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Restructuring Teacher Education

by Kathryn Boonstra - January 08, 2013

Traditional teacher training programs fail to prepare new educators for the realities of the classroom, and alternative certification programs threaten to undermine teaching as a respected career. In this piece, a third year teacher and current M.A.T. student discusses how and why teacher preparation programs must be reformed.

Public school teachers across the country are under fire for failing to prepare their low-income and minority students for success in college and beyond. Value-added assessments have taken hold as a viable measure of teacher success and churn and burn policies have exacerbated already high turnover rates. Yet analyses of the so-called crisis in public education rarely center on what is being done to prepare new teachers to succeed in the classroom (Council on Foreign Relations, 2012). Quality teacher preparation is critical to achieving equity in education, particularly in urban areas, where teachers are expected to overcome the effects of poverty and discrimination without adequate resources or school-based supports. If we expect teachers to perform miracles in the classroom, we must redesign preparation programs to provide the grade-specific tools and practical experience that new teachers need to be effective.

Teaching is what Nathaniel Gage refers to as an instrumental art. It requires not only technical and theoretical knowledge, but also improvisation, spontaneity, [and] the handling of a host of considerations of form, style, pace, rhythm, and appropriateness at one time (Gage, 1984, in Arends, 2004). As a third year teacher in an urban district, I understand the balance of theoretical knowledge and practical competencies that a new teacher needs in order to be effective. The top-tier certification program in which I am currently enrolled has consistently fallen short in both of these domains. Rather than providing hands-on experience and focused study of grade-specific best practices, community-building techniques, and socio-cultural awareness, my program of studylike others across the countrylimits classroom exposure to one semester of student teaching, lumps together early childhood and high school level teachers, and promotes vague and out-dated principles of education and pedagogy.

With my degree I will earn the status of highly qualified to teach pre-Kindergarten, even though my program has offered no explicit training on research-based methods for teaching the foundational skills for this level: phonological awareness, decoding, or early mathematics. Worse yet, new teachers in my program will start the school year with far too little exposure to the critical practical elements of teaching: how to orchestrate the movement of thirty bodies from place to place without wasting valuable instructional time; how to draw in persistently disengaged and low-performing students; how to meet the unique social, academic, and physical needs of high-achievers, special education students, and every child in between. Throwing novice teachers into high-need schools without this essential training is like asking a first-year medical student to perform open-heart surgery before he or she has ever stepped foot inside of an operating room.

The level of preparedness of new teachers entering the classroom is both abysmal and discouraging. Yet a greater ideological threat comes in the guise of proposed solutions to this problem. Across the country, hundreds of private and non-profit organizations have set out to fix public education through alternative certification programs. According to a report by the National Center for Education Information (2011), between 2005 and 2010 four of every ten new teachers in the classroom entered the profession by way of an alternative certification program. The percentage is likely much higher in low-income and urban areas. While this might be seen as an encouraging development, these programs fall short in a number of areas, and are complicit in a larger ideological movement undermining the foundations of public education.

Programs such as Teach for America and (name your city) Teaching Fellows thrust new teachers into the most trying school environments after a crash-course training session, typically two months or less (Teach For America, Inc., 2012). In addition to the accelerated path to the classroom, alternative certification programs also entice recruits with funding for certification and Masters programs and promises of continuous professional mentoring. These programs rely on what Roxanna Elden (2012) calls the myth of the super teacher. They imply that the failures in public schools are due primarily to teachers not caring enough, and that a highly motivated, twenty-two year old Ivy League graduate can transform every classroom into the set of Freedom Writers. (The film, starring Hilary Swank, propagates the illusion that a teacher can transform an under-funded and blighted classroom into a haven of critical thought and high achievement by merely showing the students that she cares.)

Moreover, alternative certification programs contribute to spiraling turnover rates and create perpetual disequilibrium in the nations highest-need schools. Many of my colleagues are participants in or graduates of alternative certification programs, and willingly admit that teaching was never part of their long-term career plans. Rather, they see their years in the program and the classroom as an important stepping-stone toward a different profession, a valuable interim experience, or a reliable fallback career. Nearly all intend to leave teaching after one to three years. Of TFA teachers, only one third remain in the profession after four years, and 95% leave their original classroom placement within 5 years (Donaldson and Johnson, 2011). The teachers brought in as replacements are often novices themselves, creating a devastating revolving door effect.

