During the next few weeks, America's public schools will reopen after summer vacation, and the debate about the quality of our teachers will resume. Negative headlines will hit front pages, and state lawmakers who disdain public school teachers will hatch new, ideologically driven quick fixes.
It will be the same nasty debate in which teachers are portrayed as incompetent union-backed slackers and enemies of the children they are paid to instruct.
I agree with earnest critics of the teaching profession that the way we educate and train our teachers should change and that we need to produce a better teacher corps. Many of our theories and practices are inherited from the 19th century, an industrial age, and should be scrapped.
The encouraging news is that a serious movement to do just that is growing nationwide. Supported by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and many leading educators, the movement's goal is to change the traditional four-year bachelor's to a three-year degree specifically designed to produce effective public school teachers. More colleges of education are beginning to respond to decades of research showing that practice-based preparation dedicated to student achievement and led by expert educators is the key to turning out top-quality teachers.
The three-year degree is not intended to just save money. It represents a sea change. Its main component is teacher residency, fashioned after medical school residency and clinical training. Instead of spending two years studying liberal arts and another two years in professional courses, including a semester of traditional internship, students would complete liberal arts and professional courses in two years. The third year would be full residency.
In a recent essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Leah Wasburn-Moses explains the benefits of the new degree's third year. She is an associate professor of special education at Miami University, in Ohio, and director of Campus Mentors, a teacher preparation program that helps students who are at risk of dropping out.
"The residency is a post-baccalaureate program involving a yearlong internship supported by intensive mentoring," she writes. "Residents and field-based teacher educators collaborate to provide a seamless integration of coursework, based on the academic performance of elementary and high school students. …
"Many people have argued that the three-year degree cannot maintain the quality or rigor of the four- or five-year program. However, this proposal does not change liberal arts education requirements; it simply alters the format of professional education to align with what research tells us is the best model for teacher training. The proposal increases quality and rigor by forcing institutions to rethink professional education and the role of the teacher educator."
I have visited residency programs in Denver, Chicago and Boston, witnessing how prospective teachers and mentors work together. The mentors were not constrained by conventions of politeness and political correctness, and the aspiring teachers gave up their defensiveness and fears to absorb the instruction of these seasoned experts. Research and student data drove the discussions. The daily back-and-forth between mentor and future teacher was often painful and awkward, but it always brought introspection and candor.
The three-year bachelor's degree greatest challenge is money. As Wasburn-Moses and others point out, alternative certification programs that use yearlong residencies are labor-intensive, requiring many expert educators as mentors. The some 40 programs nationwide, mainly in major cities, are financed by nonprofit and for-profit organizations, private foundations and the federal government.
But there is a solution to funding. Wasburn-Moses, Duncan and others argue that public schools of education, after switching to the three-year bachelor's degree, should fund the yearlong residency. After all, producing a high-quality teacher corps for generations to come is a national concern.
Many traditionalists reject the three-year degree idea. That is a mistake. The old way is failing, and as long as it is failing, teachers will be castigated. Now is the time for the profession to change. The change must start from the inside — with public educators themselves.