Teacher Preparation

Harvard Launches Fellowship Initiative to Prepare Seniors to Enter Teaching

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 05, 2014 4 min read
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Harvard University plans to launch a fellowship program to prepare seniors at the esteemed college to become K-12 teachers, giving them more than a year of student-teaching, a lightened course load, and follow-up supports once they’ve started to lead their own classroom.

Plans for such a program have been in development for some time, but now it’s officially a go, thanks to a $10 million infusion of cash from two anonymous donors. (Harvard’s President, Drew Faust, and an additional donor also made key contributions.)

Harvard already has an undergraduate teacher-preparation program, but it’s quite small, enrolling on the order of 25 students of year. Most of the teachers the university prepares are graduate students. But in recent years, the college has seen an increased interest among undergraduates in pursuing a teaching career, said James Ryan, the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Undergraduate applications for Teach For America training and placement program have been booming, with about 1 in 5 Harvard students applying, he noted. The advisor for the small teacher-prep has been fielding an increasing number of inquiries from undergrads. And finally, a set of courses on education at the undergraduate level have proven to be wildly popular. One of them, “Dilemmas of Equity and Excellence in American K-12 Education,” taught by Katherine K. Merseth—the director of teacher education who sat on the committee that conceived of the Fellows program—has a 65-person cap, but has hundreds of students vying for spots.

Merseth said she has been thinking about the general concept of the fellowship program as far back as 2003. “It was because I thought the traditional form of teacher ed. missed an important point that one learns to teach while teaching in a supportive environment, with ongoing coaching, mentoring, and solid and frequent feedback,” she said.

Program Structure

The program will begin in the second semester of Harvard undergraduates’ senior year, and will be aimed at producing secondary English, math, science, and history teachers. The students will take a reduced courseload that semester as they begin student-teaching under a mentor teacher. For the following academic year, they will complete their school-based training and classes on subject-specific teaching methods. And finally, they’ll finish up with an additional summer of courses and mentored teaching.

After they become full-time teachers, the fellows will continue to be given feedback and coaching by Harvard faculty.

The program will begin in the 2015-16 school year with about 40 slots. The university eventually wants to expand it to 100 a year.

Some of the details aren’t quite worked out just yet, such as the specifics of the coursework fellows will take and how it might differ from what’s offered in typical graduate teacher-certification courses.

For student teaching, the university plans to place fellows in cohorts—some of them in sites potentially far away from Cambridge, Mass. Part of the grant will support the development of an online infrastructure to permit coaching through the exchange of video recordings of student-teaching, Skype sessions, and webinars.

Harvard also hopes to study the fellows’ progress through the program and aftewards in order to improve it.

“One of the benefits of doing it at an ed. school is that we have great researchers who can set up a great study design,” Ryan said. “Hopefully we can create a model that we’ll be able to replicate at other colleges and universities.”

National Context

Harvard’s move comes as many states are seeing large declines in the number of enrollments in teacher-preparation programs. That phenomenon has trigged soul-searching about how recent changes in policies on teacher evaluation and how media coverage are effecting perceptions of teaching.

Meanwhile, Harvard has recently been in the K-12 news for another reason. A small group of undergraduates recently protested against the university’s partnership with TFA. The students, affiliated with United Students Against Sweatshops, a group partly funded by the American Federation of Teachers, have accused the organization of working to “privatize” schools and undermine unions, and have demanded that Harvard break off ties with TFA. (TFA contests some of the groups’ complaints, and its leaders are working to secure time for its leaders to meet with the USAS. Harvard’s top brass hasn’t publicly responded.)

In light of those developments, it’s natural to wonder to what degree this new fellows program could serve as an alternative to TFA on campus. But officials for the university say the events are unconnected.

Though Merseth has sometimes been critical of TFA’s short training, she said that she has been “very impressed with all that TFA has done in education.”

“They are an alternative, and having alternatives is always a good idea,” she said.

“This is really not a reaction against any one teacher-preparation program,” Ryan said. “It’s an effort by us to put together the very best model of teacher preparation that we can.”

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