School leaders and policy makers agree that the pecuniary costs of high turnover are staggering, yet the organizational and educational effects are even more devastating (Watlington, Shockley, Guglielmino, and Felsher, 2010). A recent report by the National Bureau of Economic Research (2011) demonstrates that consistency in personnel is critical for maintaining organizational coherence, improving school culture and raising student achievement. Moreover, the effects of high turnover are especially deleterious in lower-achieving schools (Guin, 2004, Ingersoll, 2004). The poor quality of traditional teacher training programs, combined with the appeal of alternative certification routes, has contributed to rising turnover rates and, consequently, the widening gap in school quality.

Public education in America is on a dangerous path toward privatization and commodification. Alternative certification programs are complicit in this movement, moving responsibility for the provision of quality education away from federal, state, and local governments and toward private and non-profit organizations. Traditional, university-based teacher-training programs are of shamefully poor quality, and state standards for teacher certification are astonishingly low; however, the answer is not to replace them with programs that shuttle a new crop of well-intentioned, but inexperienced, college graduates in and out of the classroom every two years. What this country needs is to reinvigorate the profession of teaching. We must establish high-quality, well-respected teacher education programs that can prepare new teachers for the realities of the classroom and can support them in making teaching a life-long career, rather than a resumé-padding experience. (It also wouldnt hurt to compensate teachers like we compensate other highly skilled professionalswith competitive starting salaries and reasonable job protection.)

Comparisons between the American and Finnish public school systems have become common among education researchers and policy-makers, as a result of the latters success in educating diverse students without excessive standardized testing, accountability measures, or lock-step pedagogical practices (Anderson, 2011; Ravitch, 2012). One noted reason for Finlands success is the quality and prestige of that countrys teacher preparation programs. As in Finland, teacher training programs in the United States should be among the most elite and competitive in the country. Only those universities that can offer multi-year student teaching experiences, grade and subject-specific courses, and extensive mentoring should be certified to educate teachers. Teachers should be trained to educate every student in their classes, including English Language Learners and Special Education students. They should delve deeply into pedagogical best practices and socio-cultural theory, and they should have extensive opportunities to confer and collaborate with both veteran and novice teachers.

Such a system would revolutionize teaching: educators would be equipped with the knowledge and techniques they need to succeed in high-need schools on the very first day of class. It would transform the status of teaching within American society by constructing a professional knowledge base and establishing legitimate links with respected universities. Above all, restructuring teacher preparation programs to be intensive, practical, and competitive would equalize educational opportunity by ensuring that every child has a capable and effective educator greeting him or her on the first day of school.


Anderson, J. (2011) From Finland, an intriguing school-reform model. The New York Times. December 12, 2011. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/13/education/from-finland-an-intriguing-school-reform-model.html

Arends, R.I. (2004) Learning to teach, 6th edition. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Council on Foreign Relations. (2012). U.S. education reform and national security (Independent Task Force Report No. 68). New York, NY: Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.

Donaldson, M. L. and Johnson, S. M. (2011). TFA teachers: How long do they teach? Why do they leave? EdWeek. October 4, 2011. Retrieved from: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/10/04/kappan_donaldson.html

Elden, R. (May 18, 2012). The myth of the super teacher [video file]. Retrieved from: http://vimeo.com/43565010.

Guin, K. (2004). Chronic teacher turnover in urban elementary schools. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 12(42), 1-25.

Ingersoll, R.M. (2004). Why do high-poverty schools have difficulty staffing their classrooms with qualified teachers? Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.

National Bureau of Economic Research. (2011). How teacher turnover harms student achievement. Ronfeldt, M., Loeb, S., Wyckoff, J. Retrieved from: http://papers.nber.org.proxyau.wrlc.org/papers/w17176

National Center for Education Information. (2011). Profile of teachers in the U.S.

2011. Washington, DC: Feistritzer, E. C.

Ravitch, D. (2012). Schools we can envy. The New York Review of Books. March 8, 2012. Retrieved from: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/mar/08/schools-we-can-envy

Ravitch, D. (2012). How, and how not, to improve the schools. The New York Review of Books. March 22, 2012. Retrieved from: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/mar/22/how-and-how-not-improve-schools/

Teach For America, Inc. (2012). Summer Training. Retrieved August 31, 2012 from: http://www.teachforamerica.org/why-teach-for-america/training-and-support/summer-training

Watlington, E., Shockley, R., Guglielmino, P., & Felsher, R. (2010). The high cost of leaving: An analysis of the cost of teacher turnover. Journal of Education Finance, 36(1), 22-37.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 08, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16987, Date Accessed: 3/21/2022 8:40:23 AM

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About the Author
  • Kathryn Boonstra
    American University
    E-mail Author
    KATHRYN BOONSTRA teaches at the Excel Academy Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., and is working towards her M.A.T. in early childhood education at American University
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