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Published in Print: November 3, 1999, as Northeastern Rethinks Focus Of Ed. School

Northeastern Rethinks Focus Of Ed. School

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Northeastern is tapping into a larger theme in teacher education.



Many in the higher education community are watching Mr. Fraser closely as he and Jim Stellar, Northeastern's dean of the college of arts and sciences, work to develop one of the nation's first schools of education run primarily by faculty members from outside the discipline.

The idea is to make content knowledge in subjects like mathematics, biology, and English central to teacher preparation, Mr. Fraser said, by engaging arts and sciences professors in every aspect of the education school: choosing curriculum, making hiring and tenure decisions, and conducting research. Such participation will also help ensure the school a prominent place within the university, where it has long been perceived as an unwanted stepchild, he added.

"A number of colleagues across the country have told me I'm crazy to go in this direction," Mr. Fraser said. "We essentially traded autonomy for the active involvement of the arts and sciences faculty. I think it's worth it, but I have no illusions that is not going to sometimes make my life difficult."

The new Northeastern program is consistent with current thinking, which says that too many teachers don't know enough about the subjects they are teaching, said Donald E. Pierson, the president of the Massachusetts Association for Colleges of Teacher Education and the dean of the graduate school of education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

"The collaboration with the school of arts and sciences is essential because that's where students gain their content background,'' Mr. Pierson said. "This is a step in the right direction to address the need for diversity in all areas of the curriculum.''

In making the change, Northeastern is tapping into a larger theme in teacher education.

"This is one of a handful of large institutions that has undertaken this kind of redesign," said David G. Imig, the executive director of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education based in Washington. Recent standardized tests show that "teachers who teach secondary do as well as those in arts and sciences majors. Where we do not hold up is in elementary education. Those taking elementary education courses don't have the in-depth knowledge in their disciplines."

Critics say too much power has been invested in professors from outside education, and they fear that the school of education will not place enough emphasis on methodology.

But not everyone is sold on the new plan. Critics say too much power has been invested in professors from outside education, and they fear that the school of education will not place enough emphasis on methodology. Others worry that professors in the arts and sciences won't have the time or energy to do good work in two disciplines.

The structure that took effect this year coincides with Northeastern's new mission to better prepare teachers for work in urban schools. Classes emphasize recognizing and nurturing racial and ethnic diversity, and prospective teachers are placed in exclusively urban settings to gain firsthand experience throughout their college years. Moreover, the school of education is weaving key partnerships with community organizations that provide after-school programs and alternative schools so that education students will have different forums in which to practice their craft, Mr. Fraser said. In return, the education school will provide essential services to the 63,000-student Boston district and the community groups, including access to current research and nationally known professors.

Change in Approach

"We're proud of our standing as an urban university and committed to making city life better," Richard M. Freeland, the president of the university, said in a statement. "Preparing knowledgeable, gifted people to teach in urban schools is critically important: first, because the pupils deserve able, committed instructors; and second, because the health of our nation's cities is tied closely to the ability of our public schools to educate."

Only a few years ago, many at Northeastern saw the teacher-preparation program as a dumping ground for the academically weak. The school's pass rate on the reading, writing, and subject sections of the Massachusetts Educator Certification Test, the quarterly assessment of prospective teachers, was a dismal 17.6 percent in the summer of 1998--the lowest scores in the state, Mr. Fraser said. Two studies of Northeastern programs conducted in 1997 and 1998 found that the program--then part of the department of education and housed in the college of arts and sciences--had significant deficiencies.

After the studies came out, "I made the argument that we either have to do it right or get out of the teacher education business," said Mr. Fraser, who took over as acting dean of the education school in 1998. "[The program] wasn't working. It was too decentralized, unfocused, and the quality wasn't what it should be."

Mr. Fraser and Mr. Stellar co-wrote the plan for the new school of education in August and September of last year and, after receiving approval from the professors of education, the faculty senate, the university president, and the board of trustees, extended joint appointments to all interested professors in the college of arts and sciences. To their amazement, 22 of the 300 members of the arts and sciences faculty signed up for the project. Their presence boosted the number of education faculty members from six to 28, and the revamped school of education opened in July 1999.

Under the new setup, arts and sciences professors continue to teach in their main disciplines, but they are also responsible for conducting research in education and taking part in partnerships with Boston schools. Each is also required to spend time hashing out hiring and tenure issues, as well as fulfilling other administrative duties.

Critics contend too much power is being given to professors who don't understand the methodology behind teaching.

"It is foolish for an institution to set itself up this way," said Maurice Kauffman, a professor of education who stepped down as the chairman of the old department in 1995. "There need to be many, many safeguards as to the way things are organized."

While he agrees it is important that prospective teachers master the subjects they plan to teach, Mr. Kauffman worries that his colleagues from the arts and sciences will make poor decisions when it comes to curriculum, hiring, and tenure.

"Certainly, we need people in arts and sciences to examine the arts and sciences as part of the teacher-preparation process, but I don't think they can help us identify what aspects of science should be taught," Mr. Kauffman said. "They don't know what a 9-year-old needs."

'Learning Curve'

Tom Gilbert, the new associate director of academic affairs for the school of education and a chemistry professor, admits to a "steep learning curve" for professors like himself.

"For some of us, it is on-the-job training," Mr. Gilbert said. "There is a whole new literature out there. Professors [from the college of arts and sciences] are learning about [the developmental psychologist Jean] Piaget for the first time, and that 'constructives' are more than a style of Russian architecture."

And while David A. Forsyth, the chairman of the Northeastern chemistry department, believes deeply in content knowledge, he plans to watch carefully how professors manage their time. "If somebody is trying to maintain both an active chemistry-research program and ... have a joint appointment where that became a substantial part of their time, it could become a problem,'' Mr. Forsyth said.

Mr. Forsyth won't be the only one watching the program. While many students here acknowledge they don't yet know much about the new structure of their education school, they add that they are thrilled to have the opportunity to develop a content-specific major along with an education minor.

"It is really great being able to focus on history. The merger between the [college of arts and sciences and the education program] made that possible,'' said Gina M. Sartori, a 21-year-old junior and a history major. "When I talk to my history coordinator, our discussions are not just about history, but how to teach it and where I'm going to teach it.''

Vol. 19, Issue 10, Pages 1,14-15

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  • Northeastern University's School of Education is closely integrated with most of the other departments of the College of Arts & Sciences.
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