Teacher Preparation Is Smart (Response to ‘Teachers Aren’t Dumb’)

Sometimes the story is as good as the headlines, and sometimes it’s even better. The New York Times op-ed “Teachers Aren’t Dumb” (Sept. 8) by Psychologist Daniel T. Willingham is a case in point. As Willingham notes, contrary to popular belief, new teachers are solid academic performers. And as his article asserts, they can benefit from the research on effective teaching that is being conducted in the schools of education that prepare them. Willingham also points out—with rhetorical hyberbole—that not all preparation programs are using the latest research. While program quality varies, the excellent preparation provided by the universities whose researchers he cites illustrates that teacher education has strong exemplars. Unfortunately, Willingham does not acknowledge the widespread change within the education preparation community.

The direction of today’s preparation programs is truly good news. Willingham accurately identifies two guiding principles for improving teacher preparation and program accountability: evaluate programs based on graduates’ performance on a rigorous, credible culminating assessment, and base that assessment (and programs’ content) on evidence of what works best for student learning.

Willingham’s thesis that teachers “aren’t dumb” can’t be repeated—or celebrated—enough. In fact, more and more successful students are drawn to teaching, as indicated by the upward trend among novice teachers’ SAT and ACT scores. But as Willingham also notes, smart people do not automatically make good teachers. They also need key dispositions that are known to correlate with positive impact on PK-12 student achievement, and preparation programs screen for these characteristics and an array of other criteria as part of “selecting for quality”—not just at admission, but also for completion and throughout the course of the program.

Of course, teacher candidates also need to learn content and pedagogy and develop their ability to be effective in the classroom. Rigorous new professional accreditation standards and performance assessments demand continuous refinement of this preparation to reflect the latest research and real-world needs, particularly as candidates spend greater portions of their time in clinical settings. Indeed, today’s accountability mechanisms align well with Willingham’s principle of using research to guide policy and practice.

His other guiding principle is also being realized, as the educator preparation field has recently developed just the test he seems to ask for: edTPA, a research-based performance assessment of “whether a teacher has learned what he or she was meant to learn.” Already, more than 600 institutions are using edTPA, and a number of states now rely on it as a key part of teacher licensure decisions. This rigorous candidate evaluation and learning process is based on widely agreed-upon professional standards, and other such assessments are currently in development.

Teacher quality is shaped by many factors, and preservice preparation and licensure requirements play significant roles. But let’s not forget the importance of what happens after a teacher is licensed—where he or she is employed, and what kind of support and ongoing development is available. Deployment of teacher expertise in schools is a critical factor in teacher effectiveness, and we need to speak out against the practice of assigning teachers as if they are interchangeable. Memories of your high SAT score are of little consolation if you are assigned to teach a subject or grade level outside your expertise, or if you are placed in a challenging situation without a good mentor or other support system. Assignments must be made with an eye to teachers’ specific capacities to serve. We simply can’t afford to leave novice teachers—and their students—to sink or swim in isolation.

AACTE and its member institutions welcome the opportunity to be held accountable for our work. We champion high-quality preparation that ensures the effectiveness, diversity, and readiness of professional educators to serve all students. Contrary to leaving teachers “in the dark,” today’s preparation programs light the way for research-driven practice—and are smarter than Willingham would have you believe.

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Sharon Robinson

President and CEO, AACTE