The Changing Landscape of Teacher Preparation: An Interview with Dean Bob Pianta

by Lynn Bell

How has the landscape of teacher preparation changed over the last three decades?

It has changed dramatically. Even within the last ten years we’ve seen a revolution in the preparation of teachers and in the way higher education engages teacher preparation. For example, my very first year as dean about six years ago, the University of Southern California signed a contract with 2tor Inc. (now 2U) to initiate a completely online teacher preparation program. All of teacher preparation was online, even the clinical supervision. Two thousand students signed up for that opportunity, a huge, almost seismic, change. That’s just one example. Another, also in the online world, is the rise of the for-profit companies that form their own brands of teacher preparation.

There’s been a green-fielding of teacher preparation with smaller, start-up programs emerging recently. For example, Match Education, a charter school program in Boston, believed their model of support for practicing teachers could be of benefit to teacher training, so they just launched their own residency and teacher preparation programs and are producing state-certified teachers.

This is all very, very new. But even with this in mind, we have started to see states willing to partner with these new models and programs, not just as alternative providers but as certified programs, just like those in higher education.

What other changes are happening that affect teacher prep?

We are also seeing a tremendous use of digital video in the preparation and training of early career teachers. I think there are certain efficiencies to be gained and a sense that the use of video can be a very powerful learning tool. We certainly did not have the option of cheap, convenient collection and easy editing of video in 1980s when we were designing our program at Curry. Digital video is really changing the way we are learning about the craft of teaching, and we are seeing that filtered up into companies like 2tor, which provides on-demand coaching for teachers using video, and alternative certification programs like the Match Teacher Residency program. And you see the ubiquitous use of video in a new start-up, Relay Graduate School of Education, a new education school with roots in a charter school and wholly devoted to the preparation of teachers.

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The private sector is now moving into the teacher professional development space, as well. A company called Teachscape, for example, is very prominent in the use of and capture of digital video and the delivery of that digital video in formats that make it conducive to syncing up with needs of teacher preparation programs—tagging video, giving students feedback about performance on video. There are literally a half dozen or more companies focused simply on the efficient and user-friendly processing and tagging of video for the purposes of teacher support.

Last but not least in terms of changes in the world of teacher preparation is the whole area of accountability, in which we who train and prepare teachers will be held accountable for the impact and quality of our graduates work. We’re going to see this fall the National Council on Teacher Quality roll out a report on teacher preparation with U.S. News & World Report. This group has been very active in pressuring teacher education around accountability.

The federal government is also moving in the direction of accountability as it regulates the funds that flow to teacher preparation through Title II. We are likely to see federal requirements that teacher preparation programs follow their graduates into their early years in the classroom and capture the test scores from the students they teach. Those test scores will then become a measure of the teacher preparation program’s own quality and impact on student achievement.

Digital video is really changing the way we are learning about the craft of teaching.

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How is the Curry School responding to all this change?

Any process of redesigning teacher preparation or responding to emerging trends and demands has to start with the faculty’s ideas. A lot of what we at Curry have been doing over the course of the past couple years is creating opportunities in which faculty can begin to consider how we might redesign our academic programs if we had not only the opportunity, but could be released from certain restrictions or assumptions. We’ve been trying, across the whole school, to consider the questions, “What would you do if…? What could we learn from…?”

Any good academic or professional preparation program is committed to an ongoing process of continual reinvention in response to what it’s learning about itself and in response to external circumstances. This is the opportunity we have before us right now in teacher preparation. So we are now engaged in a redesign and reinvention process. In so doing, we’ve begun to hear faculty saying things like, “Rather than organize content and training around the standard three-credit course, for example, on something like classroom management, maybe the better way for students to gain this knowledge and the related skills is to modularize the content. I can come in for this segment, and then the students can get an experience in the field that links to that content and is supervised by someone else. And then later in the program, we cycle back to classroom management in another way.”

I think we are working on a curriculum that both spirals people into greater depth and does the correct meshing of classwork with work in the field, which is fundamentally what we need to be attentive to in our students’ development as early career professionals. This process is really exciting, and I think we’re likely to see a greater modularization of learning so that rather than thinking of courses we will be thinking in terms of competencies and units of knowledge. I think we’re also going to see a greater focus on assessment of our students’ developing competencies and recording those in a portfolio they carry with them and can demonstrate to potential future employers.

We’re clearly going to see integration with the world of digital video, whether it’s in the actual courses or in the supervision and web-mediated communities that we can develop for our students to engage in with one another and with an instructor.

Many people struggle with change, especially in a program that has received so many accolades over the years. How are you approaching this challenge?

People sometimes look at the preparation of teachers and think that this job is somehow unimportant for higher education or something that can happen easily. These perceptions of our profession and preparation of educators are part of the challenge we face as educators and particularly as teacher preparation professionals in higher education. But these perceptions are really a reflection of how much the public in general cares about education and sees teachers as fundamentally important to the foundations of a civil society. We have an incredible opportunity as we design the next phase of our teacher preparation program to really stake claims about the rigor of this profession and the challenges of marshaling and designing preparation that really works. We can demonstrate to the public and to the world that indeed there’s a science behind our work, this science connects with a deep craft knowledge, and when we do our work well it serves the public well and deserves the kind of accord that it ought to receive.

Any good academic or professional preparation program is committed to an ongoing process of continual reinvention…