‘Clinical Schools': Theory Meets Practice on the Training Ground

By Lynn Olson — April 12, 1989 13 min read
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Like thousands of aspiring educators nationwide, Patricia R. Morey has spent part of this year as a student teacher, gaining her first exposure to classroom life.

But compared with the experiences of her colleagues, Ms. Morey’s introduction to teaching has been, in her words, “richer” and “more intense.” She has participated in an experimental program in Brookline, Mass., that some say could be the wave of the future in teacher training.

For the past several years, a small group of teachers at the Edward Devotion School in Brookline has been trying to create a new kind of clinical-training program that would simultaneously introduce new teachers into the profession, enrich the lives of veteran teachers, and improve student6learning.

Known by a variety of names--"professional-development schools,” “professional-practice schools,” and “clinical schools,” to name a few--fledgling initiatives similar to the Brookline program are springing up in a handful of locales around the country.

They are real schools, jointly operated by universities and school districts, that offer student teachers and novices a much more structured and supportive introduction to teaching than now exists.

Unlike most schools--where the training of future educators is a low or nonexistent priority--these schools will assume the professional education of teachers as a primary function.

Their proponents argue that by helping new recruits meld theory and practice, and by creating settings that are more conducive to experimentation and research, professional-development schools could produce a new generation of more thoughtful and reflective practitioners.

In addition, they say, such schools hold the promise of being better and more stimulating places for students.

The notion of creating improved training sites for teachers received a major push in 1986 with the release of two national reports by the Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession and the Holmes Group, a consortium of research universities dedicated to teacher-education reform.

Both called for the creation of “clinical” or “professional development” schools as part of a larger effort to revamp teacher-education programs. The Holmes Group also plans to publish a new report next fall, “Tomorrow’s Schools,” that will build on its ideas about such programs.

Since 1986, attempts to create professional-development schools have surfaced nationwide. For example:

In White Plains, N.Y., the school board has approved the creation of a new elementary school that will also serve as a clinical-training site for teachers. The school will open in the fall for youngsters in grades K-2.

In Texas, Trinity University has been working with two local school systems to create four professional-development sites at the elementary, middle, and high-school levels.

The Ford Foundation has funded 11 school-university partnerships that are trying to improve the clinical preparation of teachers. Many of these projects--including those in Louisville, Ky.; Pittsburgh; Rochester, N.Y.; and Washington State--are working to create professional-development schools.

The Minnesota Board of Teaching is working on a plan that would require all new teachers in the state to spend one year in a carefully supervised internship as part of the state’s licensure requirements.

Kenneth L. Peatross, executive secretary for the licensing board, said most of the internships would be offered in professional-development schools, where veteran teachers would provide coaching for novices. The board has asked the legislature for $500,000 to help pilot the clinical sites over the next two years.

The American Federation of Teachers also operates a “professional practice schools” project, with money from the Exxon Education Foundation.

The union has published a detailed monograph on the ideas and principles that should undergird such schools and is planning to establish a clearinghouse.

According to experts, the impetus for professional-development schools has come from a variety of quarters, ranging from attempts by school districts to recruit and retain new teachers, to efforts by universities to strengthen teacher education.

In a few states, requirements to develop induction programs for new teachers or better clinical-training programs for prospective ones also have led to the creation of such sites.

But while their genesis and scope may vary, the efforts all share two philosophical underpinnings: discontent with the current clinical portion of teacher training, and a belief that schools and universities must join4forces to improve such programs.

“We’re not going to get better teachers until we get better settings in which to educate them,” notes John I. Goodlad, a professor of education at the University of Washington.

“It’s about time we joined the improvement and reform of schooling with the improvement of the education of educators,” he argues.

According to Mr. Goodlad and others, the haphazard and idiosyncratic way in which novices now gain their practical teaching experience actually works against good teaching.

In its report, Tomorrow’s Teachers, the Holmes Group argued that the field experiences of prospective teachers are “neither broad nor deep.”

Both participating schools and supervising teachers are selected with little attention to the learning experiences that novices need, the report asserts. University supervision of student teachers is minimal. And school districts seldom assume responsibility for such programs.

