Published Online: March 19, 1997

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Professional-Development Schools Stir Debate

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Touted as a significant system for grooming teachers, professional-development schools are receiving a critical look from teacher-educators now that they're not so new anymore.

In recent years, a growing number of universities and schools have set up these clinical schools, which link a college of education and an elementary or secondary school to create a learning and research environment for teachers-in-training and current teachers.

Several leading teacher education groups have hailed the approach as a route to improving teacher quality. And the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education is in the midst of a two-year project to devise standards for professional-development schools. ("Holmes Group Urges Overhaul of Ed. Schools," Feb. 1, 1995.)

But, as highlighted in a debate at the recent American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education conference in Phoenix, some educators are wondering how well the PDS concept works and whether it should be made universal.

"There's a good bit of people who are doing professional-development schools, whether they're doing them well or not, who are standing in judgment of people who are not doing them," said Mary E. Diez, the chairwoman of the education department at Alverno College in Milwaukee, who raised concerns about making the professional-development-school model universal during last month's AACTE debate.

The debate, said Ms. Diez, who also headed the planning committee for the conference, was staged as an attempt to "unpack" some of the issues about such schools.

Beyond the Campus

The idea of professional-development schools entered into the mainstream with the 1986 "Tomorrow's Teachers" report by the Holmes Group, a network focused on revitalizing teacher education, according to Ismat Abdal-Haqq, the coordinator for AACTE's clinical schools clearinghouse.

Although some clinical schools existed in various forms before the mid-1980s, the number of such partnerships has grown dramatically since then. Ms. Abdal-Haqq estimates that there are now more than 600 K-12 schools around the country that are organized on that model.

Ohio State University in Columbus is among those that operate professional-development schools. And its dean of education, Nancy Zimpher, spoke in support of the schools at the AACTE conference.

Learning to teach is a multidimensional process that should not be limited to a college campus, she argued. Professional-development schools, therefore, help enhance teacher education by showing teacher-educators real problems from the classroom, she said.

And the mutual benefits to the teacher and the classroom create a setting of "reciprocal renewal," added Ms. Zimpher, who is also the president and chairwoman of the Holmes Partnership, the new name for the Holmes Group.

But her adversary on the issue, Ms. Diez, expressed concern that creating such a model might lead universities to form professional-development schools with a structure in mind rather than a purpose. "Structure is simply too narrow a beginning focus and cuts off other possibilities," Ms. Diez said. "I think people have gotten stuck in what they think is the recipe from on high."

Moreover, Ms. Diez told the audience of teacher-educators, higher education also needs to shuck any "hubris" and make sure it undertakes projects that are not simply for its own benefit.

On some elements of the debate, the two educators were in concert. Ms. Zimpher, for instance, agreed that for higher education to consider its own interests alone does not meet the "full letter and intent of professional-development schools." But she disagreed that the structure of the schools was highly defined. "It's a misinterpretation to think that the model is so tight," she said.

Flexibility Questioned

Frank B. Murray, the dean of the education college at the University of Delaware in Newark, said that the debate highlights the changes that professional-development schools have brought into teacher education.

Such schools allow the K-12 voice to be heard on the university campus and enable university representatives to be considered the colleagues of K-12 educators, said Mr. Murray, who also serves as the executive director of the Holmes Partnership.

But the approach does not satisfy educators in some arenas. For example, Peter Murrell Jr., the director of the master's-in-teaching program at the Center for Innovation in Urban Education at Northeastern University in Boston, maintains that the PDS model does not give educators enough flexibility to deal with the problems that urban and minority students face.

Instead, he advocates an "anti-bureaucratic" collaboration that also gives parents and community members a voice. Such an effort can better pinpoint and address the particular problems of students, he said.With a collaborative model, Mr. Murrell argued, teacher-educators could avoid "that old sequential model of 'give them some tools, and hope that the tools match up with the challenges that confront them.'"

In general, Mr. Murrell added, he would advise teacher-educators: "Don't impose the structure and then look for ways of solving problems. There may be targets your artillery is not able to hit."

Standards Pursued

Marsha Levine, the director of the professional-development-school standards project for NCATE, said that the teacher-college accreditation group has arrived at a set of draft standards. They include definitions of the relationships between higher education and K-12 and a set of key attributes, such as collaboration and accountability.

Her organization is now examining how the new PDS standards will mesh with current NCATE standards. Professional-development schools are one of several clinical models that could satisfy the accrediting group's standards, Ms. Levine said.

Ms. Levine also said that she believes NCATE's standards for professional-development schools will alleviate most of the concerns that Ms. Diez expressed in the debate."

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