BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group
Every once in a while you hear about an education reform measure that just
simply makes sense. Newly in vogue: Showing teachers how great teachers teach.
Sure, this sounds ridiculous. How could it be possible for new
instructors to graduate from college teacher preparation programs without
knowing the intricacies of student engagement, effective classroom management,
and dynamic methods of teaching different subjects?
It happens all the time. The programs provide instruction on the basic methods and theories but
never come close to simulating real classrooms that could range from
under-stimulated high achievers to groups of students with varying levels of
In fact, one of the most exciting education policy stories to follow for the last year has been the stunning failure of teacher-training programs to deliver prepared faculty. Leaders of these programs started squirming in their seats last fall when the U.S. Department of Education
announced it would rate them based, in part, on the teacher-in-training's test
scores and those of their subsequent students.
And that squirming was nothing compared to the full-blown freakout that came after the National Council on Teacher Quality released its report "Student Teaching in the United States"
last July, describing most teacher preparation programs as disastrous.
Three-quarters of the 134 randomly sampled programs evaluated failed to meet
five basic standards for a high-quality program.
Which brings me back to the trend of providing teachers with direct instruction of excellent pedagogy.
Recently, The New York Times profiled schools in the District of
Columbia, where teachers get to watch reality-TV-show-style videos of master
teachers executing high-quality instruction: "The 80 videos, 5 to 15 minutes in
length, are peppered with quick jump cuts, slick screen labels and a jaunty
soundtrack," the article noted. "In short interviews and classroom snippets, the
District's highest-performing teachers demonstrate how they teach a range of
lessons, from adding decimal numbers to guiding students of differing ability
levels through a close reading of the Marshall Plan."
A Wall Street Journal story last week chronicled the efforts of a program in Chicago that is
trying to improve classroom teaching by allowing prospective teachers to shadow
experienced, and excellent, educators for a year. That's a rarity in most school
settings but could be a priceless investment in the development of new teachers
who will be ready to provide the best instruction and classroom leadership for
their students on day one, not year three.
To put these opportunities into perspective, when I went through my teacher prep program so I could teach elementary and high school, I had to spend 100 hours observing classrooms in a
variety of educational settings -- urban, high poverty, suburban/rural, special
education/gifted learners -- before I even got to do my lone semester of student
The problem was that my many fellow teachers-in-training and I
were simply placed wherever we could be accommodated with no regard to whether
the teachers we observed would be modeling the very best methods or whether
those hours would be spent watching what not to do.
For many of my peers, the student teaching experience was equally lottery-like: Some hit the
jackpot of having an expert teacher to guide them through the daily challenges
and others were simply baptized by fire while their cooperating teachers were
permanently out to lunch.
The most pressing underlying problem here is that there just aren't enough really excellent teachers to pass the art of meaningful instruction to every new generation of teachers. The National Council
on Teacher Quality estimated that out of every 25 faculty members, there is but
one qualified and willing master teacher available to mentor a newbie.
As the education reform movement succeeds in making measures of
effectiveness a larger part of how teachers are evaluated and granted tenure --
in schools across the country, tenure is increasingly earned rather than
routinely bestowed upon anyone who simply sticks around -- teachers can't be set
up to fail from lack of understanding what great teaching looks like.
And if this means that more new teachers become long-term apprentices
and established ones get to deconstruct jauntily produced videos with peers, so
be it. Every teacher deserves the opportunity to learn from the masters of their
Esther J. Cepeda's e-mail address is estherjcepeda(at)washpost.com