Harvard University To Ground Teacher Education in Urban Experience

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Harvard University's graduate school of education is cutting back enrollment in its teacher-preparation program for one year, while faculty members attempt to ground it better in the practicalities of working in urban schools.

Though details of the retooling still are being hammered out, the small but influential program intends to give its students much more work experience in public school classrooms. What's more, the school wants to strengthen the training it offers to teachers in the middle of their careers. And it even plans to consider preparing candidates for alternative licensure.

"We are taking a look at our environment and saying, 'We need to step back and have a look at what we're doing,'" said Katherine K. Merseth, the faculty member who is leading the redesign. "Not to say that what we're doing is bad, but how can we do it better?"

Education school leaders saw several reasons for the overhaul, including the trend toward new state requirements for teachers that stress academic-content knowledge and classroom skills over coursework, the nationwide move to set higher standards for student performance, and the lagging achievement of many poor children.

Katherine K. Merseth

Emblematic of the changes to come will be a new Cambridge-Harvard Summer Academy, which the graduate school faculty recently approved, to begin this June.

Even before they start their fall coursework, Harvard students beginning their teacher-preparation program will be placed for several weeks in a local public high school where they'll spend mornings team-teaching groups of summer school students under the guidance of an experienced educator.

Other ideas on the table include:

  • A new master's degree designed to give experienced teachers advanced training focused on specific skills, such as bilingual education;
  • More coursework aimed at showing new teachers how public policy and leadership roles can be used as levers for change; and
  • Ensuring that graduates of the program are well-prepared to begin work toward earning certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

The graduate school also plans to form a partnership with the Boston public schools to create professional- development schools, in which Harvard students would work alongside experienced teachers during the academic year, much the way that doctors-in-training work as interns in teaching hospitals.

"I want the boundaries between the schools and the ivory towers to be much more permeable," Ms. Merseth said. "I want our faculty going to schools more often and for school people coming here more often."

Switched in Midstream

As the changes unfold, Harvard will be joining a growing number of schools of education that are emphasizing the preparation of teachers to work in urban schools. ("Northeastern Urban Ed. Program Emphasizes Hands-On Learning," Nov. 3, 1999.)

Still, the speed with which Harvard is moving has caught some prospective students off guard. The decision to cut enrollment during the redesign phase— from about 90 this year to about 55 next—was made after the candidates for next year's incoming class had applied to the school.

A recent Boston Globe story anonymously quoted a rejected applicant who said the temporary cutback calls into question Harvard's commitment to help Boston's schools, which will need to hire as many as 400 teachers next year.

But others lauded the school's decision to dive headfirst into the project rather than wait another year to begin. Said Rachel Curtis, a Boston school official who has coordinated district training programs: "We've been pushing hard to have higher education institutions that are preparing our folks move the locus of their training into the schools."

Even at full capacity, Harvard's is a small program. The roughly 90 students at the graduate school this year who are preparing to teach represent less than 15 percent of its overall enrollment. Most students there concentrate on research, administration, or public policy.

"Harvard will never be training thousands of teachers like some other institutions," Ms. Merseth said. "However, we feel if we can get this right, we can work with some other institutions to share what's working and make a contribution that way."

Vol. 20, Issue 31, Page 9

Published in Print: April 18, 2001, as Harvard University To Ground Teacher Education in Urban Experience
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