Teacher Preparation

Grounded in Content

By Sean Cavanagh — December 04, 2007 9 min read
The UTeach teacher education program at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas on Monday, November 19, 2007.
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The guests arrive from across campus and out of town, greeting one another with handshakes, hugs, and the familiarity that comes from having shared the same classes, and now, the same careers.

A Tex-Mex band kicks into song, filling the leafy courtyard with acoustic and electric sound. A line forms at the buffet, supplied by a top local barbecue joint. And the attendees—mathematics and science teachers, most in their 20s and 30s—are feted at a picnic worthy of a university’s most prestigious alums.

Those graduates joined undergraduate students one weekend this fall for a 10th-anniversary reunion of UTeach, a teacher-preparation program at the University of Texas at Austin. The program has drawn widespread recognition in recent years, and it is now a model for revamping the training of math and science teachers on campuses nationwide.

Backers of the program say it succeeds in breaking from the conventions of teacher education by offering enrollees an academically challenging course schedule and curriculum that provides them with early and frequent experiences in the classroom and firm grounding in math and science content.

A strong majority of UTeach’s current 480 students are math and science majors who are recruited and offered financial help to stick with the program. Their academic records are strong, and university officials believe their high quality disproves the idea that undergraduates will pick teaching as only a second or third career choice.

Once UTeach graduates enter the profession, an unusually high number of them stay put. About three-quarters are still teaching after five years in the classroom, higher than recent estimated national averages of around 60 percent.

Josh Newton, a 2006 graduate who teaches at a Dallas high school, says he expects to persist because of the strong supervision and tutoring he received at UTeach on how to present math content.

“I felt like I was ready pretty much when I got into the classroom,” says Mr. Newton, 23, relaxing beneath a tree at the picnic. “I knew what I needed to do and where my class was supposed to head. I had already had the experience of being a new teacher.”

Mixing in the crowd is Michael Marder, a physics professor and one of the co-directors of the program. The author of many scholarly articles, as well as a graduate school physics textbook, Mr. Marder might seem like an unlikely candidate to immerse himself in training K-12 teachers.

But many of the university’s math and science faculty members are heavily involved in designing UTeach courses and teaching them, rather than leaving those duties to the education faculty as occurs at some institutions. Mr. Marder teaches a UTeach class on research methodology.

“It takes a while for me, as a member of the science faculty, to understand teacher preparation and the environment in which teachers live,” Mr. Marder said during an interview the weekend of the reunion. “Do we know anything about pedagogy? Could we contribute in this way?” Ultimately, the math and science scholars concluded that they could.

“It’s trite to say it, but when people work together, there are win-win circumstances,” Mr. Marder said. “This is really one of those situations.”

The genesis of UTeach came in 1997 when Mary Ann Rankin, the dean of UT’s college of natural sciences, asked a group of experienced K-12 educators to help her design an innovative math and science teacher-preparation program. That work began as the dean of the college of education, Manuel Justiz, was moving to overhaul the university’s professional-development courses in math and science.

Ms. Rankin’s thinking was shaped by a humbling episode: her frustration, in the mid-1990s, at having tried to guest-teach some of her daughter’s science classes in an Austin elementary school—only to find she couldn’t get her points across.

A Lone Star Strategy

Supporters have launched a venture to replicate UTeach on college campuses around the country. Key features of UTeach include:

UTeach officials promote their program to new undergraduates and math and science students, cover tuition costs for those students’ first few teaching-related courses, and arrange paid summer internships and scholarships for those who stick with the program.

Students take education courses that have a specific focus on classroom management and teaching techniques for math and science classrooms—not simply generic courses on teaching. Critics often say that teacher education programs do not offer enough lessons that are tailored to specific academic content.

UTeach employs nine full-time master teachers, officially known as “clinical faculty,” who serve as university instructors, advisers, and field supervisors. They work alongside the program’s math, science, and education faculty.

Students can enter the UTeach program at almost any step in their undergraduate careers. Eight courses are required, but scheduling is flexible enough so that math and science majors can meet the teaching requirement without its interfering with the classes necessary for them to complete their majors. This contrasts with some teacher education programs, whose daunting education course requirements discourage math and science majors from choosing that academic path, say critics of those programs.

SOURCE: UTeach Program

“I had always thought teaching is something where if you know the science, you can do it,” Ms. Rankin recalled. “It was a lot more difficult than that.”

UTeach exists today as a partnership between the two colleges. A core piece of the program is its nine full-time master teachers, officially known as “clinical faculty,” who work in non-tenure-track, but nonetheless secure, staff positions. In many education programs, master teachers work as adjunct faculty with more limited duties.

One clinical faculty member is Pamela G. Powell, a former middle and high school math teacher who joined UTeach in 2001. She teaches Apprentice Teaching, the final required class, in which students lead their own classes for the first time and take seminars with Ms. Powell to discuss strategies.

Some of her most important instruction takes place outside class. When their students grow too disruptive, or carefully planned lessons unravel, the aspiring teachers come to her for guidance.

“I get to know them at a time of real stress,” Ms. Powell says as she watches her former students file in for the November picnic. “The idea is to try to listen to them and get them from where [they’re] crying and frustrated to where they can figure out the solutions on their own.”

