How well do we teach teachers?


With the fate of our nation’s future riding on their work, few professions today face the scrutiny teachers do. That’s why policymakers, both well intentioned and nefarious, are debating how to measure and evaluate teacher effectiveness.

At the same time, states are working on ways to ensure their colleges’ teacher preparation programs are adapting fast enough to meet changing education goals, and preparing a well-trained generation of future teachers.

So how are Minnesota teacher preparation programs doing? The data-based answer is we have no way of knowing for sure. Minnesota’s Office of Higher Education released a 2010 report indicating that there’s not enough data to measure teacher training programs’ effectiveness. 

“’Putting in place the longitudinal data systems that would support this focus on student achievement would allow’”… us to begin answering a number of basic, but still unanswered, questions about teacher education, including: What type of teacher preparation is most effective in promoting classroom learning? What curriculum produces the best teachers? What faculty qualifications are the most helpful?”

A conglomeration of state agencies and education organizations are now working on a longitudinal measure to answer this more accurately. Part of this assessment includes a standardized metric known as the Teacher Performance Assessment (TPA). Starting in 2013, it will be one of the requirements students must complete before their education programs will allow them to apply for a first time Minnesota teaching license.

I was part of the TPA’s pilot. It’s fairly comprehensive, assessing wide range of skills teachers must be proficient in to be successful in the classroom. It’s a portfolio of work during a teacher candidate’s student teaching assignment (which is mandatory by state law), guided by a series of prompts. It asks for lesson plans, tests and assessments the candidate designs for students, samples of readings and worksheets the student teacher assigns, and work the teacher candidate’s students complete. Teacher candidates must also submit a video of themselves in action.

If a teacher training program didn’t do a good job teaching something, this assessment should identify it. Like criticism of MCAs and other standardized test, though, this assessment has its limitations and must be viewed in conjunction with other evaluations.

For example, just because a teaching candidate knows the teaching theories and methods doesn’t mean he can teach 30-35 live students with a variety of learning styles for a full year. On the other hand, a teacher candidate might be poor at completing the tedious paperwork required by the TPA, and be an awesome verbal communicator who knows the content, and how to effectively relate it to a wide variety of learners. It is also a tremendous financial obligtion for students, costing a few hundred dollars. 

Lack of official data aside, colleges overall are preparing students for the job, according to the president of the Minnesota Elementary School Principals’ Association (MESPA) Kris Stueve and first-year teachers interviewed for this story.

However, there are a number of improvements both principals and first-time teachers would like to see when it comes to training.

Here’s the good news. Teacher training programs are preparing future educators well when it comes to teaching literacy skills at all levels, said Stueve, after consulting with her fellow MESPA executive board members. Steve is also Cambridge-Isanti Primary School’s principal.

Newer teachers understand the latest educational philosophies and most effective classroom management skills, which cuts time wasted on discipline and non-academic activities. Along those lines, new teachers are focused like a laser on setting daily learning objective and designing activities to help students meet those objectives.

New teachers also do an excellent job integrating technology into lessons, which helps make learning more interactive and relevant to students. This might be generational advantage, and less about the training program. In fact, one newly-minted high school science teacher wished her training program did a better job with technology-based instruction.

Here’s where improvements are needed. In this day of data-driven everything, new teachers must do a better job learning how to evaluate and adjust to assessment data, according to Stueve. This goes beyond MCA’s, dealing more with the everyday formative assessments, small informal checks to ensure students are “getting it.”

“I wish we would have had more opportunities in our teacher training classes to practice giving assessments, evaluating those assessments, and learning how to adjust our teaching based on the results,” said Frank Straub, who’s now student teaching in St. Paul.

One big criticism from both principals and new teachers is the need for more clinical or in-class experience.

State statute mandates that teacher candidates “are required to complete successfully a series of early and ongoing planned, supervised, and evaluated clinical experiences,” …and at least 10 weeks student teaching. Most student teaching experiences correspond with the university semester, starting in either September or January and ending in December or May.

Stueve points to St. Cloud State’s yearlong student teaching course as a possible example for other programs. Teacher candidates start at the beginning of the academic year with students, getting to know them and building a community. Student teachers are re-integrated into the classroom throughout the year and work with students through to the end of the year. The state office of higher education study also suggests a five-year teacher training program, with room for more on-the-job training.

Ensuring teachers are properly trained is absolutely necessary. Teachers take this responsibility seriously and are constantly retraining through a career, many times at their own expense as professional training budges have been slashed. Here’s the frustrating part. Despite the ongoing qualifying bars teachers continue to meet, many policymakers tend to diminish the craft’s professionalism in an effort to undermine wages and cut school funding. 

In too many cases, unqualified outsiders are making education decisions based on their own K-12 experiences from a generation ago. Undermining and bashing teachers to save money won’t produce the educational outcomes Minnesota’s economy is dependent on.