Nation's Biggest Teacher-Prep School Revamps Training
Arizona State undergraduates must prove classroom mastery
School after school in the Phoenix area has a banner hanging on the side of the building: iTeachAZ.
It's shorthand for Arizona State University's new flagship undergraduate teacher education program, which integrates several high-profile—and hotly debated—reforms to teacher preparation today.
Under the program, which debuted formally this school year, ASU requires a yearlong student-teaching apprenticeship for all undergraduate education majors, during which time they must demonstrate mastery of specific teaching skills as measured by a popular teaching framework.
While many of the changes under way have been tried elsewhere, there's an important issue of scale taking place here: ASU is a public state institution that prepares hundreds of teachers a year. It is, in fact, the largest undergraduate education program in the country.
It is the type of school, in other words, that continues to serve as the engine of teacher preparation in the United States—and that has been the target of decades of harsh criticism.
The goal of the project, according to its leaders, is to graduate teachers who, in their first year on the job, match the effectiveness of second-year teachers. Getting there has meant no less than an entire shift in philosophy, according to Mari Koerner, the dean of ASU's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.
"The idea was to have a college of education that was part of the solution, as opposed to one that was only defining problems," Ms. Koerner said. "For a research level-one college, it's a different perspective."
Ms. Koerner, a sprightly, animated presence at ASU, herself models the best of teaching practices. She poses questions. She avoids jargon. She challenges orthodoxies. She presses her newest faculty members about the appropriate place of theory-rich "critical pedagogy" in teacher education. She's also a driving force of the changes here, and faculty members at Arizona State largely credit her for moving the student-teaching experience from the fringe to the heart of teacher preparation.
"She never wavered from the first, saying to the faculty, 'We are going to have a clinically based program. Fight all you want about it, we are going to do it,' " recalled Nancy J. Perry, the assistant dean for clinical experiences.
Much of the groundwork for the shift had been laid by a prior endeavor that, while largely considered successful, had operated in isolation from ASU's campus-based teacher training.
In 1999, the school used a federal grant to set up seven student-teaching sites using the "professional-development school" approach. Under the venture, aspiring teachers worked for a year under the supervision of a K-12 teacher, while pedagogy classes were taught by ASU professors on site, to improve the connection between coursework and practice.
The sites "were very separate, and actually, in many cases, a bone of contention," Ms. Perry said. "We weren't really learning from the grant; we weren't necessarily learning how to bring the knowledge into the college. There was always the question of scalability and whether faculty would agree to go out and teach in the districts."
Ms. Koerner's push was, essentially, to require the site-based approach for all undergraduate teacher preparation—no excuses.
The earlier efforts "gave us an incubation period of 10 years—and the confidence to say that this will never be integrated until we decide it's going to be the model for all our teachers," Ms. Koerner said.
The iTeachAZ program was piloted last year and expanded to 500 teacher-candidates this year. By the end of 2012, all undergraduate education majors will participate.
So far, ASU has been wildly successful in bringing in grant funding to support iTeachAZ. It has received some $77 million in federal teacher-quality funding, in addition to $19 million from philanthropist T. Denny Sanford to support the changes and related ventures in Arizona schools.
Ms. Koerner, though, says iTeachAZ is meant to be seamless. There will be no more "siloing"; candidates will be trained the same way regardless of funding sources.
In a step up from the former professional-development-school programming, iTeachAZ emphasizes a set of skills all teacher-candidates must master and demonstrate during student-teaching.
Each candidate is observed and scored a total of five times by an ASU faculty member trained on a well-known teaching framework. Then, he or she is given feedback via a structured discussion in which each teacher is complimented on a skill successfully mastered, and told of one area that needs strengthening.
ASU uses the teaching framework devised for the Teacher Advancement Program, a school reform model run by the Santa Monica, Calif.-based National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.
Today, aspiring teacher Liliana Solorio is receiving the results from her first observed lesson. Her clinical supervisor, earlier in the day, observed her teaching 1st graders how to identify and construct related number sequences: 4 + 5 = 9, and so therefore 9 - 5 = 4. Ms. Solorio has had time to review a videotape of the lesson, too.
"I thought I tied the lesson to standards and objectives well and why we were learning about them," Ms. Solorio shares with the clinical instructor as the conference begins. "I think I needed to do more on getting academic feedback."
As it turns out, her clinical professor largely agrees with her assessment. (Both candidate and professor use a 5-point scale to score the different teaching skills, then they compare their scores.)
During a practice exercise, the professor says, she noticed some students counting on their fingers. So, while many arrived at the correct numeric answer, some did not grasp the concept of related equations.
"Your exercise was aligned, but you didn't give them enough examples to get there," the professor says. "What could you have done to elicit more feedback?"
Her gentle urging helps Ms. Solorio come up with a new idea: Ask students to explain their reasoning in writing—something that will generate more-detailed information and provide pupils with additional writing practice.
More than 100 ASU faculty members have been trained on the TAP framework, and they largely say it has helped give teacher-candidates a common language for discussing teaching.
"Before TAP, students would have a Rolodex of information but maybe not know how to apply it," said Martha Cocchiarella, the assistant division director of teacher preparation at the education school. "It makes you deconstruct your teaching."
At Arizona State, the framework also serves to gauge teacher-candidates' progress, an area that, in teacher education historically, has been based on anecdotes from principals and supervising teachers.
