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Summer 2010 Vol. 10 Number 2



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The Best Way to Teach a Teacher?

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No Single Approach Gets an "A"

The paths people follow to enter the teaching profession have never been uniform, but the traditional route has long been to get a degree in education from a college or university before joining the teaching work force. In recent years, though, the number of "alternative" programs -- Teach for America being the most famous among them -- has grown. Often designed to meet local shortages of teachers, these programs recruit people who do not have traditional education degrees, give them instruction and hands-on practice in the classroom, and move them into the world of teaching without granting a formal degree. About 130 such programs exist, and they train 20 percent to 30 percent of the 200,000 teachers who enter the profession each year. The growth of alternative programs has fueled a debate within the education community about which path -- traditional or alternative -- is more effective.

A new report from the National Research Council finds that there's no evidence that either pathway produces better teachers and concludes that the distinction between "traditional" and "alternative" isn't particularly useful. There is broad overlap in the content and more difference within each pathway than there is between them, said the committee that wrote the report, noting that a program categorized as alternative in one state might be considered traditional in another.

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In fact, there is currently little definitive evidence that any particular approach to teacher preparation yields teachers whose students are more successful than others, the report says; research simply hasn't looked closely enough at the specific factors that may ultimately affect student learning --such as the particular components of teacher prep programs or whether teachers' coursework is completed before they start teaching. This lack of research is leaving policymakers and teacher educators on shaky empirical ground when deciding what types of teacher preparation to encourage. Research should look explicitly at links between how teachers are prepared and how well their students learn, the report says. Such studies would be easier to conduct if researchers had richer measures of teacher preparation and student learning -- more than data about teachers' degrees and students' test scores. While data on degrees and test scores are readily available and easy to use, they don't give a complete picture of the complex process leading from teacher preparation to student learning.

The report does conclude that both strong knowledge of content and familiarity with how students learn a particular subject are important for reading, math, and science teachers, and it found some weaknesses in how those who teach the latter two disciplines are prepared. Many, perhaps most, math teachers lack the level of preparation in mathematics and teaching that the professional community deems adequate. And unacceptably high numbers of teachers of middle- and high-school math courses are teaching outside the field for which they trained.

All of the needed studies will depend on researchers having data to evaluate, and currently there is very little being collected on how teachers are prepared in the U.S., the report says. It urges the U.S. Department of Education to take the lead in encouraging new data collection efforts and coordinating existing ones. The end goal should be to develop a national education data network that includes comprehensive data on teacher education throughout the nation. With new research and data, the report says, policymakers and teacher educators will at last have a foundation to guide decisions that ultimately affect the educational outcomes of American students. --  Sara Frueh


Preparing Teachers: Building Evidence for Sound Policy. Committee on the Study of Teacher Preparation Programs in the United States, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2010, 234 pp.; ISBN 0-309-12805-6; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $44.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, Levy Institute Research Professor and senior scholar, Levy Economic Institute, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, with additional support provided by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.



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Copyright 2010 by the National Academy of Sciences