Most experts agree that it is common for student teachers to be assigned to one teacher, in one classroom, in one school. As a result, prospective teachers rarely are exposed to different teaching styles or to students from diverse backgrounds.

In addition, many argue, such clinical experiences seldom build on what students have learned in their teacher-education programs, and often contradict it.

“Student-teaching tends to be an ad hoc, at-random assignment, conducted on a one-to-one basis,” says Mr. Peatross of Minnesota. “The young professional who brings to the profession the latest in research, the latest in good practice, often is thwarted, if not downright castigated, in that setting because of what veterans tell him.”

For their part, school-district officials argue that universities are sending forth droves of young teachers unfamiliar with the “real world” of the classroom and unprepared to teach. And they claim that universities either ignore or downplay the expertise of practicing teachers.

Professional-development schools are meant to address such problems.

According to their supporters, the creation of professional-development schools would enable university professors and teachers to design a carefully planned clinical experience for novices, one that would take place either before they grad8uate from teacher training, or in the first few years of teaching.

Such an undertaking would give teachers the ability to help set the standards for their profession, they say, by ascertaining what new teachers should know and be able to do, and by creating the kinds of settings that are conducive to such learning.

Where traditional schools are characterized by isolation, these experts assert, professional-development schools would be characterized by collegiality--both among teachers and between school people and university faculty members.

One vision refers to such sites as “centers of inquiry” for both students and teachers, where the focus would be on an active, continuous learning process for everyone in the building.

The experiment at the Devotion school, for example, is the joint project of eight teachers at the school and two professors at Wheelock College.

The program began several years ago at the initiative of two 4th-grade teachers--Vivian Troen and Katherine Boles--who were concerned about the isolation of classroom teachers, the lack of opportunity for career growth, and the deteriorating quality of beginning educators.

“Our impetus for the whole thing was the thought that we’d grow as teachers,” recalls Ms. Boles, “and we also felt that new teachers needed to be trained differently.”

Compared with the limited duration of most student teaching, for instance, interns at the elementary school work full time throughout the school year. Instead of working alone, with just one teacher, the interns work in teams. And they learn from a group of teachers who also work together.

The students’ clinical-training seminar meets one day a week at the college and another day at the school itself. And it is co-taught by a university professor and a teacher.

Meanwhile, the presence of six interns at the school has provided teachers with the time to develop projects of their own. One teacher is researching how children learn to write fiction. Another is creating a new science curriculum. And a third is working at Wheelock as a supervisor and instructor of student teachers.

Marsha Levine, associate director of educational issues for the aft, says the Devotion project captures many of the ideas and motivations behind professional-practice schools.

But like most such programs, it is still in its infancy.

At present, experts say, there is no fully realized professional-development school anywhere in the country. Moreover, there is no blueprint for what such schools should look like and no consensus about their mission.

“People are quite interested” in professional-development schools, says Gary Sykes, assistant to the president of the Holmes Group, and are “groping” for ideas. But, he cautions, “it’s a very elusive topic.”

Some projects, for example, have chosen to stress the education of veteran teachers as well as the preparation of new ones.

In Washington State, the University of Washington, the Washington Education Association, and the Puget Sound Educational Consortium are working with four schools to create a new preservice program for middle-school teachers.

Their effort includes developing a core seminar for students that will be taught by both school and university educators; identifying cadres of student teachers who will rotate through the schools together; and creating teams of teachers who will work with the interns in groups, instead of just one-on-one.

But the program also is placing a heavy emphasis on the professional development of veteran teachers.

Teachers at each site, for example, are being asked to create “action research teams” to explore topics of interest to them. The consortium also hopes to establish “collaborative inquiry projects” across school sites that will involve university professors and teachers in joint research.

If universities want to produce student teachers who reflect on their practice, work cooperatively, and engage in research, argues Nathalie J. Gehrke, associate professor of education at the university and director of the project, then they must help develop a core of veteran teachers who share those traits.

In addition, she notes, school districts like Seattle, which have not yet experienced a teacher shortage, want to invest in the training of their existing workforce.

