CEPEDA: Learning by example -- what an idea

Esther J. Cepeda

Esther J. Cepeda

CHICAGO -- 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 illiteracy.

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 teaching.

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 field.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.