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A candle in the dark

Teachers aren’t dumb. But are we doing enough to prepare them to be effective when they start their careers?

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, cognitive scientist Dan Willingham delivered a strongly worded answer to this question: No, we’re not.

Willingham’s argument, buttressed by data cited from a variety of studies, is that teachers do not know essential information about math and reading that would help them teach their students. Not only that, the majority of new teachers report feeling unprepared when they begin their careers. And Willingham places the blame for this sorry state of affairs squarely on the institutions responsible for preparing new teachers.

Here at Deans for Impact, we know Willingham well. He serves as an advisor to us on some critical, but as-yet unpublished, work that, if you read to the end of this post, you will get a preview of. He attended our last major gathering of member deans to discuss his work and that of other major scientists of learning. And, full disclosure, he served as my academic advisor on an unusual fellowship in New Zealand.

Deans for Impact supports Willingham’s central thesis: Teacher preparation must improve.

The programs that prepare teachers must do a better job of imparting essential knowledge that will help future educators do their jobs as best they possibly can.

As one member dean said after reading Willingham’s opinion piece, “This is why we joined Deans for Impact. We want to change the perception of teacher preparation and what we do.” Another observed that Willingham is making clear what the member deans already believe, which is that there is much we might do to better prepare teachers that we simply aren’t doing. Yet another dean noted that what’s needed are new models that challenge the field to gather better data so that teacher-preparation programs can improve. And to quote Dean Bob Pianta from our very own blog:

“I think schools of education have enormous potential for good, and right now, we just aren’t delivering on that promise as much as we need to.”

To be sure, a few of the rhetorical flourishes in Willingham’s piece reflect the need of the Times to generate eyeballs rather than persuade other leaders of teacher-preparation programs. Calling teacher training “dumb” will likely have the unfortunate consequence of causing defenses to go up in a field that already feels under siege.

For that reason, I would not have used that word to describe the way we prepare teachers in the U.S. today.

Indeed, the longer I work in the field of educator preparation, the more examples I find of talented teacher-educators, often helped by supportive deans, who are working diligently to address the challenge of preparing new teachers to be effective.

But we are groping in the dark.

This is why I would use a different metaphor to describe what I see today, and ironically one that echoes the closing sentence of Willingham’s op-ed. He argues that teachers have been “left in the dark” on critical things they need to know, but many of our member deans feel as if they too are groping in a cave with no light. We are searching for the data that will help our members improve their programs, but collectively we feel underserved by the lack of high-quality research to inform this effort.

The leaders and practitioners of teacher education are not dumb, but they need better information to move forward.

So what might we do to address this?

Willingham offers two guiding principles to begin a coordinated effort to improve teacher preparation. I don’t want to dwell for too long on the first principle, which involves better tests of teachers at graduation. That’s important and a hallmark of most prestigious professions. The hard part is figuring out how to design a meaningful assessment. (The two-part driver’s-license exam may be helpful to think of here: Yes, it’s important to learn the rules of the road, but the real test of effectiveness comes when you have to parallel park.)

I think instead that it’s Willingham’s second guiding principle that holds more immediate promise for transforming teacher education. He argues that we should use “existing research to generate the list of things that a teacher ought to know.”

This is one critical distinction between teaching and other professions. The institutions that prepare teachers, which could serve as the vanguard of the whole profession, have not gathered the necessary data to figure out which design features of teacher preparation will impart the knowledge that new teachers need. Willingham is surely right that the knowledge base must be defined based on scientific evidence, but (as one of our members observed) future teachers also need to demonstrate masterful application of knowledge and reasoning.

In other words, we lack the evidence we need to ensure teachers will be able to parallel park.

We must agree on what new teachers should be able to do, and then investigate how best to prepare them to do those things.

Here at Deans for Impact, we are working to address this need for evidence-based professional coherence. This is why Willingham serves as our advisor. We are working with him and others to gather research — not just any “research” but empirically rigorous research — that future educators should be exposed to as part of their training. And not just learn in an academic sense, but learn in an applicable sense, through meaningful experiences that lead to lasting understanding.

In just a few weeks, we will make the first phase of this work public.

Working together, we hope to light a candle in the dark.


Benjamin Riley

Founder and Executive Director


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