White House Conference on Preparing Tomorrow's Teachers
Let me begin by thanking Mrs. Bush. I always enjoy hearing her talk about children and education. I believe she has the heart of a teacher and the experience to go with it and because she does, she can and will make a great—and positive—difference to teachers and for the education of children nationwide. The fact that we are all here today talking about these important issues demonstrates her concern and her willingness to try to make a difference.
Let me also say at the very beginning that though I have been a union leader for some time now—having spent 12 years as president of the AFT's local union in New York City and the last five as president of the national union—I, too, remain a teacher at heart, with first- and fourth-grade experience in the public schools of New York City. And, in my role as a union leader, I continue to spend time in schools, especially urban schools attended by poor children, the same schools that saved me and on whose behalf I have been devoted since my first astonishment at the wonders of kindergarten in PS 188 in Coney Island. That's where I was introduced for the first time to books, musical instruments and social etiquette.
Now—something you probably don't know. Like my legendary predecessor, Al Shanker, I entered teaching through an alternative route. Al's undergraduate and graduate work was in math and philosophy; mine was in English and American literature.
But New York City, which had the first—and for many years the only—entry examination into teaching, also had an alternative route. If you came into teaching through the alternative route, you were given a slightly less rigorous but nevertheless fairly daunting "substitute" examination. If you passed it, you could teach—at a lower salary and without benefits—until you passed the "regular" examination and completed the courses required.
So—we were able to enter teaching without having gone through a teacher preparation program, on the strength of our liberal arts and subject matter education and our ability to pass a written exam demonstrating that knowledge and our literacy.
Then we were given a classroom full of kids and left to sink or swim.
The first time I taught, despite my good education, my extreme dedication, my experience in the Civil Rights movement, my voluntary visits to the homes of my pupils and my devastating love for each and every one of them, I dropped out after one year—just as do close to 15 percent of new teachers today.
When I returned a few years later, I had some day-to-day subbing under my belt, and an assignment to a school where the teachers took me under their wing and the principal gave me time to spend in the classrooms of experienced colleagues. And this time, after my first year, I stayed, and I excelled.
So, when I speak about teacher preparation, I do so from personal experience, as well as from a lifetime spent in schools and in discourse with teachers.
Most teachers, whether they came into the profession through an alternative path, as I did, or through a regular teacher education program—as do more than 80 percent of our teachers—will tell you they felt unprepared when they entered the classroom. Mrs. Bush said so herself recently.
This should never be the case.
Teachers are not like the Maytag repairman that we all remember from the commercials—they are not in the loneliest profession in the world—though it can sometimes feel that way. We have to do everything we can to make sure that teachers feel prepared coming into the classroom and feel supported throughout their careers in the classroom.
This is not an insignificant goal—for a whole host of reasons. Never before have there been so many new teachers in American classrooms. And never before has the need for additional teachers been so great. You have heard about the need to recruit, train, hire and retain more than 2 million teachers over the coming decade. And not just any teachers, but "highly" qualified, dedicated teachers in every subject, for every school, in every city and suburb and small town in this country. At the same time, we must ensure that our current, very skilled and very dedicated corps of teachers benefits from the best and most up-to-date research about instructional strategies and subject matter knowledge.
Efforts are under way across the country to establish rigorous student achievement standards and to formulate education policies that make realizing them possible—efforts that the AFT has long supported. But we can't reach first-class standards without first-class teachers—dedicated professionals who have a wide and deep understanding of their subject and a repertoire of proven strategies for delivering it to their students.
This is a great opportunity and a great challenge. Frankly, the moment is as ripe for doing harm as it is for doing good. It won't be easy. None of the groups represented here today can do it alone. And—as our first lady has pointed out, I'm proud to say—in addition to whatever else we do, we need to raise teacher salaries.
We may move closer to our goal with help from the new education bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush earlier this year. This new law contains important provisions that could strengthen teacher qualifications, and it addresses major impediments to improving teacher quality—including emergency credentialing and out-of-field teaching.
The new legislation requires states to end these practices, and that will be helpful. But much work remains. To promote excellence throughout the teaching ranks, we must focus on the need for higher professional standards, more challenging college courses, and examinations that require new teachers to have a thorough knowledge of their subjects and how to teach them.
Two years ago, an AFT task force composed of K-12 and higher education leaders delivered a report on strengthening teacher preparation and induction. The report, "Building a Profession," frankly acknowledged the shortcomings of teacher education programs, and made some bold recommendations, including one calling on universities to require rigorous liberal arts and science courses for students preparing to teach, and another calling for entry exams for teacher education similar to those for law and medicine.
We also called for a year of "clinical" experience—that is, an induction year on the job under the tutelage of master teachers.
The need to strengthen teacher education doesn't stop at the schoolhouse door. One of the best ways to understand the challenge before us is to listen to teachers themselves. A poll conducted by the Albert Shanker Institute found that most teachers frankly admit that they have been inadequately prepared to teach the new higher standards. They warned of the need for earlier and better intervention support for their students, but nearly two-thirds told us they need more professional development, even if it means lengthening the school day or year.
