Government Initiative Tests Education Graduate Schools

Meryl Davids Landau

After 28 years working at a specialty chemical company, Michael Fowler of Whitestown, Ind., 50, felt the urge to inspire a love of science in teenagers, much as his own high school chemistry teacher had in him. In 2011, he was enticed by a three-year-old master's degree fellowship program for would-be science and math teachers at the University of Indianapolis.

The fellowship, which provides Fowler with a $30,000 stipend for the yearlong program, had him doing intensive coursework in summer 2011, then shadowing and studying teachers in action at a local high school all fall, and, since January, teaching several chemistry classes under the supervision of a teacher-mentor.

That near immediate on-the-ground time in the classroom (along with ongoing coursework) dramatically improves a traditional trajectory that puts future teachers in a K-12 classroom for only a few months at the end of their training, experts say.

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Now, when class members discuss strategies for engaging their own students, "they are able to bring the realities of what they have witnessed into the discussion. It makes it more real," says Kathy Moran, dean of UIndy's School of Education.

The University of Indianapolis is one of many institutions retooling their graduate education programs to take account of the latest thinking. Some are determined to raise their game; some, to stay competitive with alternative teacher-prep pathways like Teach for America, which recruits top college grads into highly streamlined training. And some are responding to new pressure from the government.

"The education sector is regarded as the next healthcare," says Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, N.J., and coauthor of "Educating School Teachers," a 2006 report that was highly critical of the low standards and performance of too many of the nation's ed schools. "Traditional schools are being given opportunities to improve what they do--but I don't think there are going to be unlimited chances."

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Indeed, the push for change comes from the top, in a blueprint issued in fall 2011 by the Obama administration. "Our Future, Our Teachers" laments the shortcomings of many teacher-prep programs, especially the shortage of time actually spent teaching.

States and the schools must follow up on actual performance, the administration report insists, because now schools "operate partially blindfolded, without access to data that tells them how effective their graduates are in elementary and secondary school classrooms."

That's easier said than done, points out Linda Darling-Hammond, an expert on ed school reform and a professor of education at Stanford University, because of the tangle of other contributing variables such as class size, curriculum, and student backgrounds. But she agrees that "there's a relatively small evidence base on what teacher education strategies lead to student learning."

"Our Future, Our Teachers" calls on states to gather meaningful data on the effectiveness of their ed schools. "The picture these feedback systems paint of differentiation in teacher preparation program effectiveness is striking," the report notes. Testing of Tennessee students through grade 12 reveals, for instance, that grads of the most effective ed schools are "two to three times more likely to be in the top quintile of teachers."

Three measures outlined in a 2010 report by the National Research Council are key to an ed school's impact on pupil learning, experts believe: a firm focus on content knowledge, the amount of field experience provided, and the caliber of the teacher candidates accepted into the program.

One of the top performers in Tennessee's 2011 report card on teacher ed programs, Lipscomb University College of Education in Nashville, credits several factors for its graduates' success that reflect all three. An emphasis on content, for example, is illustrated by the three-year-old program granting a Master in Education with a Math Specialty degree.

Besides learning the traditional teaching techniques and theory, says the school's dean, Candice McQueen, future teachers take coursework to deepen their own understanding of geometry, trigonometry, and calculus.

And at some schools (including Stanford, says Darling-Hammond), there has long been an emphasis on clinical experiences. Now colleges nationwide are taking their cue from the hands-on and closely supervised medical school model. "Medical training offers the best integration we know of between theory and practice. Clinical education is taken very seriously there," Levine says.

His foundation, which helped implement the Indianapolis fellowship program Fowler is in along with similar ones at the University of Michigan, Ohio State University, and 14 other schools, made early classroom time mandatory. The foundation is studying the impact grads have on pupil learning, with preliminary results expected soon.

In 2010, Teachers College at Columbia University, where Levine previously served as president, introduced a 14-month master's degree "residency" program for people seeking to teach English as a second language or work with students with intellectual disabilities or autism in the city; candidates spend most of their time apprenticing with teachers in city schools.

At the University of Washington College of Education in Seattle, all first-semester math, social studies, and literacy methods courses are now taught in an elementary school. Future teachers learn methods and the theories behind them from a university faculty member, observe a teacher using the technique, then lead small-group activities with the kids.

"The candidates benefit from a very tightly knit cycle: Learn, plan, practice, reflect, refine, practice," says Tom Stritikus, the college dean.

Taking a step toward the pupil-based evaluation President Obama envisions, some 140 schools have banded together under the leadership of Stanford and the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education to form a consortium dedicated to doing a better job of assessing teacher candidates' performance before graduation. The group plans to develop a standardized measurement system, which may include pupils' work samples, a portfolio of lesson plans, video clips of instruction, and the like.

This type of evaluation is used now at Relay Graduate School of Education in New York, which spun off last year from City University of New York's Hunter College. Relay students--primarily full-time teachers at public charter and district schools--study a curriculum comprising 60 pragmatic and content modules (pacing a lesson, making easy classroom transitions, writing development), online and in occasional discussion groups.

They regularly submit lesson plans for evaluation and, thanks to video cameras in the classrooms where they teach, obtain feedback from professors on their techniques.

At the end of the year, Relay master's candidates are required to defend their abilities by submitting a portfolio demonstrating their successes. Nobody gets a degree without first showing that the students under their care for the year made at least a year's worth of academic progress.

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