Turning teacher education “upside down”?

“Bold” is a favorite word among education reformers everywhere, and supporters of a new plan put forward by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) to overhaul teacher education are no different. James Cibulka, president of NCATE, is quoted in the Wall Street Journal today saying that teacher education is due for the “large, bold, systemic changes” suggested in his organization’s report. Among them: requiring that teachers spend more time practicing how to teach before they’re let loose to run their own classrooms, and that higher education and school districts work together more closely in choosing who can become a teacher.

The way teachers are trained today grew out of the old normal school model

It’s now conventional wisdom that teacher quality is the most important factor under a school’s control in influencing student achievement. It’s also widely accepted that teacher-education programs in general are not doing a great job of selecting and preparing teachers. So there’s broad consensus that teacher education needs an overhaul.

The report looks to medical schools as a model, which isn’t a completely new idea:

“The current practice of supervision of student teachers in schools now is typically assigned to a teacher as extra work, usually with no training, support, or changes in schedule. Schools need to adopt a new staffing model patterned after medical preparation, in which teachers, mentors and coaches, and teacher interns and residents work together as part of teams,” the report says.

It also calls for stricter oversight of ed-school accreditation and more accountability to ensure that teacher training actually addresses school district needs.

Much of the initial response to NCATE’s report has been positive. Here’s what Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a member of the panel that wrote the report, said: “Rather than engage in a false choice about whether to continue the status quo or eliminate college-based teacher education programs altogether, NCATE wisely has focused on what is best for students.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who spoke at a gathering for the report’s release, was also upbeat, as quoted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “It is time to start holding teacher preparation programs far more accountable for the impact of their graduates on student learning and achievement. It is time to make accountability much more rigorous, outcome based.”

But not everyone thinks the report’s recommendations are all that new — or bold. Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, told the Denver Post that she was “trying to figure out what is different with this report.” Rick Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute, says the suggestions in the report don’t go far enough: “After all, the ‘normal school’ and programs of teacher preparation are 19th century innovations; isn’t it possible that a ‘radical’ 21st century rethinking might not want to presuppose that we rely on that machinery?” he wrote. Hess had hoped to see more about training for “virtual instructors, online tutors, or Citizens Schools-style ‘citizen-teachers’ ” and wonders where all the teacher-mentors called for in the report will come from.

California, Colorado, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Oregon and Tennessee have agreed to implement the report’s recommendations. We’ll be watching to see if teacher education in those states stays on its feet or if it’s flipped upside down after all.