So—let's talk about the elements that would create real preparation, meaningful preparation, for teachers. I want to outline, briefly, five steps that we can and should take right now to make a concrete difference in the way teachers are prepared for the realities of today's classrooms.
First: We must do a better job of preparing prospective teachers before they begin their careers. Good teachers need to be really well educated—as our good teachers today are. They need to know—deeply—the subject they teach. Prospective teachers should complete an academic major and have a solid foundation in the liberal arts. You can't teach what you don't know well.
Teachers not only must have a thorough education in the disciplines they will teach; they also must be steeped in the craft of teaching. Simply put, they need to know how to teach, which is one of the shortfalls of the alternative routes to teaching that do not involve meaningful pedagogical and inservice components. A rigorous college education is essential, but it isn't enough when you hit that classroom. I ask any of you here to imagine yourself in a classroom—charged with teaching 25 children how to read, and knowing nothing about how they learn or what methods work. Prospective teachers must have adequate exposure to instructional strategies before taking charge of their own students. And, school districts should work with universities and alternative path programs to provide meaningful, practical experience in the classroom for prospective teachers.
Second: State licensing bodies and professional standards boards should require that entering teachers meet high standards that include knowledge of their disciplines, of how students learn, and of the liberal arts and sciences. And they should do this without requiring prospective teachers to jump through bureaucratic hoops. We lose some people before they even get to the test.
Teacher tests vary in content and level of difficulty, which is why the AFT task force on strengthening teacher preparation called for examinations to be based on national standards developed by recognized scholars and educators, in much the same way as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards developed challenging advanced certification examinations. I know that this proposal makes many people uncomfortable, but children in every state deserve teachers who have met the highest standards of the profession.
Third: Beginning teachers should be given a well-supervised induction period that includes the opportunity to observe and be mentored by highly accomplished teachers.
It is appalling that it is not standard practice to provide immediate and ongoing support on the job for new teachers. Novices should develop and perfect their teaching skills by closely observing, meeting with, and learning from their more experienced colleagues in an organized, institutionalized program of mentoring.
Fourth: Peer assistance and peer review programs should be transformed from rare to commonplace. Peer assistance is central to improving teacher performance, and the best (and most rigorous) teacher evaluations are done by teachers who know the discipline, know about teaching, and know from painful experience the consequences they face when they share students taught by an unqualified colleague.
Fifth: Teachers in every school and district should be engaged in ongoing, meaningful professional development. Teachers need to keep current with the latest knowledge in their subject areas and with proven teaching techniques, and they need to have the time to meet with colleagues and help one another develop the best ways to reach and help their struggling students.
These principles should apply to both traditional and alternative methods of teacher preparation. And alternative program candidates—like all teaching candidates—should be required to pass examinations before being given responsibility for students.
"Troops to Teachers" and "Teach for America" are among the programs we support. Paraprofessional career ladder programs we've negotiated have proven to be one of the best alternative paths to teaching.
Certainly—especially in the face of our extraordinary needs—alternative paths should be supported. But they should never become a route around standards and quality. If there are teacher education courses that are weak, irrelevant or useless, no one coming into the profession should have to take them. Neither alternative nor traditional paths should go there.
Colleges and universities must step up and strengthen their teacher education programs. I want to call special attention to one area of teacher preparation that is critically important but continues to receive insufficient attention—reading instruction. Literacy is the foundation of all learning. We must equip all teachers—especially elementary school teachers—with proven techniques based on the best and most recent research on teaching reading. Of course, our new teachers should be exposed to what works in their pre-service education. But so, too, must practicing teachers who have not had the benefit of this new knowledge.
"Reading First," of the recently enacted "No Child Left Behind Act" gives a boost to improving the teaching of reading. It can help improve the training of prospective teachers, help provide current teachers with access to research-based professional development, and upgrade the quality of student and classroom materials. If used well, this law and the funding behind it can make an enormous difference.
We have to make sure that all of our schools give all of our children—especially our neediest children—the opportunity to receive the very best education, from our inner cities to our rural areas.
Ensuring a qualified teacher in every American classroom is a major part of making that happen. But we also must offer every child a quality, pre-school education; intervene early and effectively when kids fall behind; use research-based academic programs; and provide small classes, especially in the early grades. These conditions create success, but they are woefully rare in schools serving the students who could most benefit from them.
The need for more than 2 million new teachers in the coming decade presents a unique opportunity. If we strengthen teacher education programs—including alternative path programs, establish solid standards for the profession, provide teachers with ongoing professional development and treat them like the professionals they are, we will be well on the road to preparing tomorrow's teachers well, while we help today's.
Let me close by making this final point. Our teachers do a yeoman's job each and every day. We entrust them with our most precious gift—our children. Why wouldn't we do everything to make sure that they have the tools and the support they need to do the very best for those children?