By Peter Cunningham

Since 2003, Kate Walsh has been working hard to improve the teaching force in our schools—an undisputed key to better academic performance. She’s served as the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) during that time, and the NCTQ’s new report on teacher prep has promising news on the quality of classroom instruction in our nation’s schools.

Do you drink tea or coffee? How do you take it?

I am serious coffee drinker. I have a South African son-in-law who has tried his best to initiate me into the rituals of a well-brewed and properly poured tea, but honestly I only drink it when he’s around to make him happy.

Your new report last week evaluates schools of education. Are the trends for reform going in the right direction or the wrong direction?

Right direction. The area we’ve been working on the longest is to get programs to teach good, evidence-based reading instruction. When we started looking at this problem 10 years ago, only 15 percent of programs paid any attention to the science of reading. The national average is now up to 39 percent. We’re thrilled by this progress, in spite of the fact we have 61 percent to go. But honestly, we have the knowledge to reduce the current rate of reading failure from 30 percent down to 5-10 percent.

I will never understand the ideological resistance to do what’s best for kids. We also saw some progress in selectivity and student teaching. The tide is turning, but this is a problem that was decades in the making and won’t be fixed overnight. We’re on a 10-year plan.

I noticed that only 13 percent of programs emphasize math skills. PISA results just came out showing U.S. ranking dropped from 31st to 35th in math. Any connection between how we train teachers in this subject and how our students perform?

It’s hard not to want to make that connection, though I recognize correlation is not causation. Mathematics is a discipline which requires building strong foundational skills. If you never learn how to multiply or solve a fraction, high school math will be daunting, and college math will be impossible. We know that many elementary teachers profess to be “math phobic,” a sentiment that is tolerated and not ameliorated by either teacher prep programs or public schools. We’d never tolerate a first-grade teacher saying she’s no good at reading and wants to avoid teaching it!

Forget expensive workarounds such as departmental specialists. All we need to do is have elementary teachers take two or three courses that immerse them in the math topics found in elementary grades—not to repeat their own elementary experience but to develop a deep understanding. It’s not hard. It’s not disputed. We just don’t do it by and large.

Does this report and other evidence suggest teachers are best served by having more student teaching rather than time spent in formal training programs in a college or university?

We actually don’t see the year-long length of student teaching as an indicator of quality. We do, however, believe in lots of practice—but not under the current structure of student teaching. There’s no point in delivering more of something that’s generally done badly. We’ll just get more bad practice.

We think that teacher candidates should spend a lot more time in role play, examining videos of their own practice and that of experts, and other kinds of simulation—all of which constitute practice but not using real kids as the guinea pigs or taking up the precious time of great classroom teachers. We’d be happy just to see programs deliver one semester of high-quality student teaching.

You’ve argued that the national teacher shortage is mostly a myth and that the real problem is local supply and demand are not aligned. How do we fix the problem?

There are a number of solutions. I’ll name just a few of the more generic ones. First, states needs to take a more aggressive role as the entity that approves these programs, even though I doubt most are willing to do so. When they approve programs they need to put limits on the number of candidates that can be produced in areas like elementary and high school English.

Second, school districts should only take student teachers in areas where they need to hire. If programs can’t place their student teachers, they’ll stop over-enrolling them in some areas and will expand under-enrolled areas.

Third, we need to accept the basically unfair but realistic fact that science and math teachers need to be paid more. I know it is generally harder to teach high school English than high school math. I get that. But that’s the labor market.

What is the biggest obstacle to improving teacher training programs?

To put it a bit simplistically, it’s academic freedom gone amok. That sounds almost un-American or at least anti-democratic, but until college professors understand that it is their obligation to deliver the content and skills public schools need and not what they personally feel like teaching, we won’t see big improvements. I’ve had many deans say to me that they are powerless to improve their reading instruction because their faculty refuses to do so. That’s a broken system. Academic freedom is important and valuable—but it was never intended to be used to justify ignoring evidence-based practices.

Some people think we should make it easier to become a teacher but harder to stay in the field. Others think we should make it harder to enter the field in the first place. What do you think?

Absolutely the latter. We will never “fire” our way to a high-quality teacher force. It might not even be possible to “tenure” our way to a high-quality force, though certainly we could use both those systems more effectively. I know of no other nation in the world that achieves a high-quality workforce that way, and I would even argue that private industry does not work that way. Systems that run well are quite selective about who gets in. That’s the most important decision that gets made.

Originally posted at EducationPost.org