Published Online: August 5, 2011

N.Y. Thinks Outside Teacher Education Box

President of the American Museum of Natural History, Ellen V. Futter in the Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth in the Priest Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, New York. The exhibitions in the Hall of Planet Earth feature earth and planetary science content that will be a key resource in the museum MAT program.
—Melanie Burford/Prime for Education Week

Of all the states that have taken steps to rethink systems for preparing teachers, New York appears to be experimenting with the greatest variety of approaches.

Under a series of actions by the state board of regents over the past 1½ years, it has approved the first new graduate school of education in the state in more than half a century; cracked open the door to allow nonuniversity programs to prepare teachers at the graduate-degree level; and financed a variety of “clinically rich” pilot training programs at traditional schools of education.

The state is also in the beginning phases of tying a series of teacher assessments to its tiered-certification system, a move that ultimately will require all teachers to pass performance exams and demonstrate their impact on student learning to receive a professional certificate.

“The regents are interested in figuring out how they use all the levers at their authority to drive an increase in teacher effectiveness throughout the state,” John King, the state commissioner of education, said in a recent interview.

Making a priority of more hands-on, practical training linked closely to student achievement reflects a call from many in the teacher-preparation world, from the U.S. secretary of education to teacher education accrediting bodies.

But New York officials have promised much and face obstacles to their state’s agenda that are as much conceptual as practical. Several of the newest ventures have raised eyebrows among traditional teacher-educators for de-emphasizing a more theoretical approach, even as others hope the momentum continues.

New York’s steps have been aided by its unique governance structure, which gives the regents’ board oversight of P-12 education, higher education, and teacher certification, roles that are governed by several boards in other states.

“New York is very brave in taking this on,” said Robert L. Hughes, the president of New Visions for Public Schools, which operates an unusual teacher-residency preparation program in partnership with Hunter College, part of the City University of New York. “I hope the state leadership will continue to eat its Wheaties.”

New Programs, New School

Look no further than New York City’s famed American Museum of Natural History, which won a share of some $12.5 million in a competition organized by the state regents, for an idea of what’s on the state’s teacher education agenda.

Next summer, it will become the first museum in the nation to formally train secondary-level science teachers, who will earn their master’s degrees under the authority of the board of regents.

The state competition was designed to underwrite pilot programs—both within and outside higher education institutions—to train teachers at the graduate level.

The museum’s president, Ellen V. Futter, described the program as a natural outgrowth of the museum’s engagement in science education, which includes long-standing partnerships with several schools of education around the city; a history of providing teacher professional development; and a corps of professional educators on staff, in addition to 200 scientists.

“Our role in science education and working with schools has become increasingly formal over the last couple of years,” Ms. Futter said. “There is a crisis in science education, and we have felt it incumbent on us, given the resources we have and the leverage we have, to play a prominent role in addressing that.”

The museum’s program, like other teacher-residency programs, includes a yearlong student-teaching apprenticeship in schools. In addition, it puts a special emphasis on ensuring teachers-in-training not only know science content, but also engage in the scientific process: They will be expected to work alongside scientists during one part of the program.

A handful of other recent actions by the state board push the teacher-training envelope in other ways. In February, the regents approvedRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader the first new education school in 80 years, the Relay School of Education, which opens its doors this summer.

The program grew out of a teacher-training-program partnership, called Teacher U, between Hunter College and three charter-management organizations. That program focuses on the inculcation of specific teaching techniques and strategies and the use of video analysis to help candidates improve their practice. To graduate, candidates also must demonstrate during student-teaching that they helped their students gain at least a year’s worth of learning. ("College and Charter Groups Team Up to Train Teachers," Feb. 6, 2008.)

According to Norman Atkins, the president of Relay, the school will maintain those features, while pushing the boundaries of teacher education even further—for instance, by doing away with the typical series of three-credit-hour courses in favor of 60 competencies students must master.

“Think about the traditional course if you’re a reading teacher. It finishes in one semester,” Mr. Atkins noted. “It’s not as useful as taking the instruction in reading and developing skills around that over the course of two years.”

The state is investing in traditional teacher education institutions, too. A majority of winners in the contest were traditional schools of education, a heartening sign for some.

