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Originally published Tuesday, September 3, 2013 at 5:05 PM

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Guest: How to train great teachers

Common Core standards will have little effect on student achievement without high-quality teacher preparation, writes guest columnist Michael A. Lundin.

Special to The Times

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COMMON Core standards reformers seek to increase American academic achievement to levels in high-performing countries. The standards merely, but clearly, state what students should know and be able to do to prepare for work and college.

But the standards will have little effect without high-quality instruction. Indeed, research affirms that superb teacher preparation leverages both successful reform and profound learning.

Moreover, successful reform depends on backfilling holes in teacher preparation in educational programs, which too often send out unprepared teachers to battle the Wicked Witch of Ignorance.

Those of us who have worked with outstanding teachers know why their students excel. They learn subjects broadly and deeply from teachers whose knowledge is broad and deep. They love learning, because their teachers inspired them.

They excel on standardized tests, because instructors taught them to solve problems, to make connections among big ideas and to think in ways that employers value and college professors cherish.

In so doing, such students ward off the flying-monkey goblins of assessment, the source of much reform-related angst. Those students leave school confident of their abilities, ready to nourish connections to colleagues, resources and subject areas.

Becoming an excellent teacher is not for the weak. Alpha teachers attack change like “pit bulls,” as one principal called her Presidential Award-winning math instructors — fiercely productive, terrifyingly tenacious and knowingly independent. Those teachers knew how to bite into reform, yet bury bones for later gnawing.

Alternatively, ill-prepared teachers, and those who do not evolve, stick to the book, blindly follow some prescribed plan, and blandly, maybe, just get through it. Their students learn neither deeply nor passionately.

Ample evidence suggests that the U.S. must reform teacher preparation. The National Council of Teacher Quality boldly rated teacher-preparation programs in Teacher Prep Review, despite blowback from annoyed higher-education institutions.

Of the 1,200 programs in the study, only four earned a four-star rating; about 10 percent earned three stars; 75 percent, one or two stars, and the remaining 14 percent suffered a “consumer alert.”

The National Research Council’s book “The Mathematical Sciences in 2025,” re-emphasized that “the main driver of variation in learning is the quality of the teachers.” That study cited McKinsey and Co.’s findings that high-performing countries — Finland, South Korea and Singapore — select all teachers from the top third of their graduating cohorts. Teacher candidates in those countries are multiply vetted, and in Finland, master’s degrees in subject fields are mandatory even at the middle-school level.

In the U.S., by contrast, only 23 percent of teachers share the top-third ranking except in high poverty areas, where the number drops to 14 percent. Mostly, advanced degrees are not required.

With standardization looming, ironically, U.S. teacher preparation lacks uniformity, especially at the middle-school level. There, poor instruction too often quells students’ interest or kills their confidence.

Nationwide, endorsement requirements for prospective middle-level mathematics teachers, for example, range from a few elementary-math courses to full secondary certification.

Exposing these inconsistencies, Michigan State University professor William Schmidt linked what mathematics middle-school teachers know to what their students demonstrate.

His compelling recommendations in “Breaking the Cycle: An International Comparison of U.S. Mathematics Teacher Preparation,” include recruiting teachers with stronger mathematics backgrounds, implementing more rigorous state-certification requirements for math teachers, and requiring more demanding math courses in teacher-preparation programs.

Alone, the Common Core standards cannot equitably leverage deep learning. Researcher Philip Uri Treisman reaffirmed this in his bombproof statistical argument before the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics last spring. Treisman argued that the best opportunities to learn remain severely encumbered by race and economic status. Sadly, old news.

Fortunately, every day excellent teachers create grand opportunities to learn. Our challenge, then, is to foster greatness in teaching, because the wizard behind the Common Core curtain, although articulate and well-meaning, is alone powerless. With Common Core attitude, however, a well-educated, courageous, heart-in-chest teacher can melt a Wicked Witch.

Michael A. Lundin is professor of mathematics at Central Washington University.

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