Most teachers, including me, somehow know that much in teacher training depends on the classroom practicum, where ideally we learn to put into practice what we theorized about in our teacher-prep lessons—or, sadly, where we learn what we should have been taught in those lessons, but were not. A third, even worse possibility is that the practicum is as bad as the classroom studies. My teacher preparation veered between the second and third kinds: though one of my four cooperating teachers was a brilliant model, the other three were absentee landlords. My supervising teacher, a nameless apparition, mysteriously appeared twice during my four months of preparation like the Angel of Bethesda except that she worked no miracles. If she was transparent, it is because she was invisible. Fortunately, I had a lot of compensatory support from my faculty colleagues during my first year of teaching. Two colleagues visited my classroom and commented on my lessons; they and others allowed me to watch their teaching, where I was like a dry sponge in Lake Superior.
A large study released only this week offers the cold comfort of validating my impression, claiming that in general, the preparation of teachers in the U.S. is rather poor. The study is particularly hard on the student teaching programs it reviewed, rating only 7% of them as providing “strong support [to student teachers] from program staff and cooperating teachers.” In case you wonder, “strong support” means certifying the quality of the cooperating teachers, requiring supervising teachers to make at least five classroom visits, each with written feedback, and having a clear plan for helping unsuccessful student teachers deal with the bad news they must receive. If you are shocked that only 7% of the teacher-training programs reviewed provided these seemingly sensible and necessary elements of good student teaching support, you clearly do not know what is going on in American teacher education. One wants to ask how things could be so bad.
But there are other questions to ask, not just of the targets of this study, but of the study itself. Why, if the methods it recommends for certifying student teachers work as well as they do, can we not apply those methods to the evaluation of already certified teachers? Why, if administrators would be spread too thin in doing so, could schools not adopt peer-review programs to complement review by administrators? Why does this study prefer a narrative-based qualitative method for evaluating student teachers but then adopt the discredited “value”-“added” method of evaluating certified teachers and cooperating teachers? How can we be sure that an administrator knows good teaching when he sees it? Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, if I may include a non-quantitative consideration in this discussion.