David M. Steiner ricochets from one media device to another in a classroom here, coaxing his two dozen students through a lecture on Plato with jottings in English and ancient Greek, a map of post-Classical Athens, and a stick-figure diagram of the philosopher’s famous cave allegory.
It’s not your usual Saturday-morning fare, especially for these students, who Monday through Friday put in long hours as teachers themselves. They have come to Hunter College’s education school for the day. As the pilot group for a new program being devised by their charter school employers and Hunter, they expect to earn master’s degrees in elementary education down the road.
“Our single largest challenge is … people, the challenges around human capital,” said Norman Atkins, the chief executive officer of Uncommon Schools, one of the three charter-management organizations behind the venture.
To recruit, keep, and improve the best people, he said, the three groups needed to come up with a better way for their busy teachers to earn the provisional certification and later the master’s degree required by New York state. Leaders of Uncommon Schools, KIPP in New York City, and Achievement First are confident that such a program will have broad appeal in this city, and envision admitting some 500 students a year in 2011 to the two-year program. Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein has blessed the plan.
The venture, tentatively called Teacher YOU Training Institute, follows other efforts germinated outside universities to boost the power of teacher preparation. The High Tech High charter-management organization in San Diego has notably started its own teacher-licensing program and will soon grant master’s degrees, for instance.
What sets the New York institute apart is the close collaboration between the entrepreneurial groups and Hunter College, the City University of New York’s premier teacher-preparation school. And, it might be said, the involvement of Mr. Steiner, the school’s dean and a scholar known for his cutting criticisms of the teacher-training status quo.
Five years ago, as an education professor at Boston University, Mr. Steiner unleashed a minor tempest with a study of the coursework required for aspiring teachers at 16 leading education schools. He concluded that it was mostly “intellectually barren,” often ideologically skewed to the left of center, and just not very useful in the classroom.
The Hunter dean now has a chance to show how it should be done. According to his collaborators, who said they approached just about every university with a teacher-preparation program in the New York metropolitan area, he singularly embraced the new approach.
“It was hard to find a partner,” David Levin, who heads the KIPP charter schools in New York City and helped found the Knowledge Is Power Program, told the students when they started the teacher-training program this past summer. “They either said, ‘Do it all yourself,’ or they wanted to control it.” Only Mr. Steiner was willing to make the project a true collaboration, the KIPP leader said.
It’s Hunter’s gain to work with schools “that have among the best performance in the city,” offered the dean, who decided to teach the Foundations of Education course himself—his first go at it in seven years.
That course and the 10 others required by the state are being “redesigned from scratch,” say the institute’s leaders, to fit the needs of teachers in the high-expectations climate of the three charter groups, which together run more than two dozen schools serving children from low-income families in New York and other Northeastern cities.
The courses will be co-taught by charter school staff members and Hunter faculty. Three chairs of Hunter education departments were involved in the two courses completed over the summer and fall, one on the “art and science” of teaching and the other on child development.
“The basic goal is to combine the best of practice with the best of theory,” Mr. Levin said.
The teaching course included such in-the-trenches advice as how to distribute and collect papers in the least time possible (along with an analysis of the resources saved, such as 67 hours of teaching time in a year) and how to use disciplinary measures fairly and effectively.
The foundations course is, by design, heavy on theory. But the theory is meant to help students judge for themselves the educational issues of the day—without resorting to facile good-guy-vs.-bad-guy schemes.
Back in the Hunter classroom, the dean is asking the students to imagine in real life the kind of dialogue Plato saw as a means to uncovering deeper understanding. In groups of four, they are scripting conversations between an adult and a child after the child notices a sign at an entrance to a park that reads, “No Vehicles Allowed.”
“Move as far as you can to a deeper conception of what that’s about,” he instructs.
And they do, constructing questions that bring out the definition of “vehicle,” the purpose of parks, the rights of individuals and the collectivity, and, ultimately, the shortcomings of the rule.
As the afternoon goes on, Mr. Steiner, who studied politics and philosophy at Oxford and Harvard, seems to overflow with ways long-dead Plato can speak to the teachers occasionally fidgeting in their chairs. Would the philosopher, he asks, countenance the image of teaching as pouring stuff into kids’ heads? Not at all, he contends. On the other hand, Plato was certainly a “sage on the stage,” not the “guide on the side” often commended to aspiring teachers in education schools.
“Education is about the exemplar,” Mr. Steiner advises before rushing to his next point.
Suzanne Vera, a music teacher at the Leadership Preparatory Charter School, said she enrolled in the institute in part to get ready to move from her current teaching specialty to a primary classroom. With seven years of school experience, she is also trying to figure out her own best future as an educator.
“It’s important to me to make sense of what I’m doing, where I’d like to work, and what kind of organization I’d like to align myself with,” she said. At the same time, graduate school elsewhere seemed to offer “nothing practical, and this is superpractical.”
Besides being tailored to hours available to the teachers, the program is almost free, thanks to an arrangement that the institute has made with AmeriCorps, the federal program for putting young people to work in community service.
Josh Falk, who at the age of 32 made a career switch from lawyer to teacher, called the program “a good deal.” Mr. Falk, who teaches 2nd grade at the Achievement First East New York Charter School, earned the provisional teaching certificate he needed after enrolling in the institute’s program, which included a week of study in the summer.
“It’s much more collaborative than a lot of higher ed,” he said of the institute. “There’s a lot of discussion between students and teachers.”
Reflecting the results-oriented, data-driven nature of the three organizations’ schools, the institute’s leaders plan to make the final condition of earning a degree proof that the teachers’ students have grown academically.
“We’re developing standards of student-learning gains,” Mr. Atkins of Uncommon Schools said. “We’re looking for meaningful data that students … are learning.”
All three groups have plans to expand the number of schools they operate, and their vision for the new teacher education program also calls for significant growth.
In addition to teachers from the three founding charter-management organizations, the students would include teachers in other New York City schools, both charter and noncharter, most of them from the New York Teaching Fellows program run by the district to bring in high-quality beginners.
“The people from our network were seeing the training needs of our teachers, but we also felt we were developing a level of expertise we wanted to share with as many teachers as possible,” said KIPP’s Mr. Levin.
The work of the institute is also expected to inform the professional development the schools offer to teachers who already have their master’s degrees.
“This may be the 101 version of elementary teaching,” Mr. Atkins said, “but over time we’ll need a 201, 301, and 401 version, too.”
Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2008 edition of Education Week as College and Charter Groups Team Up to Train Teachers