It is time that we look more closely at how we train teachers. If we have committed to the idea of using standardized testing to measure student success, then we also need to commit to the idea of standardized preparation and training for our teachers.
The passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, inadvertently led to a legacy of using student achievement metrics in measuring the efficacy of teachers and schools. This in turn created a domino effect of standardization realities for teaching and instruction in the classroom.
Unlike other professions which attempt to standardize processes or human-based outputs as benchmarks of success, the “input” of the education industry, its pipeline for educators, lacks significant standardization.
This leaves us with two choices.
We can acknowledge that all teachers are not cookie cutter copies of each other, and adjust the ways we measure success. Or we can look more closely at how we prepare educators, streamlining the process to more closely mimic the standardization expectations we have for students. We cannot continue to try for both. A choice must be made.
Standardization within U.S. Education
The scope of standardization within education is breathtaking for a country that has individualization written into its founding documents and lore. “Standardized testing” is buzzword in American politics at large, in reference to the culminating tests which assess student understanding of grade level content. Grade level content is standardized- either through a set of “state standards” or the Common Core Standards. Regardless, these standards are the foundation of all instruction.
In reaction, many educational tools themselves are standardized, as well as teacher performance observations.
The list could keep going. Schools are responsible for standardized benchmark measurements, districts are responsible for standardized performance metrics, and so on. The sphere of education is increasingly shifting towards standardization as a safeguard of efficacy in student experience.
When we look at our system of preparing teachers, however, we see a breakdown in this march towards sameness; a lack of standardization which, in some ways, protects the very American concepts of free-market competition, choice, and achievement-based opportunities.
Foundationally, the pipeline to teaching is not the same for all educators. Some join the teaching profession after an entire career in a different field. These professionals can still be hired to teach with no background in education and are required to complete a program during the course of their first year that condenses teaching preparation classes a traditional candidate would take in college.
These programs can vary from state to state. For example, in Fulton County, teachers entering the classroom after a career change must complete a certification program within the first three years of their teaching career. For three years the students are shepherded through classrooms with teachers who do not have a background at all in the field. How could this be an equitable experience for students as compared to a teacher who was prepared by a more traditional teaching program? Yet, the outcome is still expected to be “standardized.”
For the more traditional teacher candidates, there is a wide range of potential experiences within the varying preparation programs. The college application and selection process itself is a variant, of course, since schools run the gambit in degree of difficulty. Then, the classes we choose to take within our major can be guided by personal choice. In fact, the design of the preparatory program itself can vary from school to school. Some offer a five-year Master’s in Education program. Some offer Education as a typical major. Some programs are accredited by a national accrediting agency, and some are not. In my own experience, at the time of my training my school did not offer Education as a major, which led to me pursuing a History major and an Elementary Education minor.
In comparison, my peer at University of Georgia graduated with just a major in Education, which allowed her to focus solely on educator preparation courses.
The student teaching practicum is a culminating experience that all candidates must complete in order to obtain their licenses. But aside from the student-teaching requirement, the degree to which teaching candidates get “face-time” with students may vary based on the school. This leads to situations like mine, in which my practicums were largely one-on-one experiences with students prior to student teaching. Yet my colleague had four practicums in which she taught lessons to a full classroom of children, or a small group of students, of a classroom of children prior to her student teaching. We were clearly not prepared in the same way for our identical jobs after college.
Indeed, the path to teaching is not one-size fits all. Is this truly practical when our profession requires us to meet standardization head-on? If we want to prepare teachers for the demands of standards-based education, and if we want to assess them using these same standards, shouldn’t we prepare them in a way that is more equitable as well? Or, are we just preparing them to struggle for their first few years, impacting their students and contributing to the education burn-out that is causing teacher shortages nationwide?
The time has come to review how we prepare teachers. We can continue to try to “fix” the student side of the equation, but until we address the “input” of our system, we will be trying to balance a system that was inherently off kilter from the start.
Meghan Smith is a fifth grade Fulton County public school teacher. She holds an M.Ed in Education Policy and Leadership Studies and serves as a Fulton County Vanguard School lead, specializing in school-based technology integration strategies. In 2020 she was recognized as her school’s Teacher of the Year.