Teacher Preparation

ASU Reforms Elementary Ed. Content Coursework

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 21, 2011 3 min read
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I recently filed quite a long story on the teacher education reforms under way at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

The bottom line here is that this story has implications far beyond ASU, because the questions the school’s leaders are wrestling with are those that all schools of education are, increasingly, going to be under the gun to think about. Many of the changes at ASU are illuminating the core tensions today in teacher education: the role of theory vs. practice, research vs teaching, how to define and measure good teaching, among others.

There were plenty of things in my notebook that I didn’t have room to feature in the story, and one of them is the role of coursework. Especially in mathematics and probably for science, studies show that content-knowledge preparation makes a difference for K-12 student achievement.

So, one part of ASU’s $43 million federal Teacher Quality Partnership grant is to revamp the nature of lower-division courses to increase the amount of content knowledge prospective teachers have.

Right now, prospective elementary teachers meet undergraduate distribution requirements by taking a variety of arts and sciences courses. As part of the project, ASU will design (or change) 40 content courses across the subject area for prospective K-8 teachers. The idea is to eventually make these classes requirements for teachers, which will in essence mean more content classes and fewer electives for elementary majors.

The university’s president, Michael Crow, told me one of his goals is to stop the education degree from being, in his words, “a math-science avoidance degree.”

“You shouldn’t be attracting teachers because they’re trying to avoid something,” he said. “You want them to come because they are interested in everything.”

There are five consortia working together to design eight new courses apiece for English language arts, math, social studies, science, and the arts. The consortia are composed of education faculty, arts & sciences faculty, and faculty from local community colleges. (Such colleges will also offer the classes, since a good number of transfers to ASU come from such institutions.)

The revamped courses aren’t meant to be “dumbed down” classes for prospective teachers, the faculty told me, but rather to avoid the problem of current lower-division classes serving too many functions.

The new classes will be taught using an online element, and the leaders designing them want students not just to improve their grasp of content, but also to think about the process of learning content and how to demonstrate that learning—something that will, the leaders hope, help them become better instructors in the subject.

ASU recruited Lee Hartwell, a Nobel-prize-winning scientist to help the science consortia develop a course on sustainability issues, which will be required for all elementary majors. He told me the course will be designed to help students develop an intuitive sense of quantitative relationships.

In all, there will be six new science courses for teachers, taught in part by scientists. “It’s pretty different,” he said. “Most science departments wouldn’t stoop to do that. They’d consider it below them.”

Again, the proof will be in the pudding here. Will these classes be as rigorous as traditional math and science classes? How will they connect to the revamped student teaching? What will the impact be on the type of student who enrolls in the school’s education programs, as Crow alluded to in our conversation? All those questions will need to be studied and analyzed.

As the dean of ASU’s education school, Mari Koerner, told me, this is a work in progress. Some things will probably need to be revisited and changed. But the school is asking a lot of important questions. We’ll be watching for the answers with interest here at Teacher Beat.

You can read much more about the course reform at ASU’s website. The new courses are being piloted now and through 2012.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.