ORLANDO -- Lee-Anne Spalding’s Elementary School Social Studies class at the University of Central Florida had spread out over the room in small groups. One group of sophomores huddled over a set of poetry books, picking out ones they liked. Others gathered around the white board as Spalding demonstrated how to embed sounds in presentations. Spalding had cut into strips a timeline of the civil rights movement and a third group, sitting on the floor, was putting the events back into chronological order.
In part, Spalding was providing content to her students by introducing them to materials they might use – like National Geographic magazines and the poetry books. But she was also modeling teaching strategies, like small group learning, and introducing activities, like the timeline exercise, that she hoped her students would someday mimic.
“You are more likely to use the instructional strategies I’m proposing to you if you actually do it,” she told her students.
UCF is the largest producers of teachers in the state; the university’s education school enrolls more than 2,000 students. It prides itself on being one of the strongest teacher training program in Florida, a position it has gained, school officials say, by nimbly responding to changes in the profession.
There is no real way to test that claim. The university, like many education schools across the country, must rely on anecdotal evidence from principals and graduates to determine that its programs are working, rather than hard data showing students are performing better.
Nationally, education schools have been criticized for being too easy - taking in some of the lowest-performing students - and pumping ill-equipped teachers into the system, harming student achievement. Schools across the country are trying to mitigate the criticism by changing curriculum or increasing the amount of field experience.
Florida and several other states are creating accountability systems so education schools will develop quantitative ways to measure their programs’ success. But for now, teacher preparation remains oversaturated with options - undergraduate degrees, master’s programs, in-school residencies and online courses - that provide little evidence of their effectiveness. And as thousands of Florida’s baby boomer teachers prepare to retire, there is little consensus about how to best train the next generation.
“I don’t know of any other profession that has this kind of uncertainty about the kind of preparation needed,” said Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship program, which provides an alternative pathway to teaching for career switchers.
The bulk of teachers are still trained in traditional undergraduate colleges of education, which have borne the majority of criticisms. In particular, Levine and others have argued, the schools are not rigorous enough and don’t focus enough on the subject matter content—like geometry concepts or Shakespeare—that teachers need to know in order to pass on the knowledge to their students.
The very idea of an “education degree” may be an antiquated concept, says Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute. He argues that there is little evidence to show that traditional programs’ focus on pedagogy—including classes on child development and how students learn—helps new teachers succeed in the classroom.