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teacher training
Seventh-grade social studies teacher Jennifer Harmsen reviews lessons in an online video on Roman life with her students at Hillsborough Middle School. Credit: Meghan E. Murphy

America’s traditional teacher preparation programs are under siege; enrollment is dwindling, as prospective teachers turn to increasingly popular alternative programs. There are calls for regulators to step in to shut down the worst institutions and help many others improve. But where should experts look for best practices?

A panel of education experts, assembled to discuss two reports released by the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), suggested looking abroad to four educational systems that perform best on international student achievement tests. The reports focus mainly on how these four systems – British Columbia, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore – improve the craft of their current teachers. The panelists used the findings to discuss how America’s education schools should improve: have future teachers spend significantly more time in classrooms, focus more on deepening a teacher’s knowledge of a subject-area – particularly math for elementary school teachers – and give teachers the research tools they need to examine whether what they’re doing in the classroom is working.

Marc Tucker, NCEE’s president and CEO, was unequivocal that Americans should not be coming up with their own solutions to teacher-training issues. Specifically, he was asked about the value of the $30 million partnership between the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Arthur Levine, the former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, to create a new alternative to traditional education degree programs. (The Hechinger Report is based at Teachers College, but is editorially independent of Teachers College.)

Related: An experiment in teacher training: More in-person fieldwork, but more online professional development

“Americans have a tendency now to imagine very, very different models of almost everything in education, models that aren’t being practiced anywhere,” said Tucker. “We are in a very clear position, we are falling further and further behind these countries. I’m not interested personally in a radical new solution. Why would we do something that’s never been tried when there are systems right in front of us that work?”

“Our politics are just so brutal that we have more stability in our universities.”

The question is what role America’s education schools would play if we imported systems that rely so heavily on in-school training. All four of the systems highlighted have set up structures where the best teachers formally train new teachers.

“These are apprenticeships in schools, on-site, in-service practice in a true practice site,” said Tucker. “A lot of the conversation in the U.S. is how to do that in schools of education, but the question is whether the faculty actually have the qualifications to teach the craft of teaching. Should states be putting resources in the faculties of education or designing a system like Shanghai, where it’s done by master teachers?”

In Shanghai, government regulations stipulate that much of a teacher’s training happens at school and that you can’t get a teaching license until the master teacher says you’re ready.

Related: Teachers colleges struggle to blend technology into teacher training

Lily Eskelsen Garcia – president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union – said she would have benefited from that type of a program.

“Right now, before you are a licensed teacher, you spend very little time with kids,” said Eskelsen Garcia. “I would have benefited from a full year residence, but it’s important to note in a lot of places that’s a paid position.”

Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute and an emeritus professor at the Stanford School of Education, thinks that while we have a lot to learn from places like Shanghai and Singapore, the political nature of American education necessitates that much of the training be done at universities.

“Our politics are just so brutal that we have more stability in our universities,” said Darling-Hammond. “We can’t count on our political system to sustain what Shanghai and Singapore has done; when a new party comes in, they will want to do something entirely new. We are going to have to put our eggs in multiple baskets.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Common Core.

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