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Not Yet Sold on NCATE's "Transformative” Clinical Vision

by Frederick M. Hess - December 06, 2010

The author raises a number of concerns with NCATE's widely praised new vision for transforming teacher preparation by embracing a more clinical orientation.

The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) recently released the work of its Blue Ribbon Panel on "Transforming Teacher Education Through Clinical Practice." Launched a few weeks back at the National Press Club, this call to “radically" revise teacher preparation by focusing on practical training and residencies was hailed as transformative by many, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, the panel’s co-chair, said, "This is a seismic moment for teacher education." I'm not sold.

The report declares that teacher education needs to be "turned upside down," with training shifting from a focus on academic preparation and course work towards clinical practice that's "interwoven with academic content and professional courses." Those are swell sentiments. They sound reasonable to me. And I'm all in favor of teacher preparation finding cost-effective ways to do less mediocre course work and more quality clinical training.

But, the truth is, there’s not much evidence in this report of seismic thinking. There’s nothing acknowledging that, if site-based clinical preparation is the key, it may make sense to cut colleges or universities out of the preparation equation—and allow school sites to deal them in on an as-needed basis. After all, the "normal school" was a 19th century innovation; isn't it possible that a "radical" 21st century vision might not want to assume that machinery?

The panel notes the value of creating new roles when it comes to mentoring and supporting faculty, but seems to envision the same-old, same-old so far as every teacher being a jack of all trades. The only reference to technology is as a means for supporting teacher preparation; there's no recognition that the residency model might be poorly suited for those engaging in online instruction or for supporting and meeting the needs of emerging school models.

There’s no acknowledgment that teacher preparation for virtual instructors, online tutors, or Citizens Schools-style "citizen-teachers" might require new notions of specializations or a shift away from one-size-fits-all preparation. Meanwhile, "implementation" challenges—like recruiting enough good classroom mentors, finding sufficiently qualified university supervisors, or handling the logistical issues—go unaddressed. The report doesn't explain how to ensure that large-scale clinical programs aren't merely diluted versions of today's boutique efforts. It's not clear to me from this report how preparation programs can be counted on to guard against that or keep their "clinical" training from simply meaning that their students are wasting time in K-12 schools instead of on the college campus.

Now, let's be clear. I’m broadly supportive of clinical residencies. Something like the Boston Teacher Residency (BTR) makes all kinds of sense—when done well and with an eye to the needs, districts, and teachers being served. I'm all for high-quality clinical residencies when they're organized thoughtfully and cost-effectively. But, let's just stipulate that clinical experience is, broadly speaking, a good idea. At that point, there are four big questions worth asking.

First, even if today's boutique efforts are found to "work," how confident can we be that large-scale imitation will deliver similar benefits? The most popular clinical programs, like BTR, are highly selective. That's terrific. But it also poses a huge challenge when one talks of scaling up. To the extent that the secret sauce for such programs is that they are careful about whom they enroll and graduate, many of the apparent benefits of these expensive programs may be largely a product of candidate quality. This becomes hard to sustain if lots of programs are competing for the same pool of candidates, and I'm unconvinced that the miraculous enthusiasm for clinical residencies would spur the nation's 1,300+ teacher preparation programs suddenly to become much more selective—or to have much more success attracting high-quality candidates.

Far more likely, I suspect, is the too-familiar routine in which promising boutique programs (which benefit from selection effects, enormous enthusiasm, philanthropic support, and a sharply honed sense of mission) become one more disappointing fad when adopted by a slew of district and university officials eager to sign on for the best practice of the moment but who don't ultimately have any stomach for the wrenching changes needed to do it right. The likely result: an amped-up serving of mediocre student teaching now relabeled "clinical residencies," hampered by too few promising candidates, too few skilled higher education faculty, too few rewarding placements, too little program support, and too few top-shelf classroom mentors.

Second, who exactly does the residency model make sense for? It makes a ton of sense for teachers going into challenging environments where they are going to work intensively with kids who need a high level of "high-touch" adult interaction. If the aspiring teacher expects to work in a particular district, school, or school model for a number of years, the upfront costs can be a smart investment. However, if teachers are instructing students who require less intensive teacher engagement or are more likely to bounce across very different school models, then I'm less confident in the payoff.

Third, how can the residency model be pursued without stifling alternative forms of instructional provision? One Blue Ribbon Panel member told me that he didn't really understand my concern about stifling online learning, explaining, "We're just talking about partnerships—Florida Virtual could design a training partnership to serve their needs." Well, maybe. Except that the report explicitly celebrates teacher "residencies," flags only models like the Boston Teacher Residency, and talks explicitly of "instructional rounds." The result is the near-certainty that higher education and state education agencies that embrace the NCATE agenda will do so with BTR as the model. This risks stacking unnecessary costs and burdens on models that don't require all teachers to have that kind of experience. This might include online instruction, programs that explore alternatives to the conventional full-time teacher, or models like the high-performing, cost-shaving Rocketship Academies (built around an Oracle-like model of empowering young employees and using technology and specialization to make their roles more manageable). We've a century or more of cautionary history suggesting the ways in which well-intentioned policies designed to strengthen teacher preparation might all too easily stifle creative efforts to boost quality, meet particular needs, or boost cost-effectiveness.

Finally, why do residency models seem to envision the deal as a one-size-fits-all proposition? When I eyeball today's teacher residencies, I see a solitary notion of what it means to be a "teacher." I'd have more faith in the NCATE push if the report had pushed for a diverse array of clinical residencies, with an eye to developing less onerous, customized, "just-in-time" preparation for part-time tutors or online instructors. The intuition here is simple, and can be lifted directly from medicine, where the clinical residency for a cardiovascular surgeon is different from that for a general practitioner. Both are trained differently than are RNs or EMTs. And all of these are trained differently than the guy who is going to read X-rays. (Remember, also, that for all the attention paid to medical residencies, doctors account for less than 10 percent of American medical personnel. So the famous, expensive medical residency is really designed for a specialized population and not for every employee who sets foot in a clinic or hospital.)

So, again, high-quality residency programs are swell. But, before the eight states that have signed onto the NCATE vision get too far ahead of themselves, and before districts, colleges, or the U.S. Department of Education start jumping on this bandwagon, I hope everyone will take a deep breath and make sure they've got a vision for making sure this well-intentioned effort has a happy ending.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 06, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16253, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 7:35:52 PM

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About the Author
  • Frederick Hess
    American Enterprise Institute
    E-mail Author
    FREDERICK M. HESS is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas, published by Harvard University Press.
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