UTeach staff members promote the program among undergraduates, especially math and science majors. They lure them by offering to pay tuition for some beginning courses, and reward them through scholarships for strong academic work. UTeach also arranges paid internships with nonprofit organizations, experiences that could contribute to students’ teaching.

Ms. Powell’s duties include helping place UTeach graduates in teaching jobs—though employers are quite eager to find her students. School district recruiters regularly ask to speak to UTeach students before they graduate, sometimes seeking to introduce themselves in Ms. Powell’s and her peers’ classes.

The program produces about 75 math and science teachers a year, and Ms. Powell keeps a database of where they end up. While most are working in Texas, they can also be found in schools in 13 other states.

UTeach has been widely touted by elected officials and business leaders as a prototype for producing math and science teachers. An oft-cited congressionally chartered study on economic challenges facing the United States, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” from 2005 singled out UTeach for producing students with “deep disciplinary grounding” and the ability to engage students through creative instruction.

Districts continually struggle to find, and keep, qualified math and science teachers. Nineteen percent of secondary schools report “serious” difficulty in filling math-teaching vacancies, higher than for any other subject, according to research by Richard M. Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania. Physical-science and life-science teachers are also hard to replace.

Denise Ekberg teaches a labsafety class. A former high school teacher, she is one of nine master teachers in the UTeach program who also supervise students’ field experiences.

No single teacher education program could meet even a small fraction of the nation’s demand for math and science instructors. But a recent venture known as the National Math and Science Initiative seeks to mass-produce the UTeach model at universities across the country. Supported by a $125 million donation from the ExxonMobil Corp., it has provided grants of $2.4 million to five universities so far. The goal is to spawn UTeach models on at least 50 campuses.

Some features of UTeach, such as the emphasis on math and science content and coordination between education and natural sciences faculty, can be found at other successful teacher-preparation universities, said Arthur E. Levine, the president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, N.J., who has written extensively about education programs.

But UTeach appears to have drawn an unusual level of commitment from both math and science faculty and former K-12 teachers, he said.

“They have teachers and professors teaching together,” said Mr. Levine, who noted that former K-12 teachers are often “peripheralized” in many education programs.

David M. Steiner, the dean of the Hunter College school of education at the City University of New York, voiced admiration for several elements of UTeach. But he also noted that established math and science teacher-preparation programs would have more difficulty replicating UTeach than newer ones. CUNY officials originally applied for a UTeach replication grant before deciding not to pursue it, partly because of concerns about having to overhaul their school’s existing education courses. CUNY also recently launched a Teacher Academy aimed at producing more math and science teachers, he noted.

Copying UTeach is more difficult “if you have your own program fully worked out,” Mr. Steiner said.

Most UTeach students take eight courses as part of the program, in addition to standard undergraduate requirements. They can enroll at any time as undergraduates, though there is a more condensed schedule for upperclassmen. Enrollees begin with courses that present the basics of how to structure and design lessons. Later courses focus on studies of how students learn, uses of technology and assessment, and historical and philosophical perspectives on teaching—all presented through a math and science lens. After extensive classroom observation, UTeach students lead classes on their own in Apprentice Teaching.

UTeach’s math- and science-heavy curriculum is a departure from that of many education programs, which tend to load undergraduates with pedagogy-heavy courses that “bore science students to death,” said Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. Her Washington-based organization advocates improved teaching, including preparation.

Math and science majors who encounter lengthy and unfocused education-course requirements “are the first ones to say, ‘I’m outta here,’ ” Ms. Walsh said.

UTeach courses place a heavy emphasis on inquiry—basically, the idea that students benefit from having to investigate and acquire some knowledge on their own, rather than simply being fed information from teachers. To that end, their lessons are expected to use the “5 E’s”: They should “engage” students, encourage them to “explore” topics on their own, require them to “explain” their reasoning, and “extend” it to other problems. Teachers should later “evaluate” whether students have understood.

Kristle Valderrama and Minh Dang work on an exercise for a UTeach class.

Kenzie M. Yoder, a UTeach senior, is making use of those strategies as she student-teaches a pre-Algebra 2 course at Crockett High School in Austin, her final program requirement.

One day this fall, she divides her class into groups of three and four to prepare the students for quadratic equations. She gives each group a written worksheet with various shapes made up of small squares and a small package of green and orange cutout squares.

Moving from table to table, Ms. Yoder, 24, asks students to design shapes with the paper squares and describe them in writing. Then she asks the children to express the shapes as algebraic formulas. When students ask questions, she often responds with one of her own, aimed at leading them to an answer.

“Explain to me, through algebra, how you get that number,” she says to one student. “It would be more helpful to me visually,” she tells another, “if I saw you draw it.”

The tasks and hands-on activities are the sorts of lessons she learned from UTeach, she explains later. Different tasks have the potential to reach different students, such as those who learn through visual or audio means, the teacher says.

Ms. Yoder, scheduled to graduate this month, has been approached by potential employers in at least four states, though for now she wants to stay in central Texas. Her experiences at UTeach, and in the classroom, have been satisfying, she says.

“It’s a pretty amazing thing to watch a student who generally struggles come up with a solution,” Ms. Yoder says. “We give them the ingredients and let them come up with their own recipe. It instills a sense of accomplishment when they try it—and get it.”

Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, at www.kauffman.org.
A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2007 edition of Education Week as Grounded in Content


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