College & Workforce Readiness

Ed. School Critic, MIT Partner to Launch Teacher-Prep ‘Lab’

By Stephen Sawchuk — June 16, 2015 4 min read
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Former Teachers College, Columbia University President Arthur E. Levine is widely known as a critic of teacher education programs. So it may be an example of chutzpah—or potentially hubris—that under an initiative launched today, he’ll be helping create one from the ground up.

“Basically, the reason for doing it is that today’s programs, even the top programs, are outdated. They were built for different times,” said Mr. Levine, the president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which kicked off the $30 million initiative in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on June 16.

The project, which will focus on preparing teachers in mathematics and science, has ambitious plans to experiment with some of the most high-profile—and controversial—ideas in higher education delivery, including digital learning, competency-based education, and simulations.

As envisioned, the Woodrow Wilson Academy for Teaching and Learning will dispense with credit hours and seat-time requirements. Candidates will progress through the program at their own pace as they master a set of teaching competencies.

The academy will also encompass a research component designed to study variables affecting preparation quality, such as candidate selection, curricula, and lesson sequencing.

Ambitious Plans

Mr. Levine released a series of scathing reports in the 2000s on the quality of the preparation of teachers, school leaders, and education researchers. His subsequent work at the Wilson Foundation in Princeton, N.J., has centered on improving existing teaching programs at some 28 colleges across five states.

Rather than tinkering with existing programs, however, the new effort will begin from scratch. Each candidate will be given a customized plan of study, much of it to be delivered through digital-learning modules.

The candidates will progress through the program at their own pace, while completing required student-teaching assignments. Candidates’ specific academic plans will be adjusted based on regular assessments by a corps of master teachers.

The teaching competencies will be developed by instructional-practice expert Charlotte Danielson and adapted by MIT researchers to specific math and science disciplines. The university also will help develop and pilot the curriculum and simulations to help the candidates practice their skills.

MIT currently has a small teacher-preparation program of its own that prepares about a dozen teachers a year. But the new partnership offers the university the opportunity to work with far more candidates and craft a strong model for teacher development, said Eric Klopfer, an education professor at MIT and a lead researcher on math and science learning systems for the university.

Experimental Basis

The academy will launch in 2017-18, and after its shakeout year will cost approximately $15,000 for a candidate who completes it within a year. Once the program is approved by Massachusetts, graduates would earn a master’s degree through the foundation.

In addition to preparing teachers, the initiative will double as a laboratory for conducting research on teacher preparation, helping to add to the field’s fragmentary research base.

Mr. Levine pointed to the opportunity to experiment as the most appealing benefit of starting with a fresh slate.

“We don’t have to fix something; we have the opportunity to build something that doesn’t exist yet,” he said.

That will also mean both successes and misfires as the program matures, the officials said, one reason why the first cohort of teachers won’t owe tuition.

“I think the challenge will be working with these models that don’t have a lot of background or history,” Mr. Klopfer said. “How closely will we be able to hold to them? If someone’s almost all the way finished with the program, but not quite, do we push them along? How do we mediate this mix of hybrid and face-to-face learning?”

Philanthropic Support

The Wilson Foundation-MIT effort comes during a period of experimentation in teacher preparation.

Charter school management organizations have begun a variety of homegrown teacher-training approaches; some, like the Relay Graduate School of Education, in New York City, have been permitted to grant their own degrees.

With respect to research, teacher-educators at the TeachingWorks project at the University of Michigan are studying and isolating beginning teacher competencies. And, a newly formed organization of education deans also has plans to define core teaching practices.

“It’s exciting to see new entrants in this space, particularly one led by someone who sees the need to prepare teachers to make use of technology and data to foster student learning,” said Ben Riley, the founder of that Austin, Texas-based group, Deans for Impact.

The academy’s early financial supporters include the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; the Carnegie Corporation of New York; the Simons Foundation, a New York City-based philanthropy that supports math and science research; and the Amgen Foundation, a corporate philanthropy located in Thousand Oaks, Calif. (Gates and Carnegie provide support coverage of academic standards and innovation, respectively, in Education Week.)

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