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Teacher Education: “Who’s on First?”
By Mark Alter, Ph.D.


Mark Alter, Ph.D.In a recent article, Harlem Village Academies is reported as planning to open a graduate school devoted to progressive education. A decade ago, this would have been a remarkable development; however, today, Harlem Village Academy is merely the city’s latest charter school to start its own graduate program. Last year, the city’s largest charter network, Success Academies, partnered with Touro College’s Graduate School of Education to create its own masters granting program. And in 2011, three multi-state networks—Uncommon Schools, KIPP, and Achievement First—formed their own graduate school in New York, called Relay. In 2011, Alter and Pradl wrote questioning both traditional and alternative approaches to teacher education programs: “who stands prepared to validate the merits of these programs: of their process, practice, and procedures?” Unfortunately, both existing and newly emerging approaches to teacher education are often ideologically rather than empirically driven. The fact that more than one teaching style can work successfully across discernibly different students, school, and community settings patently suggests more than one route can lead to effective classroom performance. Still, are schools of education producing the kind of valid and reliable evidence of good teacher training that will allow students of education to follow the route appropriate for them? In short, the question is still very much with us: Has anyone produced any valid and reliable data regarding teacher education to justify any particular approach?

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) announced a proud accomplishment of the teacher preparation community and its partners as they celebrated the launch of the first nationally available, standards-based performance assessment for preservice teachers: edTPA. This new “performance-based” assessment tool and career-entry test that measures teacher preparation, is “fully operational.” While no single assessment or study of teacher training can be totally comprehensive—unless teacher-educators build such an assessment program—we will have no way of adequately defending our practices, of determining how to improve existing programs, or of making sound judgments regarding proposed alternatives. So, the question remains: What features of any teacher-preparation program—undergraduate, graduate, or stand-alone—succeed in creating future teachers who can promote student learning and contribute to a school culture where teaching professionals continually assess and renew instruction and curriculum in their collective classrooms? Ignoring this question continues to put teacher education at risk.

All the diversity that characterizes teacher education and certification—theory, practice, instruction, and student teaching—necessarily remains entangled in a wide range of curricular options and course requirements, student placement criteria, and performance accountability. Each is probably as diverse as the field of education itself. Being a teacher and preparing a teacher are informed by broad and deep understandings of range of disciplines and specializations, and by an ethical commitment to equity and social justice. For example, teachers must attend simultaneously to what they are teaching (content) as well as to when and how they are doing so (pedagogy) with respect to the learner. Teaching and learning does not take place in insular classrooms; rather, teachers must be prepared to see the classroom in its wider school and community context and to strive to understand and act within the dynamics that influence this context. Among others, this includes attending to state and professional board policies, parents and other community members, teachers’ unions, other teachers/colleagues in the building, textbook publishers, other professionals (nurses, social workers, psychologists, etc.) and multiple tests, examinations, and measures of student work.  Teachers must focus on the needs of each individual learner within a classroom community marked by fairness and social justice for all involved, often among competing interests and loyalties. In short, learning and teaching, when it works, is characterized by an interlocking complex of collaborative social activities.

Teachers must be committed to life-long learning for themselves and their students. These educational tensions reflect the complexity of teaching and learning and the inevitable fact that no teacher education program produces “finished products.” That is, the beginning teacher must be prepared to succeed in the context of real schools, but success never means perfection. Both beginning and experienced teachers—and teacher educators—must recognize that for long-term success teachers need the capacity to learn from and change or grow appropriately through an ongoing cycle of reflection on their experience.

Working within these mediated tensions requires a high tolerance for ambiguity, so that teachers are able to work in the real—what is—while working toward an ideal—what might be. Teachers are self-renewing individuals who have learned though their collaborative learning experiences to develop and influence a growing circle of colleagues. Teachers need to accept change as a fact of personal and professional life, and still be committed to working in dynamic environments. With shared evidence as the guiding rule, any number of critical friends, including SOE, Relay, Harlem Village Academies and Success Academies, can join the challenge of creating the best teachers for New York City.#

Mark Alter, PhD is a Professor of Educational Psychology at New York University  and was the founding chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning serving as Chair for 14 years.



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