Train Teachers Well to Spark the Joy of Learning
Teachers need quality training that prepares them for igniting the minds of young students. The preparation should include being well-versed in the content they are teaching in their classrooms. Those fundamentals, unfortunately, are not always a given.
Kate Walsh served 20 years as President of the National Council on Teacher Quality, an organization dedicated to ensuring every student has effective teachers and that every teacher has the opportunity to be effective.
The Catalyst put questions to the straight-talking Notre Dame graduate about the challenges of getting more effective teachers into classrooms. The first step is improving the training they receive from a school of education. It also requires teachers becoming well-versed in their subject areas. One bright spot, she says, are changes underway in improving reading instruction. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
We hear plenty about school boards debating culture war issues, but we don’t hear so much about the blocking and tackling of educating students, including how to get more highly qualified teachers in front of students. How do we get past this as a country and as communities?
I see we’re getting right to the toughest topics. To be honest, I am not sure how much progress we can make right now on teacher quality. There’s currently such an unreceptive audience for championing the importance of hiring knowledgeable, well-prepared teachers.
Playing smart defense – effectively keeping our fingers in the dike – is crucial (and I know that my former organization, the National Council on Teacher Quality is doing just that). But I am also a realist. In some respects, we need to let this misguided trend burn itself out.
Eventually, I expect there will be a news story that lays out in stark terms the damage that’s being done to Black and brown kids by policies and practices that fail to attend to teacher quality. That story will ignite other stories and, lo and behold, states and schools will once again express their deep commitment to teacher quality – knowing it is politically safe once again to do so.
On almost any issue in education, the pendulum swings back and forth. It’s the downside of our highly decentralized system of education policy.
You mentioned teacher quality. In an elevator speech, how would you define effective teaching?
Now that I am no longer obligated to speak in policy terms, I’d like to put it in my heartfelt way, that an effective teacher is one who sparks the joy of learning in their students. That spark can happen in many different ways under many different styles of teaching, but there is always one constant: the teacher must be him or herself in love with learning.
This notion may not sound all that controversial to many of your readers. But in today’s environment, the idea that sparking a love of learning is a teacher’s most important job is often judged as overly narrow and constrictive.
I’ll say this in defense of my definition. As any parent call tell you, when children learn something new, no matter what their background, they are fulfilled, proud, and motivated to learn more. The act of learning is what creates the very qualities in a child that so many schools are seeking in the well-intentioned but somewhat misguided movements, such as socio-emotional learning and attending to the whole child.
Now that I am no longer obligated to speak in policy terms, I’d like to put it in my heartfelt way, that an effective teacher is one who sparks the joy of learning in their students.
Where do you see progress being made in preparing teachers for the classroom?
The very encouraging progress and one which I believe NCTQ has helped to ignite is improving the quality of early reading instruction. We’re seeing states and districts give much higher priority to evidence-based reading instruction. As there is no more important issue in education, this is positive progress indeed. Unless children can read, their future in education and life is limited at best.
I would argue that if the federal government, states, school districts, and foundations had spent the last 15-20 years relentlessly focusing on young children’s early reading and foundational math skills, the nation would be so much further ahead.
As you look across the country, do you think the battle over improving reading instruction is largely being won or lost?
It’s largely being won, I am very happy to say, and I think teachers and parents deserve the credit. Parents and teachers have very much led this charge, and in many states it has often been just a single, tireless determined advocate! What a story this has been.
If someone had told me five years ago that a state like Colorado — always boasting of its commitment to local control — would effectively bar its school districts from buying bad reading textbooks, I would never have believed it. We’re seeing sales of those textbooks plummet, thank goodness. Even in this anti-testing environment, the number of states requiring teachers to pass a test of scientifically based reading knowledge had gone up dramatically. We’re now at a point that almost half of all states require a reading test.
The very encouraging progress and one which I believe NCTQ has helped to ignite is improving the quality of early reading instruction. We’re seeing states and districts give much higher priority to evidence-based reading instruction.
We know from school districts that are trying to make this transition that making this shift isn’t easy. It requires teachers to discard instructional methods they’ve learned that are simply not grounded in science. More tragically, it requires teachers to confront a horrible truth, that many of their former students never learned how to read but could have, had the instruction been different. That’s a very tough thing to confront, something that reduces many teachers to tears.
What is standing in the way of education schools improving their preparation of teachers?
Schools of education should understand that it’s not a dirty word to train a new teacher, in the same way it’s not a dirty word to train a new doctor. The amount of content and skill that a teacher needs to be reasonably effective in their first year of teaching would require much more of a training model of teacher education than we now see.
Unfortunately, there’s no incentive now for faculty working in education schools to pursue such a model. Their careers advance on dreaming up big new ideas, not training teachers in evidence-based instructional methods.
So, how do we get more teachers into classrooms who are proficient in their subjects?
That’s easy. No teacher should be allowed in a classroom who cannot pass a test of their subject matter knowledge. Subject-matter knowledge is a basic requirement for the job and there’s abundant evidence that having a college degree doesn’t mean someone has acquired the necessary knowledge.
