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Teaching Teachers: How Well Are Colleges Meeting The Challenge?

by Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

It's an old question in education reform, and an important one: how well do we teach our teachers?

U.S. News and World Report, already a player in the education world because of its popular and controversial college guide, has plunged into the debate with its plan to issue ratings of teachers colleges. A number of schools of education, citing concerns about how the magazine will reach its conclusions, have said they won't participate.

In Public Agenda's Lessons Learned survey, we found most first-year teachers gave their training programs good marks. Nearly 7 in 10 said their training on direct instruction helped them "a lot" and 6 in 10 said that what they learned about classroom management helped "a lot." Overall 8 in 10 felt they were prepared for their first classroom (42 percent said "very prepared).

However, by the new teachers' own account, there are places where their instruction fell down. For example, three-quarters of new teachers said their training covered dealing with diverse classrooms, but only 39 percent said it helped them "a lot" once they were in their own classroom.

Moreover, new middle and high school teachers were more likely to criticize their training for putting too much emphasis on theory compared to the practical demands of the classroom. More than half (53 percent) of new high school teachers say their preparation was too theoretical, while just 40 percent of new elementary teachers say this.

The survey also raised questions about the kind of support brand-new teachers get from colleagues and administrators when they take on their first classroom, especially new high school teachers. Just a quarter of new high school teachers (26 percent) said they get excellent advice on lesson plans and teaching techniques, compared to 39 percent of elementary school teachers who said the same.

There is also a 10-point difference on the advice they said they got about handling unmotivated students: 31 percent of high school teachers say they get excellent advice, compared to 41 percent of grade school teachers.

There are dissatisfied, struggling teachers in America, beyond question, and they're an uncomfortably large group. In our Teaching for a Living survey, we found 4 in 10 teachers are "disheartened" about their jobs. More than half teach in low-income schools, and they're more likely to voice high levels of frustration about the school administration, disorder in the classroom, and an undue focus on testing. Their concerns are not so much about their training as they are about working conditions once they are on the job.

We need to produce the best possible teachers, with the best possible training. Second-rate training certainly won't produce first-class teachers. But the powerful frustration we've found among teachers in surveys focuses less on their preparation for the classroom than on what they found, and what they need, once they arrive.



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