During my recent visit to Chile, the deep and growing interest in issues of education was obvious as photographers and journalists crowded to document what was largely an academic gathering to discuss issues of teacher education. Lorena Meckes, a professor of education and one of my hosts at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, joked that eight years ago, “We would have had to buy all the journalists lunch to encourage them to write about education. But now, they call us up and say, ‘What do you have for us?’” However, as Cristián Cox, Dean of the Faculty of Education at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, also noted: “Chilean society is obsessed with education, but also deeply divided about how to go about it.”
As one effort to address those divisions and develop some consensus regarding efforts to improve teaching in particular, while I was in Chile, more than twenty different institutions delivered a statement to the government titled “El Plan Maestro.” The plan—a play on “master plan” as well as the Spanish word for teacher—has been developed by organizations that include the teachers’ union, research centers, institutions connected to teacher education, as well as members of student groups. In addition to a set of policy recommendations more generally aimed at improving the quality of teaching in Chile, “El Plan Maestro” also includes a call for three changes particularly relevant for teacher preparation: 1) A greater focus upon the process of recruiting potential teachers; 2) Stronger criteria to determine the selection of candidates; and 3) development of a set of national standards for the accreditation of teacher education programs.
The call for these changes grow out of a series of concerns about Chilean teacher education as a system. Teacher education programs vary considerably and are numerous—ranging from university-based institutions to private institutions, mirroring the K-12 landscape that includes a mix of public/private, not-for-profit and for- profit schools of variable quality. With no compulsory entrance exam, teacher education programs also vary in terms of selectivity—some programs serving students who have demonstrated high levels of academic performance and others who have not. Furthermore, there’s no required certification or exit exam to determine what students have learned in their teacher education programs or to what extent they are prepared to be successful in the classroom. Adding to this variability, applications to teacher preparation programs have skyrocketed with enrollment in teacher education tripling since 2002. (Current estimates suggest about 100,000 students are enrolled in teacher education institutions—including primary, secondary and special education).
While applicants for teacher education programs increase, educators, national committees within Chile as well as organizations such as OECD have raised questions about the nature and quality of the preparation. Many of these questions echo those in the US and elsewhere including concerns about the ‘gap’ between theory and practice and the relevance of coursework to classroom practice and to the everyday work of teaching.
Even before the delivery of El Plan Maestro, some recent policy developments since 2007 have begun to address these challenges for teacher education. First, institutions that prepare teachers must now be accredited. Second, policy makers put in place a new exit exam for all graduates (although it is not compulsory). Third, educators and policy makers have developed a set of standards—the Estándares Orientaciones para los Egresados de las Carreras de Pedagogía — for recently graduated teachers, published in 2010 by the Ministry of Education. These standards are intended to guide the development of curriculum within teacher education programs—from primary to upper secondary levels of teaching. The standards focus upon the disciplinary content knowledge, the pedagogical content knowledge, and the skills and practices that new teachers need to be able to enact in their classrooms. For instance, the standards include topics related to children’s literature as well as the representations of key ideas: “Teachers know a wide range of literature for children” and “Teachers know a range of representations of the concepts they will be teaching.” These new standards are intended to underscore a conception of teaching as a professional practice; as complex; and one which requires skills, strategies, and approaches that are research-based, and not easily learned through individual experience. In particular, the standards help communicate an understanding, that there are specific aspects of the practice of teaching that must be learned in the context of a deep and extended engagement with peers and more experienced teachers—not simply ‘on the job’ or in unsupported practical experiences in schools.
Despite these developments, recent results of the new non-compulsory certification exam revealed that of the 24 institutions participating, graduates from the less-selective institutions struggled. In at least 8 of those institutions, more than 50% of the graduates scored at what was identified as an ‘insufficient’ level on the exam. Of particular concern is the finding by Meckes, which suggests that the graduates who scored below the minimum requirements on the exit exams are more likely to be employed in lower-income communities. Conversely, graduates who were more successful on the exit exam were more likely to be employed by schools that served higher-income communities—again pointing to considerable inequities for children.
Looking forward, next steps include government funding for research on the current state of teacher education. For instance, faculty based at Centro De Estudios De Politicas Y Prácticas En Educación, CEPPE, at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, developed a survey of graduates of all the teacher education institutions across Chile (more than 28 different institutions have participated so far). The survey measures teacher candidates “opportunities to learn” and to reach the standards for teacher education. The goal of the survey is ultimately, to ‘lift up’ the curriculum and pedagogy within teacher education across Chile by sharing online data on the results of reports by graduates. An institution participating in this survey will get a series of individual, program-based results that describe, for instance, the extent to which teacher candidates report opportunities to learn about the theoretical basis for teaching writing as well as the opportunities candidates report to learn about practical strategies for teaching pupils to write introductory paragraphs and to develop an argument in writing.
At the same time, given that the standards only specify a set of outcomes for teacher preparation without identifying the kinds of learning opportunities that might lead to achieving them, the government has also created a grant program aimed at improving the quality of teacher preparation, and in turn, at stronger teacher performance and increased learning outcomes for students. With this funding, eleven teacher education institutions have begun efforts to redesign courses, improve teaching practices within courses, and, in some cases, redesign specific experiences and assignments in courses in teacher education. For example, the faculty at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (PUC) has identified a set of ‘core practices’ upon which their program will focus (see related work at the University of Michigan and the CATE Project with which I am involved). Correspondingly, PUC faculty have redesigned courses and assignments and have also been working on professional development for other teacher education faculty to help incorporate these core practices into the redesign of the whole program. The funding is also being used to develop specific ways to address the considerable inequity for students, which is mirrored in (and amplified by) inequities in teacher education. One strategy the university has developed is to create a program and a credential or “certificate” specifically for teachers who will be working in low-income, urban areas. Other universities are using this funding to improve their coursework and student teaching experiences; at least one has introduced a mid-program assessment to enable a more timely determination of any gaps and weaknesses in candidate’s preparation; and another institution is using the funding to redesign their program to purposefully connect faculty and staff to the international research community.