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Bruno: The Evidence-Free Debate Over Teacher Preparation

5129607997_660a65a1fc_nIt's natural enough to assume that a professional who has received more job training will be more effective than one who has received less.

So when critics of alternative teacher certification casually assert that it would be "bizarre" to expect a "a five-week long TFA training camp" to be as effective as a year of traditional teacher training (as Anthony Cody does) or that traditional certification is required to make sure teachers are "fully prepared" (as Nancy Flanagan does), readers could be forgiven for assuming supporting evidence exists, even if the authors don't present any of it.

In reality, however, there is a considerable body of research on the effectiveness of alternatively-certified teachers, and taken as a whole it suggests that such teachers compare favorably to their traditionally-certified peers.

Indeed, just in the last few months at least two more studies on the subject have come out. One found that alternatively-certified teachers were about as effective - and in some cases more effective - than traditionally-certified teachers in North Carolina.

Another found that some of the most effective teachers studied (in Florida) were produced by alternative certification programs requiring the least pre-service coursework.

One could reasonably argue that any or all of these studies are limited in various ways. Most tend to focus on boosts to students' math or reading test scores, for example, and that may be an excessively narrow view of teacher effectiveness.

But that is not the debate that we are having. In fact, if you were to read mostly critics of alternative certification, you may not know that this research exists at all.

The result is a largely evidence-free debate about teacher preparation, with proponents of traditional certification relying almost exclusively on the intuitive appeal of their position rather than attempting to demonstrate its truth.

It is entirely possible that traditional teacher certification has virtues that are not captured by the existing research literature on teacher effectiveness.

Those virtues, however, should be demonstrated rather than assumed. That's unlikely to happen as long as one side refuses to acknowledge that the research matters - or even exists. - PB (@MrPABruno)(image source)


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I was actually talking with a colleague this afternoon about the first study in NC and was at the table when it was initially being discussed. There are/were so many limitations I'm not sure where to begin. 1) The data set compared 30,000 teachers (traditionally prepared) to 300 TFA. 2) There was no matched sample to compare those with similar credentials (SAT scores, college selectivity, etc). 3) It doesn't account for the fact that many of the TFA teachers spend a year in a teacher prep program earning their Master's degree (ECU or UNCC) before their students take the test. 4. It doesn't take into account that, for example, my institution (NCSU) prepares more math teachers than anyone else in the state, but they more often teach upper level (non-tested) classes such as statistics and calculus (in the study even though we prepared the most teachers our numbers were non-significant!).

I understand that this is an aside from you broader point. I would note that some of us do recognize that we need to talk about and demonstrate the effectiveness of our graduates. We are doing just that. My colleagues and I have been working for the past few months writing our CAEP report (we have an accreditation review this Spring). Based on our initial writing and documentation I believe the field is not (finally) moving in this direction. The new standards are rigorous and will certainly shed light on preparation programs that are demonstrating impact.

As I said, I think it's fine to point out study limitations, although I'd emphasize (again) that the body of research literature comparing teachers recruited/prepared in different ways is quite substantial at this point and the various studies all tend to reach roughly similar conclusions despite variations in context (e.g., state) and methodology.

I certainly hope the field is moving toward more rigorous evaluations of prep program value, though I worry that the "traditional prep" camp (such as it is) might find it difficult to unify around them. Even in my own (highly-respectable!) prep program there was a strong vein of "teaching-is-ineffable-and-indescribable" among both faculty and students and it'll be interesting to see how that faction handles the push for more concrete program comparisons.

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