Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Better Way to Train Teachers

I want to talk about teacher training. This is a big issue, and what with the sudden discovery that teachers are the single most important factor (besides the students themselves) determining a school’s effectiveness (shocking, really), there’s a good deal of hullabaloo about it—but compared the knotty problems I usually address in this blog, this one looks pretty straightforward to me.

Discussions of how to improve teacher training tend to center around what we teach teachers. The pedagogical theories on which we train our teachers, critics argue, are wrong headed. Structural problems within graduate departments of education are blamed for the production of invalid theories of learning and the promulgation of ineffective teaching practices. For once I’ll take a stand: I don’t think that’s true. The problem has more to do with how we teach teachers than with what we teach them.

Speaking in 2003, at the White House Conference on Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers, Diane Ravitch located the causes of our weak teacher training in the history of the professionalization of teaching. At the beginning of the 19th century, she said, “Educational leaders wanted to be recognized as a profession,” on par with law and medicine. The problem, as Ravitch saw it, was that teaching lacked, and still lacks, the kind of fixed body of knowledge that forms the basis of law and medicine: there is no board, no bar, and no accepted standards for establishing best practices or determining the validity of pedagogical principles.

The problem that Ravitch identified is of central import, but the solution she offered was surprisingly far off the mark: “education,” she said, “cannot become a respected… profession until it establishes its practices on a solid foundation of valid research. We must insist on better evidence, more randomized trials, and replicable studies.” How, after fifty years of rapidly shifting terrain and endlessly unresolved disputes in every social science, from psychology to economics, can one expect “better evidence, more randomized trials, and predictable studies,” to establish any kind of fixed body of knowledge? Only a blind faith in the power of the academy could lead to such a conclusion. What’s more, I doubt that any person actually involved in teaching or running grade schools would suggest that what the profession needs more of is academic research. Randomized studies are fun-facts that teachers quote to each other; when it comes to how to run a classroom and how to get an idea across to children, they work from experience and from the experiences of their colleagues—as well they should. Academics disparage folk pedagogies as not only wrong-headed but dangerous, and that’s not an invalid critique, but theoretical pedagogies have hardly proved more useful or less dangerous.

I happened upon the Ravitch speech because I’m reading this very important, very badly written book, by a guy named E. D. Hirsch—if you’re in the field, you’ve probably heard of him—called The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them. Writing in 1996, Hirsch challenges what he views as an “anti-knowledge” culture then dominant in education circles. Like Ravitch, he locates the source of the problem in the professionalization of teaching that occurred at the turn of the century, as seen in the development of graduate departments of education. Hirsch’s discussion is more detailed (and more long-winded) than Ravitch’s, and it contains many valuable historical insights, but his conclusion is marked by the same misplaced emphasis on academia: inter-departmental cooperation, he believes, would create “the intellectual ferment of cross-fertilization” and drive off the malaise of intellectual lassitude that he sees as the fundamental problem with education departments.

I don’t want to be dismissive. Hirsch and Ravitch are right that the dominance of academically isolated and scientifically questionable theories of education in the formal training of teachers has been disastrous; both of them know far more than I about the history of education, and their analysis sheds valuable light on the question at hand, but they don’t see to the heart of the matter—and I suspect it’s because they’re both academics, not teachers.[1] It’s true that, as Hirsch argues, the input of academic experts can be useful in the development of grade-school curricula in their particular fields, but neither the input of academics nor a hardening of the scientific basis of education theories (a hopeless project) is liable to greatly improve teacher training.

The problem isn’t the quality of academic theories of education—the problem is that academic theories of education have no place at the center of teacher-training. Good teaching requires mastery of a highly refined, practical skill-set, not an elaborate body of theoretical knowledge. Teachers need college classes in order to become masters of their subject area, not to improve their ability to run a classroom or transmit ideas. For that, they need experience and practice, under the guidance of capable mentors.

The standard teacher-certification program, at either the undergraduate or masters level, includes only a semester of student teaching. Compare that to the requirements for becoming a licensed master plumber, which, in NYC for example, include “at least seven years total experience… under the direct and continuing supervision of a licensed master plumber.” If you’re already a registered architect or professional engineer, you can get that down to three years of apprenticeship, but that’s the minimum. A license to practice medicine requires anywhere from six to twelve years of apprenticeship (i.e. rotations and residency), depending on specialization, on top of an undergraduate degree and two years of graduate-level courses, which include physical, hands-on work in the form of human dissections.

Note also the elaborate structuring and mentoring in the apprenticeship years in medicine. Responsibility is accorded gradually, as the doctor-in-training progresses from student to intern to resident to fellow. Trainees at the beginning of this progression work in teams with more experienced residents, under the oversight of doctors. That system is far from perfect—abuses of power and excessive demands on trainees are common—but the basic structure is an excellent one for training in a demanding and complex practical field. That is what teaching is, and the training ought to reflect it. Instead, we throw teachers with a semester—and in many cases less—of training, into the most difficult classrooms (due to assignment of teachers by seniority, new teachers typically teach in the roughest classrooms and the worst schools) with sporadic oversight and little or no formal mentoring.