"You'd hear things like, 'Well, there are no major issues with classroom management, no major professionalism issues, and the teacher-candidate is really nice,' " recalled Michelle Rojas, the director of iTeachAZ and a former clinical instructor. By contrast, "the TAP instructional rubric allows us to make informed decisions about how to support teacher-candidates, and, in some cases, whether they will complete our program."
By the end of the program, candidates must score a 3—a rating indicating proficiency—on the 5-point TAP scale. Next fall, ASU will also begin to award letter grades to candidates for student-teaching, based partly on the observation scores.
ASU's work to move teacher preparation closer to K-12 classrooms has also necessitated closer relationships with school districts across the state—no small task considering that Phoenix, which doesn't have a unified school district, counts more than 25 of them.
Each partner district enters into a formal governance arrangement with ASU; professors and district staff members meet at least once a month to plan, troubleshoot, and address candidates' needs.
As Hilary Misner, the executive director of ASU's $43 million federal Teacher Quality Partnership grant, puts it: "In order to be true partners, you have to expose the good, the bad, and the ugly."
This past summer, ASU hosted representatives from many of the partner districts to discuss areas in which those districts felt more emphasis in senior-year coursework was needed. Two emerged in particular from those discussions, Ms. Perry said: ensuring teacher-candidates come away with a more specific understanding about how to generate and use assessment data, and making sure they come with strong literacy-instruction abilities.
Meanwhile, the longer student-teaching commitment provides a clear incentive for districts to participate, said Jeffrey Smith, the superintendent of the 2,900-student Balsz school district, in Phoenix, one of the newest partners.
"For a long time, teaching was seen as a part-time job, and the old student-teaching model was kind of like that—you got someone who learned how to start or end the school year," Mr. Smith said. "We're finding that teaching is an incredibly complex skill. ... I think these student-teachers are more dedicated, and that's what we want from our teachers."
One big factor helping to accelerate change at ASU was the involvement and support of top university officials. That is no small vote of confidence in Ms. Koerner and in teacher education in general, a field often treated as second-class.
In successive reorganizations in 2009 and 2010, ASU President Michael M. Crow and Provost Elizabeth Capaldi united three formerly independent teacher education schools at ASU into a new institution, the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, under Dean Koerner's leadership.
Though spurred in part by budget pressures, the university leaders intentionally merged a research-oriented school focused on the preparation of scholars with one that had focused mostly on undergraduate preparation. (A newer, third school focusing on undergraduate and master's-level preparation was also folded in.)
"Research universities tend to focus on graduate education, and teacher preparation is often separate, and I actually think that is quite detrimental," Ms. Capaldi said. "We saw an opportunity to bridge that divide. Putting [all the programs] into the teacher-prep college was a statement that producing high-quality teachers is our priority."
President Crow said the investments in improving teacher education were also spurred by a drive to do something to improve lackluster state K-12 academic performance.
"We're unwilling to accept this notion that it's the school boards' fault, the state funding model's fault," Mr. Crow said. "We are responsible, at least in part, for the outcomes of the K-12 enterprise."
ASU's structural transformations help illuminate some of the major tensions and debates playing out in university-based teacher education in the United States—among them, the role of scholarship versus that of preparing teachers.
Officials at the American Educational Research Association protested the reorganization, fearing it would affect scholarship. Concerns about university rankings were raised. But Ms. Koerner says the opposite has, in fact, happened: Rankings remain competitive.
"There's this assumption in the field that you can't have an elite, selective doctorate program and still train teachers," Ms. Koerner said. "And that's wrong."
The legacies of those tensions are nevertheless long-standing. One of the continuing challenges is bridging the traditional status divide between professors who specialize in producing research and clinical faculty members.
"Trying to integrate the faculty in meaningful ways that aren't sentimental and aren't inauthentic is not easy," Ms. Koerner said. "Territory and title are everything in higher education, and some people don't want to give up the prestige of only working with graduate students."
Clinical professors continue to provide the bulk of the teaching at the iTeachAZ sites, but gradually, more tenured faculty are participating.
Associate Professor Yolanda De La Cruz is one of about six tenured faculty members who have taught an on-site pedagogical class as part of iTeachAZ. At first, she opposed the moving of senior-year pedagogy classes to the teaching sites. Now, she says it has opened up new teaching opportunities as well as sites for research.
"I fought it all the way, to keep methodology courses on campus. But it's worth it now," Ms. De La Cruz said. "I would never have seen the kind of growth in my students that I'm seeing now, if I were on campus."
Dean Koerner says ASU's efforts continue to be a work in progress: She and other leaders want the university's doctoral programs to become more closely linked to the preparation of K-12 teachers, so that the research produced directly helps inform and improve the college's undertaking.
And a redesign of lower-division classes to increase content-knowledge preparation will be completed by 2013.
Meanwhile, faculty members here are open about other aspects of iTeachAZ that they believe offer room to grow.
Juliet E. Hart, an assistant professor of special education, would like to see a more concerted research effort among faculty members to study whether the changes under way are helping to increase K-12 student learning.
"This has the utmost potential for making a difference in K-12 preparation in Arizona, but it comes with a corresponding need for rigorous research to determine its efficacy," she said. "We need to guard against taking a post-hoc approach."
One thing is certain: Those conversations will continue at ASU. After all, President Crow says he has a bottom line for the teacher education efforts at the university.
"We'll know we're doing the right thing," he said, "when we've made significant impacts on K-12 outcomes, directly and measurably attributable to us."
Vol. 31, Issue 12, Pages 1, 18-19Published in Print: November 16, 2011, as Biggest Teacher-Prep School Revamped