How America Prepares its Teachers

Stanford University School of Education professor Linda Darling-Hammond’s new book, touted by education reform haters as an antidote to Obama administration policy, contains a whole section on lessons from Finland, including a glowing description of Finnish teacher preparation. As a fellow veteran Finland edu-junketeer, I can attest that her description is accurate:

Prospective teachers are competitively selected from the pool of college graduates–only 15% of those who apply are admitted–and receive a 3-year graduate level teacher preparation program, entirely free of charge and with a living stipend…Teachers’ preparation includes both extensive coursework on how to teach–with a strong emphasis on using research based on state-of-the-art practice–and at least a full year of clinical experience in a school associated with the university. These model schools are intended to develop and model innovative practices…

In the United States, by contrast, many teacher preparation programs are practically open-admissions and clinical practice is often lacking. Education major SAT scores lag most other disciplines. What’s worse, Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift research found that education majors show among the smallest academic gains while they’re in college:


This chart shows 2009 scores on the Collegiate Learning Assessment controlling for 2005 scores on the same test and a host of other factors–controlling, in other words, for the fact that education majors tend to arrive in college with lower levels of aptitude and preparation. Education departments appear to be educating education majors poorly.

So Darling-Hammond is right: our K-12 students would be better off if teacher preparation programs enrolled smarter students and gave them a better education. But who, exactly, would do that? It seems like the best candidates would be institutions with strong brands, high admissions standards, lots of resources, and education schools staffed by esteemed scholars who have traveled the world studying best education practices. Institutions like Stanford University.

So why isn’t Stanford doing this now?

According to reports filed by the state of California with the U.S. Department of Education, California teacher preparation programs prepared 20,727 teachers during the 2008-09 school year. Of these, 77, or 0.4%, came from Stanford. (The same report puts the number of program completers and initial licenses between 16,000 and 17,000 so there may be some double-counting in the 20,727, but not enough to change the overall relative proportions appreciably.)

Those students didn’t major in the Stanford School of Education, though, because Stanford doesn’t have an undergraduate education major. In fact, it only began offering an education minor a couple of years ago:

The School of Education has long fielded inquiries from undergraduates asking to take classes. But because of its role as a professional graduate school, it never had an organized way to make its resources available to undergraduates, said Jennifer Wolf, director of the minor and a lecturer at the school.

Stanford did, however, grant nearly 200 master’s degrees and 28 Ph.D.’s in education last year. In preparing people to study education, it’s going gangbusters. In preparing people to practice education, not so much.

It would also be difficult for Stanford to adopt the Finland approach of giving students a year of clinical practice in a model K-12 school associated with the university given that the actual K-12 school associated with the Stanford School of Education was nearly shut down for poor performance last year and recently received rescue money from a federal program designed to turn around the bottom five percent of schools in America.

Stanford has a $14 billion endowment, the fifth-largest nationwide. It received over 34,000 applications for admissions this year and accepted only 7 percent of them. It has all the money and students it needs to lead the way in creating a Finland-style teacher preparation pathway–an integrated five-year program, free tuition, clinical practice, model research-based learning environments, the whole nine yards. It is currently doing nothing of the kind. Wouldn’t this be the right place to start?

[Cross-posted at the Quick & the Ed]

Kevin Carey

Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at New America.