The issue is cut and dried: you want good teachers, you need to train them, not in pedagogical theory, but in teaching. This would require a massive restructuring of the profession, of course, but the good news is, it could be carried out on a school-by-school basis. It would look something like this.

A teacher-training program, partnered with a grade-school that has an experienced faculty, could offer, say, a five-year training program. As the trainees progressed through the program, they would move from observers and assistants to co-teachers and deputies, and as their responsibility and competence increased, they would cease to pay tuition and begin to receive a small salary. Ideally, teachers in training would rotate among master teachers, especially in the early years of their training, working with a couple each semester, so as to experience a wide range of styles. As in any apprenticeship, the master teachers would be compensated for the time spent observing and instructing apprentices by the assistance with grading, tutoring, managing, and organizing provided by the trainees. Rigorous training in each teacher’s subject-area would also be necessary. (The word “rigorous,” above sounds like a meaningless buzz-word, so let me clarify: a high level of subject-area knowledge should be prerequisite to entering the program, and subject-area classes within the program should be taught at a level that assumes such advanced background knowledge.)

This would be an eminently practical arrangement—the only problem would be getting people to sign up. After all, if you can get a credential in a one-year master’s program, why go through a five-year apprenticeship—especially given that many people entering the profession nowadays see it as a short term gig before entering a higher-paying career. In the long term, we need to raise the upper limits on teaching salaries, so that they can justify longer training periods, but, in the short term, we could address the commitment problem by making the duration of the program variable: students wishing to depart after two years can leave with a regular masters in teaching. Those who choose to stay would receive a special certification from the program, based on the number of years they stay. I suspect that, if the program were well-constructed, some would choose to stay on after two years simply because they have come to appreciate how much they’re learning. For others, the appeal of the special certification would be significant, because it would be equivalent to years of actual teaching experience, which is by far the most important factor in teacher hiring—indeed, this very fact is one more argument for the utility of this kind of program.

If you’re reading this post and want to donate, say $10,000,000, to help me get this program off the ground, you can get in touch by email:

[1] ^ Hirsch started out as a professor of Romantic Poetry at Yale University. In his journey from literature to university-level writing-instruction, to education reformer, he never worked as a teacher or administrator in a primary or secondary school. Ravitch started out as an editorial assistant at a small political journal. She was at one time the assistant secretary of education of the United States, and she is one of the best-known writers on education in America, but she has never taught in a grade-school.
Both Hirsch and Ravitch have valuable insights into the history and structure of American public schooling, but they lack first-hand knowledge of grade-school teaching—college teaching at prestigious universities is not equivalent. That limits their knowledge of the skill-set required for good teaching and thus of how to train good teachers.


  1. Viewing Ravitch's (and Hirsch's) point more charitably, pedagogy needs a rigorous empirical foundation---but importantly this could (and should) include in-class experience. Developing pedagogical methods from hands-on training is inherently empirical, but this doesn't make it rigorous. The problem with folk pedagogy isn't that it's not empirical (it obviously is) but that it's superstitious, in the sense that strong conclusions about effective teaching methods can be drawn fallaciously from a small amount of anecdotal experience, or experience that is specific to a particular place or school. What make an empirical pedagogy rigorous are things like controlling confounding factors, randomizing samples, and using large sample sizes. I don't see why these types of rigor can't be wedded to the sort of hands-on training that you propose.

  2. My gripe with Hirsch and Ravitch is not that they are interested in improving the academic study of education but that their plan for improving our teacher training rests wholly on such work.

    Instruction in research on developmental psychology and cognition could be a valuable part of a teacher-training program, so long as it forms a small part of a curriculum that’s grounded in hands-on experience—it makes sense that teachers should have some knowledge of the academic work being done in fields relevant to their practice, but such knowledge is of secondary import. There are two primary ingredients of great teaching: thorough knowledge of and passion for subject-matter; and mastery of a variety of skills that are not intellectual but social—poise, composure, self-assurance, control of tone, volume, and emphasis of voice, awareness of the room, attentiveness to others ideas and attitudes, etc., etc., etc.

    I recently read some cognitive psych papers on learning and memory (which the writer of the above comment sent me) and they have helped me, on several occasions, to make decisions that otherwise would have been made arbitrarily. If the conclusions of that research are correct, then that has been a benefit to my students, but it is nothing compared to the benefit provided by the pedagogical methods that I learned by observing other teachers, the techniques that I mastered through practice, and the personal strength that I gained from working in challenging classrooms (see this post, which is a sequel to this one). Similarly, the best teachers I know do not display a particularly thorough knowledge of the research relevant to their field.

    The issue of folk pedagogy is an important one, which I neglected to address in detail in my post. The eradication of fallacious folk pedagogies is one goal of teacher training. Such pedagogies arise when schools and communities work in isolation and thus develop cultural peculiarities that they cannot see around. Ideally, the apprenticeship program that I described in my post, though it might be centered around a single grade-school, would send its teachers out to observe—or, if possible, apprentice for a semester or two—at other successful schools with differing models. Indeed, such an addition would greatly enrich the program.