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What We (Don’t) Know About Independent Teacher Preparation Programs

The following article is reposted with permission from the University of Washington College of Education website. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of AACTE.

As some advocacy groups push to deregulate the preparation of teachers and expand independent, alternative routes into teaching, a new policy brief authored by the University of Washington College of Education’s Ken Zeichner reviews what is known about the quality of five of the most prominent independent teacher education programs in the United States.

These new routes sometimes emphasize technical skills over deep, professional understanding. Accordingly, some of the new programs are very different from most teacher education programs provided by U.S. colleges and universities, which are usually grounded in core research knowledge–about the subject matter being taught as well as child and adolescent development and learning theory, all taught in the context of practice and of the students’ environment.

In the following Q&A, Zeichner, Boeing Professor of Teacher Education, answers questions about his brief Independent Teacher Education Programs: Apocryphal Claims, Illusory Evidence, published by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Zeichner discusses the impact of these programs on teacher quality and student learning, how teacher preparation programs can better serve students and communities, and what steps policymakers can take to build the pipeline of high–quality teachers.

Q: What is an independent teacher education program?

A: My policy brief examines the extent to which there is credible empirical evidence that supports the claims that are made about the success of five independent teacher education programs. Independent programs are initial teacher education programs not affiliated with colleges or universities that do their own preparation of teachers. Not included in my analysis are alternative programs like Teach For America that outsource much of their preparation of teachers to colleges and universities or to other independent programs.

Q: What does research tell us about the quality of independent teacher education programs in the United States?

A: My examination of the research on the five programs (The Relay Graduate School of Education, Match Teacher Residency, High Tech High’s Internship, iTeach, and TEACH–NOW) concludes that there is no credible evidence that supports the claims of success that are made about them, and that the continued expansion of these programs is driven by ideology rather than by empirical evidence of success.

Q: In your policy brief, you discuss the distribution of professionally prepared teachers and the stratification of schools according to social class and racial composition. What did you find?

A: First of all, in the United States we have very serious problems of an inequitable distribution of teachers and inequitable access to a high–quality education, which enables students to interact with knowledge in authentic and meaningful ways. Students living in communities highly impacted by poverty are disproportionately taught by uncertified teachers, inexperienced teachers, and teachers teaching outside of their field. Most of the teachers who graduate from independent programs teach students who live in communities that are highly impacted by poverty.

I found that two of the five programs that I studied (Relay Graduate School of Education and Match Teacher Residency) contribute to the inequitable distribution of professionally prepared teachers and to the stratification of schools according to the social class and racial composition of the student body. These two programs prepare teachers to use highly controlling pedagogical and classroom management techniques, “a pedagogy of poverty,” that are primarily used in schools serving students of color whose communities are severely impacted by poverty. Meanwhile, students in more economically advantaged areas have greater access to professionally trained and experienced teachers, less punitive and controlling management practices, and to broader and richer curriculum and teaching practices. The teaching, curriculum, and management practices learned by the teachers in these two independent programs are based on a restricted definition of teaching and learning and would not be acceptable in more economically advantaged communities.

In a sense, the expansion of independent teacher education programs like Relay and Match is furthering the building of a second–class system of education for children living in poverty while middle–class children continue to be taught by professionally prepared teachers and have more access to a genuine education that aims for much more than just raising standardized test scores.

Q: With many policy makers concerned we’re not preparing enough teachers and independent programs presented as one possible solution, what recommendations would you make regarding how to build a larger pipeline of high–quality teachers?

A: The teaching shortages in districts throughout the United States are real and very troubling. Most scholars who have studied this issue, such as Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania, conclude that the shortages are a result of teacher attrition rather than an underproduction of teachers, and that the attrition of teachers is a consequence of relatively low teacher compensation and benefits and their relatively poor working conditions, as well the general blaming and shaming of teachers for the problems of society and the accountability systems that have been developed reflecting this deficit view.

UW College of Education Dean Mia Tuan and my former UW colleague Mike Copeland, who is the deputy superintendent in the Bellingham, Washington, school district, recently published op-eds in the Seattle and Bellingham newspapers respectively that outline some of the things we need to do to address the teaching shortages in Washington. These same suggestions are also applicable for the rest of the country. What we need to do, they argue (and I agree), is to improve teacher compensation and working conditions, including access to high quality teacher professional development. We also need to ensure that the preservice preparation for teaching they receive is of high quality.

My research, and the evidence generally, shows that expanding the production of teachers by bringing in new program providers, including many fast–track and online programs, will not address the problem. We need to invest, as other countries with high–performing education systems have done, in supporting a high–quality public school system and university system of teacher education.

In a democratic society, education is a public good, and there are benefits to everyone if all students receive a high–quality education. We need to fully fund public education, provide teachers with salaries and benefits that enable them to afford to live comfortably in the cities in which they teach, and invest in high–quality teacher preparation and development. Currently, the U.S. government and philanthropy is devoting an enormous amount of money and effort to “disrupt” and replace the current systems of public education and teacher education with one reflecting a market system.

This strategy will not work and in the years to come we will regret what we have done. There is no example of a high–performing education system in the world with regard to student learning and equity in student learning that has employed the kind of deregulation and market competition that is advocated by supporters of independent programs.

Q: What are a couple steps both independent and university–based teacher preparation programs can take to better serve students and communities?

A: One major change that both independent and university–based programs can make to better serve students and their communities is to replace the predominant stance in many university and non–university programs with regard to communities highly impacted by poverty: that it is the teacher’s job to try to save students from their communities. We need to teach teachers how to learn about the funds of knowledge and expertise that exist in their students’ communities, how to access them in support of student learning, and how to work with and for students’ families and communities and not on them.

A second change that teacher education can make to better serve students and their communities who are currently not served well by public education is to develop teacher education programs that involve shared responsibility for preparing teachers among the programs, the school districts, teachers’ associations, and local community groups and organizations. Currently, local communities are shut out of the process of teacher preparation and policy debates center around who can prepare teachers best–the colleges and universities, the districts by themselves, or the educational entrepreneurs who have received enormous amounts of money to replace the current system instead of improving it. High–performing education systems around the world, including ones with significant amounts of poverty, have established a coherent and unified approach to policy and practice related to teaching and teacher education and to providing the social and economic supports that are needed for education reform to succeed. This is demonstrated very clearly in a new book [Empowered Educators: How Leading Nations Design Systems for Teaching Quality, scheduled for release in 2017] that discusses case studies a team of researchers, including me and College of Education doctoral students Jesslyn Hollar and Shane Pisani, conducted over the last four years.

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Dustin Wunderlich

Director for Marketing and Communications, University of Washington College of Education