Conversation on Teacher Education

By Jake Murray This week I participated in a forum entitled: Preparing New Teachers: A Leverage Point in Education . Convened by the Boston Education Funders and hosted by the Lynch Foundation , the forum included a panel discussion on strategies for improving teacher education. Joining me on the panel were: Jeff Riley (moderator), Receiver for the Lawrence Public Schools and former Chief Innovation Officer for the Boston Public Schools , Dan Butin , Associate Professor and Founding Dean of the School of Education at Merrimack College , and; Michael Goldstein , Founder, MATCH Charter Public School and CEO, MATCH Teacher Residency Program . The forum was particularly timely, given the Obama administration’s planned $5 billion competition to revamp the teaching profession – how teachers are trained, compensated and tenured.

Some take-aways from the panel discussion and comments from audience members:

  • What makes an effective teacher? In addition to strong content knowledge and teaching methods, the panel emphasized other traits of effective teachers that are of equal importance, such as: self-assured, extroverted, and confident personalities; WL3419 4 24 07 resized 600  “grit” or perseverance, “coach-ability” (being able to respond effectively to feedback), and perfectionism—teachers who are not easily satisfied and continuously seek to improve their lessons and skills. It was also noted that people who fit these profiles often choose other careers (business/ finance, management, law, etc.) or if they do teach, they often move into leadership positions, leaving the classroom. Interestingly, college degrees and where teachers received their undergraduate or graduate education were not cited as significant factors behind effective teachers. This corresponds with findings from the latest report released by the Gates-funded Measurement of Effective Teachers Study (METS).
  • How do we recruit better teacher-education students? Based on a lead in point that teachers from other countries tend to come from the top 20% of their college classes ( see McKinsey Study ), the panel discussed ways to make teacher education programs more selective. Among higher education institutions, most teacher education programs are open enrollment, accepting students who meet general requirements. Alternative and residency teacher education programs that offer free or reduced tuition and stipends can often attract a diverse and stronger pool, and thus be more selective. But even so – teacher education schools often miss out on the star performers or those students with the ‘go-getter’ personality traits discussed above, again those who are more inclined towards finance, management and law programs. New incentives such as private and federal scholarship, bonus or loan-forgiveness programs tied to tougher and more well-rounded selection criteria may be one way to attract stronger teacher candidates, as well as get them to work in hard to staff schools.
  • How do we improve teacher training? There was consensus among panelists and the audience that there is no one effective training approach, whether higher education or alternative teacher education, or heavily content versus practice focused. In other words, we are all still searching for the key mix of strategies – and much of the research is inconclusive on what these strategies are. My question to the panel and audience is whether the time teachers spend in a pre-service programs is the high leverage factor? The sum of their experiences and the personality traits they bring prior to their enrollment in pre-service training, as well as the on-the-job support and coaching they get after this training may be of more significance. There was some agreement that a longer, medical model approach in which teachers are trained and supervised over 3-years in collaboration with a school site and gradually given more responsibility holds promise. Expecting most teachers to be ready after 1-2 years of pre-service training is optimistic. However, expanding the length of teacher education programs in this way means addressing increased financial costs for both programs and students – and competition with cheaper, fast-track programs that prepare teachers in 12-15 months. The state teacher licensure and teacher education accreditation systems would need to be a key ally in a move to this type of approach. The panel and audience also discussed the recent federal and state push towards data and accountability—that teacher education programs should assess their impact on student learning, via their graduates. If we assume that this type of teacher-student impact assessment can be done in a valid and reliable way (and this is a leap at the moment), such an assessment could yield insight into what types of teacher recruitment and training strategies are most promising.

Thanks again to the Boston Education Funders for hosting this timely and engaging forum, and for including Wheelock and Aspire in the discussion.


Jake Murray is the Senior Director of Aspire Institute. He has over 20 years of experience in the education, health and human services fields, serving as a program leader, policy analyst, and strategic planner.