Would you trust a surgeon who learned a few tricks in medical school, then spent the first couple of years in the operating room experimenting while he figured out which techniques worked?
Of course you wouldn't. But, unfortunately, that's the same level of preparation that too many of our nation's teachers receive before setting foot in the classroom.
Last week, the National Council on Teacher Quality released its exhaustive study of what's going on inside America's teaching institutions. Evaluating hundreds of schools and thousands of programs, it found that most of America's teacher prep programs are sending off elementary and special education teacher candidates with insufficient knowledge and skills to be effective in their first year of teaching.
We have allowed this situation to continue for far too long. In recent years, Congress convened two blue ribbon panels — one in math and one in reading — to examine why so many of America's school children were struggling with basic skills. The panels synthesized decades' worth of research, then released reports (one in 2000 and one in 2008) that addressed challenges teachers face and proposed solutions.
The major recommendations from both panels were especially relevant to education schools that launch new teachers into the start of their careers. The research was clear: Aspiring teachers should know the five essential components of reading instruction — phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary development and comprehension strategies — and the master both content and methods for teaching math. While not a silver bullet, these proven techniques are essential building blocks of learning demonstrated to help most young children and prevent them from falling behind in subsequent years.
As chairs of the respective panels, and as former leaders of two large university systems, we can report that the proposed solutions, at least many of them, remain proposed solutions. Our view then — and our view now — is that preparation programs are ignoring well-known and proven techniques to teach these two most critical subjects for all young children. And now we have quantifiable evidence to bear this out.
The NCTQ's analysis found that 77 out of the 819 rated programs — just 9 percent — are providing solid preparation in both reading and mathematics. While there are more programs that perform well in just one subject, the numbers are still dismal. Barely a third of programs are adequately preparing teachers in reading, and just 21 percent are doing so with math.
Not only is this unacceptable, it is unnecessary. The sad fact is that almost all of these programs are already dedicating plenty of seat time to these two areas, but they are ignoring the evidence-based content that will leave teachers best prepared. It doesn't have to cost a dime more for these institutions to start doing this right. We can and must do better. Teachers, administrators and parents must stop accepting that new teachers will struggle through their first few years and demand that our country's teacher preparation programs give them the skills they need to succeed on day one.
Nothing is more important for America's children — and for America — than effective teaching of reading and math as the foundation for all subsequent learning. As a country, we are long past the time we can ignore teacher preparation without fear of consequences. Nations like China and India, for example, are making great strides in bringing better education to more children, and they present a major competitive challenge to the United States in the global marketplace.
It's not that no one knows how to fix the status quo. We do. Our panels spent years of research to find out what works. It's the time for America's teaching preparation programs to have another look at what we had to say.
Larry R. Faulkner, chair of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel (2006-2008), is president emeritus of the University of Texas at Austin and former president of Houston Endowment Inc. Chancellor Emeritus Donald N. Langenberg, chair of the National Reading Panel (1998-1999), headed the 13-member University System of Maryland from 1990 to 2002. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.