College & Workforce Readiness

Fellowship Striving to Change Teacher Prep

July 12, 2011 10 min read
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Candice B. Kissinger spent some 35 years as a research scientist in the pharmaceutical industry. Jeremy M. Sebens, with a degree in aerospace engineering, worked in the oil industry and for a company building radio-controlled model airplanes. Hwa Y. Tsu majored in engineering and has done graduate-level biomedical research.

All three are now part of Indiana’s teaching workforce through an intensive fellowship program that prepares individuals with STEM expertise—whether career-changers or those fresh out of college—for jobs in secondary schools serving disadvantaged populations.

At the same time, the program, first announced in 2007, strives to promote changes in university-based teacher preparation, including extensive clinical experiences in public school classrooms, analogous to the training doctors receive.

Indiana was the first state to get started in the fellowship program, established by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, in Princeton, N.J. The state’s third cohort of teacher-candidates was announced at a May event that featured Gov. Mitch Daniels.

The first sets of fellows for Michigan and Ohio were named this spring. The eventual goal, according to the foundation, is to have similar initiatives in eight to 10 states.

Each participant earns a teaching certificate and a master’s degree and receives a $30,000 scholarship. In return, fellows commit to teaching for three years in a school serving a significant population of students at risk of academic failure.

Classroom Practice

Many fellows say the best part of the experience is the time in middle and high school classrooms. They typically work in schools several days a week for a full academic year as part of their preparation, observing and providing classroom support and eventually taking on lead-teaching duties in consultation with the classroom teacher.

“You could take the theory you’re learning and apply it the very next day and come back and say, ‘Hey this worked great,’ or ‘It didn’t work at all,’ ” said Mr. Sebens, who was hired to teach engineering this fall at H.L. Harshman Magnet Middle School in Indianapolis.

“The part that prepared me the most was just the actual experience of being in the classroom and being mentored by classroom teachers,” said Mr. Tsu, who just completed his first year as a full-time teacher of physics and physical science at North Central High School in the Washington Township district, in Indianapolis.

Who's Tapped

The Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowships program, which recruits and prepares teachers in the STEM fields, drew more than 1,500 applicants this year. Of the 211 selected:


SOURCE: Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation

“I have seen how the classroom gets set up, how they deal with establishing culture, establishing expectations,” he said, “rather than student-teaching, where I drop in for six weeks and then I drop out.” The fellowships come amid persistent calls to improve education in the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and math—including from President Barack Obama, who often describes it as an economic imperative. He has called for recruiting 100,000 excellent STEM teachers over the next decade and, in a 2010 speech, touted the Woodrow Wilson program.

In a report issued last fall, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a report on the need to improve STEM education, and suggested that the “most important factor” was teachers with deep content knowledge in those subjects and mastery of the pedagogical skills required to teach them well. But the report concluded that “too few of these teachers” are in the classroom. (“Expert Panels Tackle Enrichment Strategies for STEM Education,” September 22, 2010.)

‘Anybody Can Throw Bricks’

The Woodrow Wilson program is among a growing number of ventures to tackle this challenge. Others include the Math For America fellowship program; UTeach, a STEM-preparation model first developed at the University of Texas at Austin; the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation’s fellowship program; and the federal Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship program, which has provided some aid to Math For America and UTeach.

The Woodrow Wilson program has quickly ramped up and now involves 17 universities across Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. To date, 349 fellows have been admitted, including 211 named this spring.

Each state’s work is supported with a blend of public and private dollars. In Indiana, major private support comes from a $10 million commitment from the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis. In Michigan, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has committed $18 million. A variety of foundations are supporting the Ohio fellowships.

Each university gets $500,000 to help with planning and design but must match that amount.

Arthur E. Levine, the president of the Woodrow Wilson foundation, said his organization worked hard to get broad-based support for the programs, not just from universities and school districts but from top state leaders, including governors and key lawmakers.

Ultimately, he hopes to have a powerful set of state-based examples around the country.

“We thought the greatest leverage we could have was on states,” he said. “We don’t want to be in 50 states, but in eight to 10 states in various regions of the country, and we would like those states to be models.”

The focus on STEM teachers was a big draw in Indiana for Gov. Daniels, a Republican, said Tony Bennett, the state education secretary.

“The governor really was very attracted to this because of his passion and his desire to see quality science and math teachers,” Mr. Bennett said. “Having his voice in support for an education initiative like this is always a very strong pillar.”

It may come as little surprise that a central goal of the fellowships is, as Mr. Levine puts it, to “transform teacher education.” After all, the former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, has been an outspoken critic of traditional teacher preparation. He was the author of a 2006 report that said the majority of teacher-candidates go through low-quality programs that fail to prepare them adequately. (“Prominent Teacher-Educator Assails Field, Suggests New Accrediting Body in Report,” September 20, 2006.)

“Anybody can throw bricks,” Mr. Levine said. “The question is: Can you improve it?”

The program is not intended to impose a cookie-cutter design, say Woodrow Wilson foundation officials. Each university and its partners are encouraged to devise an approach that best fits their needs.

