School reform in California must include better training of teachers

Huy Nguyen, 15, and Cynthia Bui, 14, listen to AP chemistry teacher Kathleen Kennedy, as they work on a chemistry lab at a summer school class.
Huy Nguyen, 15, and Cynthia Bui, 14, listen to AP chemistry teacher Kathleen Kennedy, as they work on a chemistry lab at a summer school class.

Placing teacher preparation at the forefront of the state’s education reform agenda is long overdue. But it must be done strategically, so that any reforms actually attract teachers and don’t discourage the brightest talent from entering a struggling profession.

Reforming teacher preparation must take into account the distressing fact that fewer and fewer people want to go into teaching. In particular, the state suffers from an acute shortage in fields such as math, science and special education.

The latest figures from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing show that enrollment in teacher preparation programs plummeted from 42,245 in 2008-09 to 19,933 in 2012-13 – a decline of 52 percent, and an astonishing drop of 74 percent from the high of 77,700 in 2001-02.

Making sure that California attracts enough teachers and that they are fully prepared when they enter the classroom – and then get the support they need to stay there – is in the interest of every community in the state.

In the 1960s, California launched a highly successful campaign to attract teachers from other states to serve its growing population. What’s needed now is a new teacher recruitment campaign targeted at the state’s own diverse population.

It will be up to leaders in business, education, philanthropy and government to mount that campaign. It needs to offer real incentives to sign up for a profession that pays far less than it should – such as helping to underwrite the cost of becoming a teacher in the first place, especially for those willing to work in high-need fields and schools.

Not so long ago, California offered students a range of financial aid – such as the Governor’s Fellowships, the Assumption Program of Loans for Education and Cal T grants – to help them become teachers. But those programs have fallen victim to budget cuts over the past decade.

Beyond getting more teachers into the pipeline, a new EdSource report outlines essential reforms for building a world-class teaching force in California. Fortunately, the state does not have to start from scratch but can build on promising models that already exist.

For example, there is widespread agreement that student teaching – the opportunity to teach in a classroom under the supervision of a master teacher – may be the most critical part of the teacher preparation process. Yet the requirements for student teaching are minimal in California. Finding appropriate placements for teachers-in-training – and skilled master teachers to supervise them – can be enormously challenging. Master teachers need to get time to fully mentor student teachers – and be compensated for their work.

Equally important is the support new teachers get during their critical first few years in the classroom – the most challenging period for a new teacher and when they are most likely to become discouraged. Yet the state’s major new teacher support program – Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment – has suffered due to budget cutbacks, the lack of dedicated state funding and excessive bureaucratization in some schools and districts.

Currently, California’s teaching credential system does not focus on two particularly crucial periods of a child’s development: pre-kindergarten through the third grade and the middle school years. More intensive preparation could be offered to would-be teachers, or even a separate credential for teachers in those grades.

Without prepared, effective and enthusiastic teachers, the successful implementation of other key reforms in California schools – including Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards and the Local Control Funding Formula – is threatened.

Just focusing on reforms such as making it easier to fire teachers, and more difficult for the remaining ones to get tenure, will do little or nothing to improve a teacher’s level of preparation in the first place.

So far, preparing teachers has gotten short shrift in the panoply of reforms currently underway in California. It is time to elevate teacher preparation as an essential reform so that we make the most of every teacher’s talents, and every child has the greatest chance of succeeding.

Louis Freedberg is executive director of EdSource, a nonprofit organization based in Oakland.