Navigating the Waters of the Teacher Preparation Debate: Lessons from the Recent Past

In 1980, if one wanted to become a K-12 public school teacher in the United States, he or she needed to attend an accredited degree program. Fast forward to the present, and roughly one-third of our nation’s teachers enter through alternative, non-education school routes. Prospective teachers are confronted with a dizzying array of options, from online programs (both for- and not-for-profit), district residencies, quick-prep programs with a few weeks of summer training, in-house charter-school certification, or more traditional university-based pathways, at both the undergraduate and master’s level. How to explain this dramatic transformation? And what to make of it?


As two historians with public school teaching and university-based teacher education experience—and much concern about how this change has impacted students—we aimed to write a history that answers these questions while transcending much of the acrimony that often occupies the discussion. On one side of the debate, you often find ardent ed school defenders, those who write off any alternative route as irresponsible. On the other side are the ed school bashers, who claim that teachers do not need time in what they see as ineffective departments teaching “irrelevant” theory classes. We aimed to approach the recent and dramatic transformation in teacher education not from one of these camps but as historians (with our own biases, of course), but asking what history can tell us about why such dramatic change occurred, and so what—how can this inform our present?

One of our most surprising finds through our various case studies of university-based, alternative, and new hybrid programs from roughly 1980 to the present, was that our current political dividing lines—with ed school defenders representing a more progressive wing, and the alternative certification backers reflecting a more conservative neoliberal ethos—obscures the more complicated origins of these camps.  


Back in the late 1960s and 1970s, neoliberal intellectuals and think tanks, the Milton Friedman and Fordham Foundation crowd, were undoubtedly promoting alternative certification as a policy that reflected their faith in competition, markets, and the private sector to solve social problems. And we believe that this embrace has caused significant harm to the public education system by hollowing out the public sphere and bringing business logics that promote individualism and breed inequality to our public schools, largely impacting students of color.


Yet progressive communities of color and the multi-racial New Left also critiqued ed schools and the way teachers were traditionally prepared, and originally supported alternative certification as it rose to prominence. Why? Because ed schools were mostly white institutions whose structure and certification pathway largely prevented Black and Latinx teachers from entering the profession. And ed school professors seemed out of touch with the needs of communities and classrooms, and in many (though not all) cases were.


Other early critics of traditional programs noted that they were not reaching non-traditional students well—rural students, overaged students, and people of color. And in fact, some alternative route programs have been more successful than traditional ones in bringing a more diverse teaching body to our classrooms that are majority, and increasingly, non-white. Though TFA is often the program critics point to as representing the arrogant white middle class bypassing of certification into the nation’s most high-needs classrooms of color, there are many alternative route programs other than TFA, and TFA’s corps is now, surprisingly, one of the most diverse preparers of teachers in the nation, according to 2015-2016 data reported by the Department of Education and TFA. The same 2015 data showed traditional education schools as having the highest percentage of white students out of all certification route types. This is a history and a current fact we believe ed school defenders, including ourselves, need to take seriously.  


On the other hand, there is a large crowd that staunchly defends alternative routes while critiquing education school-based teacher preparation as bloated, inefficient, and resistant to change. They see little value in these programs, and believe that a quick, sometimes five-week intensive preparation in technical skills is enough before teachers enter the classroom. Employing the logics of the market and start-up culture, their new models, represented by programs such as TFA and Relay GSE , claim to offer “disruptive” models that bring high-quality candidates into the classroom. As Norm Atkins, founder of Rely GSE, phrased it, teacher preparation programs should “act more like Silicon Valley, not the car industry.”


Although we do recognize that many ed schools have not improved in light of critiques brought to bear by important reform reports of the 1980s—which helps explain the rise of alternative models, others have been leading the way in innovative, rigorous, and high-quality preparation all along. A far cry from “bloated monopolies” unwilling to change, some teacher ed programs we detail in our book, such as Stanford, Montclair State University in New Jersey, the University of Indianapolis, and others, have been constantly self-reflecting to provide an effective professional education for decades. “We’d maintain we’ve been reformers all along,” Kathy Moran of the University of Indianapolis claims, and we corroborate this statement in our research. Not market forces, but a desire to reflect and improve, coupled with supportive institutions, led some university-based teacher educators to revamp their curriculum and restructure their preparation to great effect. Our case studies convinced us that painting the whole field of university teacher education as an “industry of mediocrity,” as some do, represents a terrible disservice and a significant misunderstanding of what has been happening on campuses across the country—and we should take note of their success.


History offers no easy lessons. Yet Teaching Teachers recognizes excellence in a number of places, particularly in new year-long residency programs that look to both banks as they navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of the teacher preparation debate, drawing on the best insights from traditional programs and alternative certifiers. With equity and excellence as our end goal for all of our nation’s students, we remain optimistic that the complexity and contingency of history, as well as the immense change and creativity of the last three decades in teacher education, can teach us much. We simply have to listen.


James W. Fraser is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author or editor of twelve books, including Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America and Teach: A Question of Teaching. Lauren Lefty is a doctoral candidate in the History of Education program at New York University.