Teacher Preparation Reform Isn’t That Simple

Yesterday psychologist Daniel T. Willingham wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about teacher preparation. The main idea is one that’s been circulated in the education policy space before: teacher preparation programs need to better prepare teacher candidates for the realities of teaching. Willingham’s solutions—to evaluate teacher training by testing teachers and to use existing research to generate a list of things that teachers ought to know—focus only on teacher preparation inputs, but the complicated landscape requires a comprehensive reform approach that recognizes both inputs and outputs.

Willingham put his recommendations in stark contrast with recent efforts to hold teacher preparation programs accountable based on multiple outcome-based measures. These measures include program graduates’ teaching effectiveness through student growth data or teacher evaluation scores; placement in high-need subjects and schools; satisfaction with program quality; and employer satisfaction with teacher candidate training, among others. Rather than holding preparation programs accountable for measures that show how teachers perform on the job, Willingham proposes that programs should only be responsible for things that happen before teacher candidates graduate.

He is not alone. Many think teacher preparation programs should only be held accountable for variables like recruitment and selection of teachers into preparation programs or the rigor of the coursework in the program. These measures do a good job of setting a minimum baseline, particularly for teaching positions where there are not yet accurate outcomes measures. The problem, however, is that teacher preparation programs vary widely within and across states and are often not rigorous. Therefore, while a teacher preparation program may have excellent end-of-program passage rates, those results are not necessarily predictive of any given teacher’s ability to lead students to academic success.

That’s precisely why there’s been a movement to focus on teacher preparation outcomes. Proponents of this approach argue that programs should be held accountable for their ability to prepare teachers to lead students to academic success.  One of the most difficult hurdles for this recommendation is a state’s ability to collect the data necessary to connect teachers’ effectiveness back to teacher preparation programs and institutions. However, a number of states are already doing this and others are well on their way.

The input-versus-output debate is complicated by the fact that they’re somewhat woven together. In order to know if inputs matter, there must be a system to track whether the changes actually lead students to academic success. On the other hand, a sole focus on outputs will always bump up against factors that are outside the control of teacher preparation programs, such as students’ socio-economic status. Not only that, but data collection on teacher quality is still nascent and limited, especially for teachers in non-tested grades and subjects.

So while Willingham is onto something, his op-ed missed a big piece of the puzzle, making it seem like the teacher preparation landscape is much simpler than it is in reality.