So far this month in education news, a California court has decimated rigid job protections for teachers, and Oklahoma’s governor has abolished the most rigorous learning standards that state has ever had. Back and forth we go in America’s exhausting tug-of-war over schools—local versus federal control, union versus management, us versus them.
But something else is happening, too. Something that hasn’t made many headlines but has the potential to finally revolutionize education in ways these nasty feuds never will.
In a handful of statehouses and universities across the country, a few farsighted Americans are finally pursuing what the world’s smartest countries have found to be the most efficient education reform ever tried. They are making it harder to become a teacher. Ever so slowly, these legislators and educators are beginning to treat the preparation of teachers the way we treat the training of surgeons and pilots—rendering it dramatically more selective, practical, and rigorous. All of which could transform not only the quality of teaching in America but the way the rest of us think about school and learning.
Over the past two years, according to a report out Tuesday from the National Council on Teacher Quality, 33 states have passed meaningful new oversight laws or regulations to elevate teacher education in ways that are much harder for universities to game or ignore. The report, which ranks 836 education colleges, found that only 13 percent made its list of top-ranked programs. But “a number of programs worked hard and at lightning speed” to improve. Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas now have the most top-ranked programs. This summer, meanwhile, the Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation is finalizing new standards, which Education Week called “leaner, more specific and more outcomes-focused than any prior set in the 60-year history of national teacher-college accreditation.”
Rhode Island, which once had one of the nation’s lowest entry-bars for teachers, is leading the way. The state has already agreed to require its education colleges to admit classes of students with a mean SAT, ACT, or GRE score in the top one-half of the national distribution by 2016. By 2020, the average score must be in the top one-third of the national range, which would put Rhode Island in line with education superpowers like Finland and Singapore.
Unlike the brawls we’ve been having over charter schools and testing, these changes go to the heart of our problem—an undertrained educator force that lacks the respect and skills it needs to do a very hard 21st-century job. (In one large survey, nearly 2 in 3 teachers reported that schools of education do not prepare teachers for the realities of the classroom.) Instead of trying to reverse engineer the teaching profession through complicated evaluations leading to divisive firings, these changes aspire to reboot it from the beginning.
To understand why this movement matters so much, it helps to talk to a future teacher who has experienced life with—and without—this reform. Sonja Stenfors, 23, is a teacher-in-training from Finland, one of the world’s most effective and fair education systems. Stenfors’ father is a physical education teacher, and she’s training to be one, too.
In Finland, Stenfors had to work very hard to get into her teacher-training program. After high school, like many aspiring teachers, she spent a year as a classroom aide to help boost her odds of getting accepted. The experience of working with 12 boys with severe behavioral problems almost did her in. “It was so hard,” she told me, “I worried I could not do it.”