In the face of growing teacher shortages—especially in math and science—states are increasingly seeking shortcuts and workarounds, from emergency certification to abbreviated preparation, to get more teachers into classrooms. The urgency is understandable: even as the United States continues to slide in international education rankings, the nation as a whole, and each individual state, desperately needs the more sophisticated workforce and more thoughtful citizenry that only our schools can effectively prepare.
The recent announcement that the Commonwealth of Virginia will urge its colleges and universities to offer undergraduate teaching degrees, rather than five-year master’s degrees, is perhaps the latest example of a well-intended quick fix with unintended, but potentially troubling, long-term consequences. Urgent as the need may be, lowering the bar to get more but less-prepared people into classrooms is not the answer.
Why assume that someone with only undergraduate preparation will teach less well than someone with a graduate degree? The answer lies primarily in the question of how well an undergraduate student is able to master her subject.
Typically, it takes every bit of a standard course of study toward a bachelor’s degree to acquire the competency in an academic discipline that we expect of a college graduate. One could spend the same amount of time coming to understand how students learn and practicing to teach them.
But to try to achieve that level of competency in both a subject matter and education within the space of a typical undergraduate degree would overload almost any college student.
This understanding has given rise to ed school undergraduate degrees such as math education or science education, which offer a little bit of math and a little bit of expertise in education, but rarely assure full preparation in either field.
Many states have found solutions other than abbreviated or diluted undergraduate degrees to help prepare teachers fully and more quickly.
1. An intensive master’s degree
Some graduate programs, including those at dozens of universities in states like Indiana, Georgia, and New Jersey, have embraced a teaching fellowship model that requires candidates come in with bachelor’s degrees in their fields, demonstrating the mastery of their subject that teachers should have.
These aspiring teachers then spend a post-baccalaureate year, or sometimes a year and a summer, taking the additional courses that make them familiar with how to teach that subject, how to work with students, how actual classrooms work. They also get direct experience in real schools through what is called clinical education, similar to medical students on rounds.
2. Special clinical preparation
More and more residency programs have cropped up. These, similarly, require teachers to have a strong background in their subject first, and then prepare them directly in classrooms, and—increasingly—in out-of-school (OST) learning environments, like the museums and historical sites that offer educational resources and experiences for young people.
Teacher candidates in such programs may miss out on the advanced courses in cognitive science or developmental psychology, but they still gain direct experience alongside or after their basic studies in their discipline. Thanks to the rise of interest in OST learning, more and more of this kind of preparation may be available sooner to teacher candidates, who, with the right guidance to put it all together, could achieve certification to teach in alternative ways.
3. Competency-based/mastery-based learning
One of the newest approaches to streamlining teacher preparation is to figure out which skills and knowledge candidates already have, provide what they don’t, and assess them to make sure they have filled those gaps and can demonstrate mastery across the board.
In this approach—exemplified by the new Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning, created by my Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in collaboration with MIT—someone who has completed a math degree and tutored peers but has no experience might have a very different trajectory than someone who has an education degree and has substitute-taught but needs deeper math expertise. Both, however, would wind up demonstrating classroom readiness before attaining a license to teach.
Competency-based education may be the wave of the future in K–12; by applying it to teacher preparation as well, we can also reduce the time and expense of preparing new teachers without sacrificing any of the aspects of expertise that the profession requires.
There is no question that the nation’s classrooms need more teachers, fast. But our students also need and deserve excellent teachers. We owe them solutions to the teacher pipeline problem that will produce the requisite number of candidates, without sacrificing the kind of preparation that ensures success for both teachers and the young people whose futures depend on them.