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An awakening in educator preparation

Benjamin Riley

Category: Commentary

We are in an interesting moment in the field of educator preparation. The gaze of policymakers, foundations, and many others in the education community, is starting to shift a bit away from broad structural “reforms.” This is perhaps most evident in the recently signed ESSA, the new federal education law that replaces No Child Left Behind and significantly rolls back federal involvement in education policy.

Instead, attention is increasingly focused on the humans involved in “the system” and what’s being done to prepare and support them in their careers. But we are uncertain about the programmatic and policy changes that will help improve the attractiveness of the profession of teaching, and the effectiveness of current and future teachers. The spirit for transformative change is willing, but the flesh is . . . well if not weak, let’s say confused about what to do.

I see three tensions looming in the year ahead.

First, how do we address our need to act with our relative ignorance about what we need to take action upon? Consider, for example, the public discussion of a growing national “teacher shortage” in this country. People disagree on whether there truly is a shortage; if there is a shortage, what may be causing it; and (assuming there is one), what if anything should be done in response. Yet in some areas of this country the crisis is real — here at Deans for Impact, we’ve visited these districts — and putting tremendous pressure on school districts and schools to fill classrooms with anyone who’s breathing. Many (including me) would like to see us elevate expectations and make it more challenging to become a fully licensed teacher, but can we succeed if no one wants to enter the profession in the first place?

Second, should the field of educator preparation be moving toward greater coherence at a time when elementary and secondary schools are moving away from traditional models of instruction?  A common critique of traditional colleges of education is that they have failed to agree to a coherent set of expectations around what a newly trained teacher should know and be able to do by the time they begin their teaching career. Moving toward coherence around this would ensure that education follows in the path of other professional-preparation systems such as medicine and law. This would be challenging under normal circumstances, but it’s particularly vexing at a time when the expectations within schools are changing rapidly. What does it mean to prepare a teacher to be effective in “personalized learning” environments? For that matter, should we be promoting such environments in the first place? (I have my own views, but I appear to be very much in the minority.) It’s hard to know where to aim when the goalposts are shifting.

Third, can we resist the trend to factionalize and — dare I hope — move toward a more unified approach to transforming our system? One of the more remarkable features of the education community is that it tends to get bogged down in minor squabbles that make the field look fractured and incoherent. (By way of contrast, environmental groups may have different core missions but they tend to agree on their common opponent, aka the energy industry.) Just when we start to see small glimmers of hope of new coalitions of former adversaries — see the CAP TeachStrong campaign — radical wings on both ends swiftly move to criticize and undermine. Might we finally move past the vitriol and look for common ground?

There are no quick or easy solutions to alleviate these tensions. But in keeping with the theme of a certain movie doing well at the box office at the moment, what has changed is a growing awareness — an awakening, if you will — that these issues must be addressed if we want to improve the effectiveness of educator-preparation programs and indeed, our entire education system. Leaders rise to face even the most intractable of problems. And here at Deans for Impact, our commitment to collaborative action, coupled with our indefatigable optimism, makes us excited for the coming year (and beyond).

Come back tomorrow for our predictions on trends to watch for in 2016.