Good Advice from Secretary Duncan

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Last month, in an open letter to college presidents and deans of education schools, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan laid out his concerns with teacher training across the nation, a problem which, because of the critical importance of effective classroom teaching to student achievement, is one of the final frontiers in public education reform.

Of course, we know that colleges of education are not the only pathway to the classroom for teachers, but despite the growth of so-called alternative routes, about half of teachers are prepared in colleges of education, and a substantial number of those who call themselves “alternative” are designed in the college of education model.

In his letter, Duncan cites a 2014 report from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), which looked at over 500 institutions of higher education, which annually graduate more than half of the nation’s new teachers.  It found that 30% of all students graduate with honors compared to 44% of education majors.  In 51 of these institutions, the number of education majors graduating with honors is twice as high as the other programs at the same schools.  As Duncan noted, either teacher training programs are attracting an unusually gifted group of students or the standard for honors is too low.  We know from other studies that the former is not the case.  Clearly, he notes, the system we have for training teachers lacks the necessary rigor, is out of step with our students’ needs, and is given to extreme grade inflation that leaves teachers unprepared and their future students at risk.  And I know this from first-hand experience as a former member of the Texas State Board for Educator Certification.

Duncan focuses on three recommendations to college presidents and deans: increase the rigor of coursework, move to more objective grading policies to reduce grade inflation, and transition to training focused on specific classroom skills and assignments rather than teaching theory and philosophy. The first two recommendations ensure the education major is as challenging as other majors, and the latter seeks to better prepare teachers for their first day in the classroom.  And I would add an additional suggestion: significantly increase the standard for admission to our colleges of education to become a teacher, the requirements for which should be more comparable to the other professions.

In the end, Duncan says, “Lowering our expectations not only does a disservice to the teaching candidates in these programs but also to the students they’ll soon teach.”  Exactly.  And if we want to raise expectations for our students so they’re prepared for their next steps, we must do the same for our teaching candidates.

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