to be put into learning how to best identify and recruit those who will be successful teachers.

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Amy Auletto
Amy Auletto is a doctoral student in Educational Policy. She is interested in the impact that equitable funding and access to effective teachers have on the educational outcomes of disadvantaged student populations. Prior to beginning her studies at Michigan State University, she taught middle school math in Detroit. Amy earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology, master of Social Work, and MA in educational studies from the University of Michigan.