What Learning Experiences Prepare Effective Future Teachers?

UVA researchers are studying which elements of teacher preparation programs connect to successful early-career teaching.

Audrey Breen

Millions of dollars are spent annually on professional development for veteran teachers aimed at increasing the quality of teaching in America’s classrooms. But what about the preparation these teachers get before entering the classroom?

A team of researchers, led by Peter Youngs, professor of education at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development, has been tracking teacher candidates from their time as students preparing to become teachers into their first few years of teaching. Their aim is to help identify what happens in university-based teacher preparation programs that enhances the quality of teaching in individuals once they enter the profession.

The research team recruited approximately 500 elementary candidates from five universities in three states who were in their final year of teacher preparation in 2015-16 and 2016-17. These individuals participated in the study as teaching candidates by completing four surveys. Of these individuals, 175 continued participating in the study as first- and second-year teachers in grades Kindergarten through 5.

During the study, the team conducted classroom observations of 83 of the early-career teachers while they taught English language arts (ELA) and mathematics lessons. The study participants also completed surveys and participated in interviews. The other 92 first- and second-year teachers completed surveys and participated in interviews, but they did not participate in classroom observations.

We talked with Youngs about the study and some of the lessons he and his team have learned.

Q: How has this study provided insight into what happens in university-based teacher preparation programs and how that translates into quality teaching after graduation?

A: In this study, we have used two unique assessments to assess beginning teachers’ enactment of ambitious instruction in ELA and mathematics. With regard to initial results, we have found that elementary candidates’ opportunities to learn about general principles of instruction and general methods of teaching during teacher preparation were associated with higher ratings during their first year of teaching for instructional scaffolding and disciplinary demand for both ELA and mathematics. Instructional scaffolding and disciplinary demand are both key aspects of rigorous, high-quality instruction.

We also found that first-year teachers’ creation and maintenance of productive learning environments in both ELA and Mathematics had positive results. Such environments are characterized with high levels of student engagement and prosocial behavior, clear rules and routines, and also with infrequent disruptions or incidents of off-task behavior. In both subjects, creating those environments was associated with teachers’ enactment of instructional practices that led to students’ deep, conceptual understanding of academic content, helping them meet rigorous learning goals.

But our findings are mixed. For example, we have also found that in mathematics, opportunities during student teaching to learn about and practice content-specific ambitious instructional practices were positively associated with two aspects of first-year teachers’ ambitious instructional practices: representation of content and instructional scaffolding. However, we also found that such opportunities were negatively associated with their ability to create or maintain a productive learning environment.

Q: What were some of the benefits of following such a large number of pre-service elementary teachers into their first two years of full-time teaching?

A: One benefit of following a fairly large sample of beginning teachers into their first years of teaching is that we have been able to examine how teachers’ personal characteristics, their opportunities to learn in courses and student teaching, and resources in their schools are associated with their instructional quality and their knowledge, self-efficacy, beliefs, and retention. In terms of instructional quality, we have focused on teachers’ enactment of ambitious instruction. We defined “ambitious instruction” as instruction that promotes students’ deep, conceptual understanding of academic content and helps them meet rigorous learning goals.

A second benefit of the large sample is that the five institutions prepared elementary teachers from a wide range of backgrounds who entered a wide range of elementary schools. That is, our sample has enabled us to better understand the role of context in beginning teachers’ development of ambitious instructional practices, particularly the ways in which features of their elementary school contexts matter (e.g., alignment with student teaching contexts, curricula, support from colleagues).

A third benefit is that we have been able to assess whether the same factors, such as personal characteristics, school resources, and school context, are important for both ELA and mathematics outcomes. Most prior studies of teacher preparation have focused on a single subject.

Q: What were some of the challenges of the study?

A: One challenge in conducting this type of research is that many elementary teacher preparation graduates (including a substantial percentage of the teaching candidates who initially participated in this study) either (a) don’t go into teaching or (b) go into teaching, but not in grades K-5 as general education teachers. Instead, some teach at the early childhood or middle school levels or teach students with disabilities (such teachers were not eligible to be part of our study).

Another challenge in carrying out this type of research is that the beginning teachers who did participate in our study worked in more than 50 school districts in more than 15 states. This meant that our team needed to obtain permission from each district to conduct research with one or more participants and we needed to travel to many of these districts to carry out classroom observations. 

Q: Why is a study like this so critical in efforts to improve teaching and learning?

A: Teacher education must be a key facet of efforts to identify and reward effective elementary teachers. This study is designed to increase our understanding of how teacher education programs help prepare elementary candidates to engage in ambitious instruction in ELA and mathematics. Such cross-institutional work, with data collected from a relatively large number of candidates, is useful in identifying effective strategies, including indicators of courses and field experiences, for preparing novices.

The instructional practices of elementary teachers, given the long tail of their potential effects, are important levers for improving student outcomes. Ultimately, this project will contribute to building the knowledge base for designing high-quality teacher preparation that supports elementary candidates with a range of background experiences, beliefs, and knowledge.

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