Another source of debate is whether professional-development schools should also be “restructured schools.”

In its 154-page monograph on professional-practice schools, the aft argues that they should have a three-fold mission: to increase student learning, to support teacher induction, and to generate research directed at the improvement of practice.

“We believe professional-practice schools can be viewed as an element in the process of restructuring schools,” the monograph argues.

In fact, if professional-development schools do not depart significantly from the way schools now operate, the aft warns, they will merely serve to reinforce the status quo for a new generation of teachers: perpetually reproducing the existing problems of schools.

That view is shared by Phillip C. Schlechty, president of the Center for Leadership in School Reform in Louisville, Ky.

For the past year, 24 schools in Louisville have been planning the creation of professional-development programs, as part of a broader restructuring effort within the district. Next fall, seven of those schools will begin working with student teachers from the University of Louisville.

According to Mr. Schlechty, professional-development schools must be restructured schools, because schools as they now operate do not work for the majority of youngsters.

“Professional-development schools, must be exemplars of practice,” he says. “They must be cutting-edge schools. That means they must be in the process of restructuring and redesigning their programs ... so that teachers are inducted into the best possible practices, and not just the most conservative ones.”

In fact, a number of districts working to create professional-development schools--including those in Miami; Rochester, N.Y.; Washington State; and Pittsburgh--are doing so as part of a much broader effort to restructure their programs.

But some worry that asking schools to simultaneously prepare new teachers, reinvigorate teaching veterans, engage in research, and undertake widespread school-improvement efforts may be asking too much.

“For me, the major purpose in creating a professional-development school is to create an institution that will be a place for first-year teachers to learn the clinical skills of teaching,” says Arthur E. Wise, director of the rand Corporation’s center for the study of the teaching profession and a consultant to the Minnesota project.

“A lot of people who are talking about this concept have a much more grandiose notion of it,” he concedes.

Richard F. Elmore, co-chairman of the Holmes Group’s “Tomorrow’s Schools” project, admits that the manifold goals many people now ascribe to professional-development schools are “loading an awful lot onto these organizations.”

“But if we don’t create relatively high expectations,” he cautions, “what we’re going to do is create a more organized, slightly more parochial form of student-teaching. And nobody thinks that student-teaching is working particularly well.”

In Massachusetts, seven sets of school districts and universities--including the Brookline program--are working to put in place aspects of professional-development schools.

Last year, the legislature created a grant program to help develop such sites. Although the program was never funded, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis has said he will seek $250,000 for its operation in fiscal 1990.

According to a paper on the first year’s efforts, Massachusetts educators for the most part are creating professional-development programs in schools “as they are.”

“Restructuring schools may ultimately be important to the creation of professional-development schools,” notes the paper by Barbara Neufeld and Sarah Haavind of Education Matters Inc., a nonprofit research group, “but at the moment, it is not a focus of attention.”

Whether “restructured” or not, educators assert, professional-development schools should not be “hothouse” settings, far-removed from the real life of school districts.

No one describes the schools participating in their professional-development projects as perfect. Some have low student test scores or high turnover rates among pupils.

Many were purposefully selected because they include large numbers of poor and minority students.

In Albuquerque, N.M., for example, the school district, the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, and the University of New Mexico are collaborating to create professional-development programs at two elementary schools, both of which have diverse student bodies.

Donald W. Whatley, president of the teachers’ union, says, “We wanted to make sure that we did not create an artificial environment. We wanted a real-world, tough situation.”

Indiana University Northwest is also engaged in a collaborative venture with teachers’ unions and school districts in Hammond and Gary, Ind., and East Chicago, Ill., to design a program for urban teachers.

All of the schools participating in the program will have predominantly minority student bodies and faculties, says Jose R. Rosario, director of the urban teacher-education program at the university. In addition, he says, the professional-development schools in the program may rotate from one site to another every three years.

“They’ll never be permanent,” he explains. “That will shatter the notion of laboratory settings. It conveys the idea that any school really has a chance to be part of this whole thing.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 1989 edition of Education Week as ‘Clinical Schools': Theory Meets Practice on the Training Ground


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