SEATTLE — Hemant Mehta’s formal training taught him how to write a lesson plan and how public schooling began in the U.S., but it was useless when it came to keeping order in the classroom and getting students to pay attention.
To get through his first year teaching math to high school students in Naperville, Ill., the 27-year-old needed help from Twitter, math blogs on the Internet, TV sitcoms and experienced teachers down the hall.
“The ideas there are so much better than my formal training,” Mehta said. For example, he discovered that students learn a lot more math when they’re having fun, playing games or watching video clips.
Critics say few colleges provide adequate nuts-and-bolts teaching skills such as public speaking, classroom management and dealing with the class goof-off.
“It’s complicated in the United States because we don’t as a country agree that teachers need much preparation,” said Suzanne Wilson, chair of teacher education at Michigan State University. “We’re deeply divided on this as a country.”
Educators say much is being left out of teachers’ lesson plans — from keeping kids engaged to leading a meaningful class discussion and using student test data to assess when students are ready to move on.
Mehta would add to the list: motivating kids to do their homework, dealing with parents, reading a teacher contract, using classroom technology like smart boards that are both white boards and giant computer screens, and whether it’s OK to accept friend requests from students on Facebook.
Educators across the nation have begun to work together on what teacher education needs to look like, and the federal government is getting involved.
In a speech to Columbia University’s Teachers College last fall, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the federal government would be investing in the reform of teacher training programs as part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
“We should be studying and copying the practices of effective teacher preparation programs — and encouraging the lowest performers to shape up or shut down,” Duncan said.
Duncan said that despite evidence that teachers are not being prepared for the reality of the classroom, teacher education programs have been resistant to change, and states have been reluctant or unprepared to use student test data to track which colleges are producing the most effective teachers.
The president’s budget includes a proposed expansion of the federal government’s role in teacher training programs, which would add up to $405 million a year if approved by Congress. That’s more than double current federal spending on teacher preparation programs.
Pam Grossman, professor of curriculum and teacher education at Stanford University, says the pendulum swings back and forth between a focus on craft and theory in teacher education. Is it more important for a teacher to know how to get first-graders to sound out words or should they be knowledgeable about why some kids learn to read in kindergarten and others don’t figure it out until second grade?
“It really is that integration of knowing how and why,” Grossman said. The trend in teacher education is toward adding more of the practical instruction, but she has ideas for making more progress.
Grossman describes a step-by-step way to teach things like classroom management or how to lead a discussion: show videos of good teacher technique, talk about the videos, have students role play to practice on each other and then send them out into the field and videotape them as they practice on kids.
It sounds simple and pragmatic, but many teacher candidates never practice these skills until they enter a classroom for the first time. What would a parent think if they knew a nurse hadn’t practiced sticking a hypodermic needle into an orange and other nursing students before sticking one in her child?
Doug Lemov, who runs Uncommon Schools, a charter school management nonprofit based in New York, is sure that teachers can be taught great techniques. His new step-by-step instruction book, “Teach Like a Champion,” was an unpublished hit for years, passed out at workshops and sought by teachers who wanted to fill in gaps in their training.
Lemov gets down to the nitty-gritty of classroom life, like teaching kids to pass papers more efficiently. Lemov figures students pass papers and materials 20 times a day. If they learn to do it a minute faster, their teacher gains 20 minutes of learning time a day.
Grossman said students say the work of a skilled teacher looks like magic. But when that practice is broken down, analyzed and then practiced, it’s no longer a mystery.
“In all of these areas, people can get better. I don’t think it’s magic,” Grossman said.
Deborah Ball, dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan, believes one problem in ensuring that teachers get the right training is that the training differs so much from school to school. Nearly all the more than 1,400 teacher colleges and alternative approaches to certification offer different programs, and every state has its own requirements.
Ball said the people who will someday replace the nation’s 3.8 million teachers need to learn how to do the same things in the right way, much like doctors who are all trained to deliver a baby, suture a wound and give a shot.
“We can’t have a reasonable professional training program when it’s so diverse,” Ball said.
Teachers also need more help to improve on the job, Ball said. She said research indicates that most U.S. teachers stop improving after three or four years, but that teachers get better throughout their careers in countries where they get targeted professional training, based on data from the classroom about how kids are doing.
“I think that’s a very strong indictment of our system,” Ball said.