With many public school systems now entering week 10 of their new coronavirus normal, as community school buildings remain shuttered and millions of students try to learn through digital platforms, talk of “the return” to the good ol’ days is growing louder and louder.
Sure, some continue to declare their success in mastering virtual education, but far more are trying to prepare for what traditional school will look like in a traditional environment for the 2020–21 school year. Images of students wearing facemasks and distancing contraptions have already started to fill social media, as educators come to grips with months of lost instruction due to Covid-19, a virtual learning environment offered largely to tread instructional water instead of teaching new content. In response, some are calling for summer school for all to avoid the expected slide from the current to the next school year while others suggest the need to repeat the current grade.
Last week, Chiefs for Change — a group of reform-minded public school superintendents and school administrators — offered a thoughtful report on what school leaders should consider as they look toward the return of a school-building-based instructional year this fall. In The Return: How Should School Leaders Prepare for Reentry and Beyond?, the Chiefs explore a number of important — and controversial — topics, ranging from abandoning the agrarian school calendar (one that currently gives educators and learners summers off) to more “intently focusing on the social and emotional wellbeing and skills of students.”
More interestingly, Chiefs for Change called for school systems across the country to adopt staffing models that focused on educators with deep subject matter and instructional expertise. Yes, this spring’s virtual schooling experiment has demonstrated that the pedagogy and classroom management skills largely taught in colleges of education across the nation do not necessarily translate to teachers successfully managing a virtual classroom on an online platform. For every media story one sees of an elementary school classroom taught via Zoom, with a shared screen that looks like the Brady Bunch on steroids, there are dozens of untold stories of online platforms being used simply as electronic bulletin boards, where teachers simply post assignments for students to collect and complete, providing a thumbs up when any effort is demonstrated by the learner to complete them.
In its recommendations, Chiefs for Change also pulls back a closely-held secret in teacher education. Many teachers are not expert in the content areas they teach. Those who teach U.S. history, for instance, often major in history education, not in American history. The same can be said about those who teach chemistry or biology, the majority of whom leave their teacher education programs with degrees in science education, not in the specific content area. One can even consider the typical elementary school educator, tasked with teaching reading and math and beginning science while equipped with a degree in elementary education that likely provided only some survey courses on a range of content areas, with an emphasis on needed physical classroom management skills.
For years now, reformers have preached about the need to dramatically transform pre-service teacher education. In the early days, the focus was on alternative certification programs and having teacher candidates avoid the “status quo” teachers colleges altogether. More recently, advocates have looked to alternative approaches to traditional teacher education models, with institutions like the Relay/Graduate School of Education becoming the aspirational model.
Decades of research into the most effective approaches to teacher education demonstrate the importance of both strong content knowledge and effective pedagogy. When groups like Chiefs for Change talk about content knowledge, they are essentially noting that novice teachers should be coming to the classroom with a broad and substantial liberal education, one that translates into strong content knowledge of classroom teachers, regardless of the academic subject they are licensed to teach.
A first glance, we may be looking for too much from undergraduate teacher education, expecting all aspiring educators to start as teachers of record with strong, research-based backgrounds in both the subject areas they teach and the most effective ways to teach and lead a classroom. Our new educational normal, though, has clearly demonstrated that the current emphasis on pedagogy and classroom management is woefully insufficient for the uncertain years ahead.
The coming generations of k-12 educators may be digital natives, but they are largely still being prepared in teachers colleges constructed for an analog world. Until their clinical experiences include virtual instruction, and until their preparation focuses on the importance of subject matter content and how to make it interesting, relevant, and understood by all in their classroom, our instructional struggles will continue.
We can do better. We should do better. Ed schools should be committed to preparing world-class educators. School districts should be focused on hiring teachers well prepared in both content and pedagogy, with the assessments to demonstrate their mastery of both. And we all should embrace efforts to ensure our kids’ teachers are truly the best in the world, with the preservice education, in-service supports, and high-quality instructional materials needed for learners to succeed today … and tomorrow.