However, over the past few years, I was shocked by the number of policy makers and educators who pushed back on this requirement. They argue that these tests serve as a road block for diversifying the profession – and that subject-matter knowledge isn’t all that important anyway.
This challenge to subject-matter knowledge as a non-negotiable attribute every teacher must have – all largely made to advance the diversification of the profession – is the single most dangerous development I’ve observed in my career. It represents misdirected outrage in my view. I say misdirected because the tests are taking the blame for the poor quality of education leading up to the moment someone must take such a test. The problem is schooling.
Given how substandard our schools are that serve children growing in poverty, it should surprise no one that more Black and Latino teacher candidates fail these tests than do white and Asian candidates.
Perhaps my last but proudest accomplishment while at NCTQ was publishing the pass rates on these tests for each institution preparing teachers across the United States – in spite of testing companies, states, and institutions working hard to hide the results spanning two decades. We finally proved that the pass rates on these tests lies with the institutions which are preparing Black and brown teacher candidates. Some institutions do a terrific job with their pass rates on the par of other teacher candidates; others do not.
Eventually, I expect there will be a news story that lays out in stark terms the damage that’s being done to Black and brown kids by policies and practices that fail to attend to teacher quality.
The question we need to ask is why aren’t states using this pass rate data and coming down hard on institutions which continue to ignore the need for aspiring teachers to acquire this knowledge? The indifference on the part of so many institutions to whether their candidates can or cannot pass these tests should be the real source of our outrage – not the tests themselves.
Across the nation, we’ve had an ongoing battle or dialogue, however you want to put it, about teacher evaluations. You said recently that better teacher evaluations are actually right for students and teachers. Could you explain what you meant?
As is the case for anyone being paid to do a job, teachers need to be held accountable for the quality of their work. For the lack of a better word, students are their primary “customers,” but they have little power or influence over who teaches them. It falls to other adults to actively protect the interests of children, by both informal and formal observations of every teacher regardless of seniority.
I strongly believe that schools need to take teacher evaluation very seriously, which includes employing some objective measures — not exclusively so, but one factor among many. That’s no less true now than it was 10 years ago at the height of interest in reforming teacher evaluation. Now, though, states and schools have returned to largely ineffective evaluation systems, once again both failing to provide little feedback to teachers and protecting the interests of students.
Schools of education should understand that it’s not a dirty word to train a new teacher, in the same way it’s not a dirty word to train a new doctor.
We know that well-designed surveys given to a teacher’s students, even young students, can provide school districts with a wealth of important information. They also serve as a great proxy for other kinds of objective evidence such as test score results. That’s a practice which every school district ought to include but which is still found in relatively few places.
What is your thought in general about alternative certification of teachers? About 40 percent of Texas teachers hired last year were not certified or went through an alternative certification program.
The model that’s found almost uniquely in Texas is nothing short of irresponsible. Most of the alternative programs are for-profit companies with deep pockets, recruiting people to teach with almost no admission standards for what these individuals need to know or do and then providing them with little to no practice.
For years, the state was intimidated by these companies, probably due to their steadfast support in the Legislature. Of late, more progress has been made to rein them in thanks to Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath. But, from my vantage point, more could be done.
As for alternative certification more generally, I’ve made quite a shift in my own thinking over the years. I used to be a huge proponent for alternative certification. But as I learned more and more about the deep content that would benefit any individual before they began teaching, starting with reading instruction but extending to classroom management and how children learn, I shifted away from supporting alternative certification.
I see it this way: If teacher education gave teachers the knowledge and practice that they should be providing, schools would never want to hire a teacher who went through a fast-track alternative route, even Teach For America or any of the higher-quality alternative certification programs. But, unfortunately, given that so many schools of education fail to teach what would be most useful and effective – and in fact often disparage such content – I can’t take fault with someone choosing not to go through formal teacher education and instead choosing a so-called fast track. Nor could I fault a principal for hiring a person who did not go through a traditional program.
But the vision that we need to have for teacher training is that it be done well and if not, shut down. We are far from achieving that vision.
Over the course of your career, what have you learned working with and sometimes against schools of education?
First of all, there are many schools of education who very much want to be more effective – and here I am defining effective as wanting to produce new teachers with the skills and knowledge that K-12 schools really need, not what higher ed thinks schools should need. However, in spite of the steady stream of journal articles and books addressing how teachers should be prepared, they tend to contain remarkably little practical guidance on how to become more effective.
Further the field lacks any kind of meaningful governance, something that is taken for granted in other professions. The professional crediting body over teacher preparation known as CAEP struggles to persuade programs to even seek accreditation, as the benefits don’t seem clear.
As a result, the colleges of education operate as small fiefdoms, with each having to define excellence for themselves. Even in the same university, the practices adopted by the elementary undergraduate level is not the practice at the elementary graduate level. Whether teacher candidates learn anything about how to teach reading or managing a classroom is often a roll of the dice, which professor they happen to get assigned. That’s not good governance.
All this being said, I’ve been inspired over the years by the many university faculty and deans I talked to while at NCTQ who understand the merits of a highly defined vision of a teacher preparation, one that is in spirit at least with what NCTQ has been championing.