Good news: According to the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), when it comes to the core subjects of reading and math, high school teachers-in-training are well-prepared to teach the content.
This is largely because teacher candidates are required to have an undergraduate major in these subjects or pass a licensing test. Seems simple enough, right? But then look at science and social studies.
After reviewing program course catalogs, degree plans, syllabuses, observation forms and student-teaching agreements with districts for 717 undergraduate programs that train high school teachers, the NCTQ found that fewer than three in five (57 percent) teacher-prep programs adequately cover the subject content that both science and social studies teachers need in order to be effective in the classroom.
For instance, even though history is a subject most social studies teachers will eventually be assigned to teach, one out of five programs requires few or no history courses for their candidates.
Science teaching preparation is spotty because when programs certify teachers to instruct more than one science — i.e. biology and chemistry and/or physics — it's likelier that the program will not have adequate coursework requirements.
Truthfully, this is only part of the bad news.
Far worse is that too many teacher-prep programs are not doing a great job of instilling in teaching candidates the art and science of how to teach — the best methods for teaching subject matter and how to effectively manage a classroom.
Anyone who has ever learned to drive knows that just because someone is skilled behind the wheel, this alone does not make him or her gifted at passing their skills and knowledge onto others.
Yet, a quarter of all programs do not offer a course in the best ways to teach a specific subject. And if you can grasp that teaching physics will require a different skill set than that which is necessary to teach a literature class, you see the problem.
For instance, I possess a teaching certification that allows me to teach any subject for any grade level through high school. Yet my training program required me only to take one class each in teaching reading and math at the elementary school level.
I'm not saying I would have preferred to have an additional five courses required in order to graduate, but a survey course of the best practices for, say, the core high school classes would have been an efficient way to at least ignite awareness of the different methods for effectively teaching different subjects.
Also, of the 15 or so courses required to earn my master of education degree, not a single one centered on classroom management. I went the extra mile and paid to take an online course in managing classroom behaviors, but no one forced me to. And even though my training happened a while ago, this is still in line with the current reality: Only 44 percent of teacher-prep programs expect teacher candidates to demonstrate the most effective strategies for managing classrooms while student teaching.
Keep in mind that classroom management has been found to significantly contribute to new teachers being effective in the classroom and persisting in teaching careers — teachers who can't manage routines and behaviors in the classroom get stressed, burn out and leave the profession.
Does all this reflect poorly on the quality of the teachers in our public schools?
You could look at it that way, but that would be unfair. Teachers want to get into classrooms to do good for society, not to flop. And they often fill in the blanks themselves, as the NCTQ report notes: "Teachers teach themselves what their teacher-prep programs neglected."
This is not right. Students who want to go into the teaching profession expect that the programs they pay top dollar for will provide cutting-edge training in being both knowledgeable in their subject area and effective in the classroom.
Since this is not uniformly the case, it's wonderful that potential teachers have resources like the NCTQ's reports to guide them as they pick a program that will adequately prepare them for today's students.
The onus, however, must be on teacher-prep programs to improve their training.
Colleges and universities may quibble about some of the methods, conclusions or specifics of an independent analysis of high school education programs, but it is surely an important tool for doing a better job of preparing teachers for the difficult work of educating our nation's students.