Over the last few months the debate over the effectiveness of teacher preparation programs has gained new momentum. This summer, US News & World Report released a new set of ratings for schools of education produced by the National Center on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). According to the NCTQ report on the ratings, of the 608 institutions rated on the four-star ranking system, “less than 10 percent of rated programs earn[ed] three stars or more” and “only four programs earn[ed] four stars.” Later in the fall, a New York Times Op-Ed declared teacher education “an industry of mediocrity,” and an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal explained “why teacher colleges get a flunking grade.” These calls for reform have begun to influence policy. Seven states recently joined a new pilot program, created by Council of Chief State School Officers, to reform their teacher preparation and licensing systems.

The central claim in these calls for reform is that teacher preparation programs are not doing a good enough job turning out teachers that can produce student achievement results. Research shows that teachers are the most important school-level factors influencing students’ academic achievement. Nonetheless, good teachers seem to be in short supply as so many students, especially in low-income communities, fail to demonstrate proficiency on annual state tests. It makes sense to argue that the best way to improve our schools is by improving the quality of our teachers and the best way to improve the quality of our teachers is by improving the institutions that prepare them. Those calling for reform should be aware, however, that truly raising the quality of new teacher education graduates will be no small undertaking.

Traditionally, the quality of a teacher preparation program has been measured in large part by the quality of its course offerings. The assumption has been that teachers needed to develop their knowledge of subject content and pedagogy in order to be effective. Yet the evidence suggests that knowledge of academic content and pedagogical theory are necessary but not sufficient elements for producing effective teachers. To be effective, teachers must master essential skills—such as classroom management, lesson delivery, real-time data analysis, and relationship building.

Traditional teacher education programs often fall short in developing these skills because so much of their training is delivered through the traditional university methods of lectures, readings, writing assignments, and exams. These methods are good at teaching skills like knowledge acquisition, critical thinking, reading comprehension, and writing, but they are not effective for teaching the moves of a good teacher. Although many of the courses currently offered at traditional schools of education require students to discuss and reflect on important teaching skills, such exercises are not sufficient for developing skill mastery. Instead, the best methods for developing the skills of effective teaching involve putting prospective teachers through numerous cycles of real-world type practice followed by constructive feedback. To this end, schools of education have long included student teaching as an important skill-building component of their programs. The ineffectiveness and attrition among early career teachers, however, show that most student teaching experiences are not sufficient for honing the skills that teachers require.

There is clearly a need for better teacher training, but reform-minded individuals must recognize that implementing change at established institutions of teacher education will be no small task. Improving teacher preparation is not merely a matter of getting education schools to tweak their current methods or apply those methods more intensively. By shifting the metric of teacher preparation program quality from course offerings to objective measures of graduates’ teaching skills, we are asking schools of education to do a job that is fundamentally different from the job they were designed and built to do. Such changes will require them to dramatically rethink and redesign many of the resources, processes, priorities, and values that define their current capabilities. In short, if we expect our schools of education to consistently produce high-performing teachers, the schools will need to reinvent themselves.


  • Thomas Arnett
    Thomas Arnett

    Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory.