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Symposium Puts Focus on Improving Teaching

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New York

A virtual list of who's who in the teacher education business showed up here at a recent symposium to address the future of the field.

While participants and spectators attending the Oct. 25 forum at Teachers College, Columbia University, heard rival viewpoints, they did not get the impassioned debate some had anticipated.

And at the end of the forum, although the roughly 150 people in attendance came up with a vast assortment of policy proposals for improving teacher education, many attendees complained that one day was simply not enough to consider such critical issues as fully as necessary.

The program showcased Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Teachers College and the executive director of the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, who called for more-rigorous teacher preparation programs.

In another session, Wendy Kopp, the director of Teach for America, a private organization that Ms. Darling-Hammond and other teacher-educators have criticized for bypassing the traditional teacher training route, put the onus on school districts to recruit and support more effective teachers.

But the two never came face to face to debate the merits of their viewpoints. "I was sort of anticipating the great Darling-Hammond-Kopp debate of 1996," joked Thomas Sobol, a professor of education at Teachers College and a former New York state commissioner of education.

At the end of the forum, which was jointly sponsored by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Teachers College, participants were divided into small groups and charged with drafting policy recommendations for future action. The final suggestions ranged from creating mandatory internships for teachers to establishing performance-based certification and licensing rules.

Many participants emphasized that there was not enough time to discuss, let alone recommend, further policy. "We wish to avoid a 'quickie' policy statement that trivializes these issues," one group wrote in its report.

Creating Better Teachers

Ms. Darling-Hammond began by describing her own entry into the teaching force through an alternative-certification program. When she entered the classroom, she said, "I did not know how to teach students who had real needs."

Effective teachers, Ms. Darling-Hammond said, need knowledge of subject matter, awareness of child development, familiarity with a variety of teaching strategies, and an ability to avoid stereotypes in dealing with children. "If entire educational systems repeatedly misjudge or work the wrong way with certain populations of children, then we have a national problem," she said.

Her remarks paralleled the recommendations put forth by her commission in its long awaited report, "What Matters Most: Teaching for America's Future," which called for upgrading teacher education, reforming the licensing and induction process, and improving professional development. ("Teaching Focus Called the Key In Reform Push," Sept. 18, 1996.)

Another speaker, John Goodlad, the co-director of the Center for Educational Renewal at the University of Washington, warned of setting standards for teacher education and then keeping the gates "loosely latched" for others who wish to enter the profession.

He also expressed concern about "cash cow" schools of education, noting that the teacher education institutions involved in his group's network had to give a firm commitment to strengthening teacher education.

But Ms. Kopp, whose Teach for America is also based here, said that she felt the debate was not framed the right way.

"The bottom line is, we've sort of created a false debate between alternative certification and university-based routes to certification. I think we need to move beyond that debate and get to the end goal of making sure all kids get great teachers," Ms. Kopp said.

"We need to approach it from two ends,'' said Ms. Kopp. "We need to improve schools of education, and we also need to improve ways school districts recruit, support, and develop teachers," she said.

She proposed that districts be given "the freedom to recruit the people they need," whether from inside or outside schools of education.

Ms. Kopp said that Teach for America, a privately organized national teacher corps whose members work in rural and inner-city schools, exists solely to meet the immediate needs of underserved populations and was not intended to serve as a model for systemic reform in teacher preparation.

Teachers'-Eye View

The forum also included a panel made up of 10 local teachers who discussed education-reform issues that reached beyond the teacher education agenda.

In separate interviews following the discussion, most of the panelists expressed a desire for stronger and more supportive teacher preparation programs.

"We need scholarly teachers," said Olivia Lynch, a teacher and director of the School for Academic and Athletic Excellence in the New York borough of Manhattan. "They have to have a really rich education."

Ms. Lynch said that most of the time city-based teachers get a pat on the head simply for teaching in an urban setting. "Instead of talking about remediating, you need to accelerate," she said, "and to accelerate you need scholarly people."

Melissa Martinez, a teacher at the W. Haywood Burns School in Manhattan, said that if she had to do it over again, she would spend two years as an apprentice teacher rather than go through "a trial-and-error kind of thing" in the classroom.

Leo Casey, a teacher at Clara Barton High School in the borough of Brooklyn, agreed on the need for an apprenticeship that would give time for slowly learning the craft.

Mr. Casey said that districts should provide better support for prospective and new teachers.

Almost no one wants to take on the job of overseeing the teachers-in-training, he said. "The lowest-status job is to supervise student-teachers."

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