Could push to improve teacher training start by taking a cue from flight schools?

The burn-out rate for teachers in this country is high. Nearly half leave the profession within five years. That doesn’t come without consequences, American schools are falling behind. Some teacher educators are looking for what it would take to better prepare teachers, beginning in an unlikely place.

Before pilots can fly a plane, they have to follow systematic training.

“All the procedures and trainings are very well defined,” says Scott Pace, who is learning to be a flight instructor at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Massachusetts.
Pace’s students will have to pass a series of exams demonstrating specific skills before they can take flight. It’s all carefully supervised and closely regulated, because the stakes are high.

“My number one job as a flight instructor will be to keep the student safe. The plane safe, the flight safe, the people safe – on board, on the ground, everywhere,” Pace explains. “That’s the number one reason I’m there, because the student is not yet capable.”

And just like pilots aren’t allowed to fly solo until they are capable, Deborah Ball, dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Education, thinks teaching programs should follow the same principle.

That’s the analogy Ball drew last summer when speaking about teacher preparation to a group of higher education leaders at a forum in Aspen, Colorado.

“A person who enters pilot school does not take a plane up on his own when he enters pilot school,” Ball said. “Most teacher educators are proud of saying, ‘Our candidates are out in schools from day one.’ Really? Is that really a great idea that children are having people teaching them reading lessons who don’t know anything about teaching?”

Six months after giving that talk, Ball says little has changed: the process for becoming a teacher still varies from state to state and there’s no common curriculum for what teachers need to know.

“Obviously there are programs that prepare people well for teaching,” Ball said in a recent interview. “Overall, as a nation, we grossly under-prepare people for this work and the fact that it’s so variable and often quite minimal compared to other occupations is shameful.”

The federal Education Department wants to tackle that variability by rating teacher training programs on factors including how long their graduates stay in teaching and how well those graduates’ students perform on standardized tests. Higher education leaders, though, say the department is underestimating how much its regulations would cost colleges and states.

At Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts Jessica Ganz, a middle school teacher in Chelsea, is working on earning her master’s in teaching. In Massachusetts, she needs a master’s degree to teach beyond five years, but she’s not sure it will make her a better teacher.

“A lot of this program is really designed for people who have never stepped into a classroom before, and so that’s good,” Ganz says. “But I feel like some of it is also really repetitive.”

Related: Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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