“While I was dean, a concern I’ve had about the reform mentality was the idea it couldn’t happen in existing schools of education. I think that’s false,” said Deborah Eldridge, who until recently led the teacher education school for Lehman College, located in the Bronx.

Lehman’s grant under the state competition will be used to support stipends for students in a federally sponsored, fifth-year teaching-residency program launching this summer with five schools in that New York City borough.

One of its novel features: recruiting ethnically diverse teacher-candidates with high GPAs from the community in which they will serve, Ms. Eldridge said.

Former Chief’s Role

Those in New York’s teacher education community agree that many of the changes bear the imprint of David M. Steiner, the dean of the education school at Hunter College, who recently returned to that position after a stint as state education commissioner from 2009 until this year.

Before his “sabbatical,” Mr. Steiner was instrumental at Hunter in introducing the use of video analysis to offer specific critiques to teacher-candidates keyed to a teaching framework. He also helped create the Teacher U partnership. (Mr. Steiner recused himself from the Relay decision and from the state competitive-grant program because of his connections to the applicants.)

In an interview, Mr. Steiner identified yet another recent decision by the regents that could potentially shift teacher education. Under the overhaul, the state will, in essence, use its tiered-licensing system to require all teachers to demonstrate student-achievement growth in a manner similar to that at the Teacher U and Relay programs.

In New York, teachers must earn professional certification within five years of receiving an initial license. The process is essentially synonymous with earning a master’s degree. With the overhaul, quietly approved by the regents in May 2010, teachers will need to pass an in-depth demonstration of skills as part of the certification process—along with proof that they have advanced their students’ learning through a value-added metric, where available.

Mr. Steiner believes the changes will cause more teacher education programs to rethink their curricula to ensure teachers are prepared for the review.

“In my view, it’s among the most important work we’ve done,” Mr. Steiner said of the certification shift. “Teacher-preparation programs will undergo major changes. The performance assessments will match the teaching standards, some of which are very granular. Certification will be much more based on observation, and that is a sea change.”

National Debate

The new models and the planned changes have generated widespread discussion in New York, some of them striking at the very heart of what it means to prepare teachers in the 21st century: Should teacher education focus more on the training of scholars and thinkers or on hands-on skills?

Relay’s bid to operate a radically different graduate school of education, for instance, generated concern from eight higher-education-based programs in New York City. Many of them cited concerns that a focus on specific skills and competencies would devalue the production of scholarship that would help inform practice.

Mary M. Brabeck, the dean of New York University’s school of education, for instance, drew a distinction between undergraduate preparation and graduate-level work, the focus on the state’s changes.

“I think there’s a difference between teaching skills and academic learning,” she said, drawing an analogy to medical schools. “A doctor has to learn how to practice medicine—but he also needs to know what is the chemistry and the physiology and anatomy behind that technique.

“In my judgment,” she said, “graduate programs need to come out of places that have both the faculties and the facilities for that kind of theoretical and empirical work, and that’s universities.”

On the flip side are those like Mr. Hughes of the New Visions partnership, who expressed disappointment that the state competition financed only one nontraditional graduate teacher education provider. His group unsuccessfully bid under the state competition to pilot a graduate-level program on its own.

“It’s been a powerful relationship, and we’ve learned a lot,” Mr. Hughes said of his group’s formal relationship with Hunter College. “But we think it’s important to lodge teacher certification and development directly in schools and more forcefully privilege the craft knowledge that emerges in highly effective schools over time.”

The contours of the debate are similar to those that have emerged in the national area of teacher preparation.

Related Blog

In late June, five U.S. senators introduced a billRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader that would give federal grants to states to support programs like Relay, even if they were not run by universities—and that would free recipients from existing teacher education regulations. The proposal recently came under fireRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader from a number of higher education groups, including the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Still other influential groups have, so far, taken a middle road in the debate. Relay’s bid for independence was supported by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, and the Washington-based group featured the school’s approach in a recent report. ("Momentum Builds to Restructure Teacher Education," November 17, 2010.)

NCATE President James G. Cibulka said he expects more states and programs to experiment with competency-based approaches. But he, too, cautioned against teacher training that becomes, in his words, too “vocational.”

“There is a danger in that kind of reform, as there is in any reform, that it could degenerate into something which is very narrow,” he said.

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