Still, there are central elements the foundation expects.

For one, the programs must be “truly clinically based,” said Constance K. Bond, a vice president of the foundation, who suggests that such an approach is rare in university teacher preparation.

“What we’re looking for is having our teacher-candidates learning on the job,” she said. “We want them embedded in the school. ... We want the clinical to drive the master’s program.”

In addition, the foundation expects the design and implementation of programs to involve a genuine partnership between a university’s education school and its college of arts and sciences (plus the engineering school, where applicable), as well as with local school districts. Another core element is ongoing mentorship from experienced teachers that continues for three years after fellows earn teaching certificates.

Ms. Bond, who works closely with the local programs, acknowledged that it’s tough to get universities to make big changes in teacher preparation. “All have made progress, ... but to different effects and to a different extent,” she said. “It’s very heavy lifting; I don’t think any of us are surprised by that.”

Ms. Bond cites the University of Indianapolis as one of the most promising examples.

“They really have taken this and every opportunity it provides and run with it,” she said.

Jennifer A. Drake, the director of the University of Indianapolis’ fellowship program, described her university’s program as a “radical” departure.

“We didn’t use previous courses,” she said. “We didn’t use our previous model. We started over completely and said: ‘If the clinical component is central, how do we then think about how to deliver the content that we know we need to deliver?’ ”

As part of earning a master’s degree, the teacher-candidates are in schools three full days a week in the fall, she said, and five in the spring. And the university has worked hard to marry the coursework with the clinical experience, she said, a process that involves continual refinement.

That coursework covers math and science pedagogy, incorporation of literacy strategies into STEM teaching, and adolescent psychology and development, among other topics. For the pedagogy component, Ms. Drake said, faculty members in such content areas as math, chemistry, and biology work closely with fellows to develop “authentic, real-world projects.”

Room for Improvement

Mr. Tsu, who last year earned his teaching license through the University of Indianapolis program, said the fellowship program has prepared him well, especially with so much classroom time.

“When I started as a full-time teacher, it almost felt like I had a year of experience,” he said. “It was a brand-new program, so there were some things that worked, some that didn’t, but overall, it was a lot better experience than maybe a traditional pedagogy, theory, read-the-book type thing.”

The 16,000-student Wayne Township district, a partner in the University of Indianapolis, has hired seven fellows.

“We were able to hand-select the very best fellows we had for vacancies,” said Jeffrey K. Butts, the district superintendent.

Participants in several of the Indiana programs said the fellowship is not for the faint of heart.

“It was a lot of work,” said Mr. Tsu. “My first year, I probably pulled six or seven all-nighters.”

“It is very intensive, and you are working very, very hard,” said Ms. Kissinger, the former research scientist, who is a fellow at Purdue University. “This is not something you would want to do casually.”

To be sure, the fellows see areas for improvement in the programs. Ms. Kissinger, for instance, described her coursework as a “mixed bag,” but said the university has proved responsive to feedback. Overall, she’s been pleased with her experience.

“One year, and you’re going to be ready to go,” she said. “I think they’ve fulfilled their promise.”

Ms. Kissinger also said, though, that she and some other fellows in the Purdue program, specifically designed for rural schools, have had trouble getting jobs in such schools. She ultimately was hired to teach 8th grade science this coming school year in the city of Lafayette, Ind.

One fellow who expressed decidedly mixed feelings about his experience was Jared R. Allen, a former research scientist who was in the first cohort at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis.

“If I were to put it on a scale of 1 to 10 of preparation, I would give it about a 6 or 5,” he said, pointing especially to the coursework as often lacking relevance.

But Mr. Sebens, in that same university’s second cohort, said he’s seen a lot of changes in the fellowship and rated his experience as “very good to excellent.”

Several outside observers say they’re encouraged by the Woodrow Wilson initiative.

“The program has really terrific strengths,” said Francis Q. Eberle, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, based in Arlington, Va. For example, he praised the extended mentorship for teaching fellows and the emphasis on placing them in high-need schools.

David Harris, the chief executive officer of the Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that supports entrepreneurial ventures in education, said he especially appreciates the effort to change university programs.

“The vast majority of our teachers are going to be prepared through teacher colleges for the foreseeable future,” he said. “Any effort to revamp and re-energize schools of education is very worthwhile, ... but it’s a difficult task.”

Backsliding Ahead?

A crucial question, observers say, is whether the changes in teacher preparation at participating universities will have staying power.

Ms. Bond of the Woodrow Wilson foundation said she’s very mindful of that concern, especially once the formal partnership with the Woodrow Wilson Foundation comes to a close and if outside funding dries up. “We worry about plateaus and how easy it is to slip back into old, comfortable ways,” she said.

In any case, a lot of enthusiastic fellows with strong STEM knowledge—and in some cases, years of professional experience—are already making their way into teaching careers, such as Mr. Sebens.

“There’s not a whole lot of 7th grade engineering classes in the country,” he said. “It’s pretty much my dream job.”

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Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the GE Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week as Woodrow Wilson STEM Fellowship Strives to Change Teacher Training


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