There’s been a lot of talk recently about the reading crisis in U.S. schools. Careful reporting has pinpointed a common problem: Many newly-trained and veteran teachers are not aware of the latest research on early reading instruction or comprehension. In 2016, NCTQ reviewed the syllabi of 820 teacher preparation programs across the country and found that only 39 percent of programs were teaching the basics of effective reading instruction. Four years later that number of programs has risen to 51 percent. While this signals a positive trend in adopting evidence-informed reading instruction, the fact remains that 49 percent of incoming teachers do not have the tools to effectively teach reading.
After examining our experiences at two well-known teacher training programs in Minnesota and looking at what we were—and were not—taught about the basics of literacy, we have come to the same conclusion: We were not prepared for the responsibility of the job. This failure to prepare teachers, we believe, should be a red flag for the current system in place for how we train and place teachers into classrooms.
Student interest and choice prioritized over high-quality instruction
As we went through our respective teacher training programs, we noticed a common theme to our coursework. At every turn, it seemed that student interest was front and center. The idealized teacher should be passive, give minimal guidance, and certainly not talk for more than five minutes. Teachers should not be instructing so much as they should be prioritizing and facilitating student choice. Phrases like this were perpetuated as best practice:
If I come to observe you, you shouldn’t be at the front of the room…The worst thing a teacher can do when students ask questions is answer them…Students only want to write about what they’re interested in.
Reading instruction was assumed to happen largely through osmosis and the now-dominant “workshop” model. The majority of early reading instruction revolved around “read-alouds” with picture books. There was minimal to non-existent training in effective whole-group instruction or the “Big 5” components of reading—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension—although a consensus in research supports the effectiveness of utilizing these insights in reading instruction.
Most alarmingly, when students display lagging decoding skills, our teacher training encouraged us to utilize shortcuts to “increase engagement” like leveled reading, technology, audiobooks, and graphic novels. Clearly these strategies are not working: Minnesota has the widest gap in reading scores between white and nonwhite students in the nation—32 percent of black fourth-graders and 34 percent of Hispanic fourth-graders are proficient in reading, compared to 66 percent of white fourth-graders. Ironically, we also have some of the strictest teacher licensing requirements in the nation.
Rather than grappling with the gravity of the literacy crisis, motivation and interest seem to be top priorities and are seen as the solution to students who are unable to decode. Little attention was given to the fact that a deep and robust background knowledge (gained through social studies, science, and the arts) is a vital part of reading comprehension.
In terms of teaching writing, writers notebooks and other “multi-modal” forms of communication were emphasized instead of focusing on complex, expository writing.
The result of a teacher training dominated by student-interest and minimally-guided instruction was that, oddly enough, we were not trained in how to actually teach. Our training felt more like a philosophy of teaching degree than ensuring students could learn the tangible skills required for success in high school and beyond. As a result, as with many new teachers, the majority of our first experiences with teaching were filled with hours of searching for curricula or making plans from scratch, rather than focusing on whether or not students were actually learning—or worse, feeling unable to assign work for fear of not having time to grade it. Clearly, this is not a sustainable model and ultimately harms student learning and teachers’ morale.
Simplifying teaching to improve learning
Teacher training is stuck in a model that includes extensive and expensive coursework, followed by varying lengths of student-teaching that ultimately don’t prepare us for a sustainable workload. As Deans for Impact notes, there is very little time or focus given to purposeful practice in authentic teaching environments. Most teachers are simply put in a sink-or-swim position in their first classroom, while the message from veteran teachers is to “just survive” the first few years until you have built your curriculum.
Thankfully, though we did not receive much purposeful practice in our teacher training, we were fortunate to participate in programs like Breakthrough Collaborative and Minnesota Reading Corps prior to teacher training. These programs helped us understand how instrumental a sustained classroom experience with a set curriculum is to developing and rapidly improving the craft of teaching instead of the craft of curriculum development.
Additionally, rather than spending an inordinate amount of time in teacher training learning how to create and write lesson plans from scratch, our training should focus on improving instruction and lesson delivery using high-quality curricula as a foundation. Teachers should not be expected to create, teach, and revise curricula on their own, yet our training makes it seem as though this is sustainable.
Finally, teacher training programs should embrace the latest, most comprehensive cognitive science research available on literacy and learning for pre-K, elementary, and beyond. Empowering educators with these reliable insights on how we learn best should be a first priority if we are to take our profession seriously.
In the U.S., there is a system that continues to place the least experienced teachers in classrooms needing the best instruction. It does not help that many newly-trained teachers too often lack the fundamental training in literacy needed to even have a chance at being effective teachers. Continued and persistent educational inequity will not be addressed until we bring the science of learning into our preparation programs and give new teachers the research-informed training they and their students deserve.
Written by Jasmine Lane and Jon Gustafson for The Thomas B. Fordham Institute ~ February 12, 2020