Teacher Preparation

Momentum Builds to Restructure Teacher Education

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 17, 2010 9 min read
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With conversations about the best ways to evaluate teacher performance already proliferating across the nation, preservice preparation could be the next stop on the teacher-quality continuum to receive a similarly high level of scrutiny.

New models for preparing teachers, such as the yearlong apprenticeship or “residency” model, have received attention from policymakers in recent years.

Now, a report commissioned by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, released yesterday, adds the voices of a diverse array of stakeholders, including representatives from the traditional university-based programs that prepare the majority of the nation’s teachers.

The report’s main recommendation: Supervised, structured work of teacher-candidates in diverse classroom settings must be the foremost component of preservice teacher training, with other aspects like coursework embedded in that training. It draws heavily on the teacher-residency model and a handful of university-based education programs that take such an approach to training new teachers.

“The general message is that teachers have not been prepared well—or enough—and we need to make changes both on the front end, with preparation, and at the back end, with accountability,” said Anissa Listak, the executive director of Urban Teacher Residency United, a Chicago-based network of teacher-residency programs across the nation. “State interest, federal interest [in those reforms], I’m seeing it every day, at every level. I’m seeing funders getting involved in it in a way they haven’t before.”

Steps Toward Reform

To achieve its goal of reorganizing teacher preparation on the “clinical” medical model, a blue-ribbon panel organized by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education made a number of recommendations, including:

• Ensure rigorous monitoring and enforcement for state program approval and accreditation.

• Increase accountability by making districts partners in assessing teacher-candidates and using multiple measures to gauge their effect on student learning.

• Require all programs that prepare teachers, whether inside or outside of universities, to meet requirements for clinical preparation.

• Revamp curricula to ensure alignment with field-based experiences.

• Create more-rigorous selection processes for teacher candidates.

• Give candidates the opportunity to work in hard-to staff schools.

• Make districts an equal partner in the preparation of teachers.

• Redesign higher education tenure-granting structures to reward clinical faculty members and boost their prestige.

• Ensure candidates are supervised by clinical educators and mentors.

• Target federal funding toward research and development into clinical preparation.

SOURCE: National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education

But if there is general agreement that the quality of student-teaching matters greatly, those in the preparation field are still working through all the implications, teacher-educators and other experts say.

After all, such a change would require education school deans and administrators to confront questions about how they do business—potentially everything from how faculty members are organized to the cost structures now underpinning clinical training.

Recent Developments

The release of the NCATE panel’s report comes on the heels of several other events that, taken together, point to increased attention to the preparation of teachers. Among those actions:

• The residency model has gained prominence over the past five years, and has been embraced as a model by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, among other groups.

• The most recent rewrite of the federal Higher Education Act, completed in 2008, added extra reporting requirements for programs that prepare teachers.

• Policy discussions about the format and purpose of teacher evaluations have spawned national interest about how to define and measure good teaching.

• States, prodded by requirements in the federal Race to the Top competition, are moving to track newly minted teachers into P-12 classrooms to determine their success with students.

• The marketplace for teacher education has changed dramatically in the past 30 years. Alternative-certification programs have proliferated, while the number of bachelors’ degrees granted in education have fallen since 1970, according to a recent analysis of federal data conducted by the National Center for Alternative Certification, a Washington-based nonprofit group.

• A nationally representative survey commissioned by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, in Washington, found that a majority of teacher-educators see accreditation as a compliance-based process rather than a standard of quality preparation.

Panel Recommendations

A few areas of general consensus flow from such initiatives, and the report by the NCATE panel, which was set up in January, outlines recommendations for how states, universities, and school districts can work together to improve teacher-candidates’ student-teaching. (See “NCATE Panel Weighing Fieldwork for Student-Teachers,” Jan. 20, 2010.) Among them is the importance of getting districts to take a more active role in the preparation of teachers, by working with training programs to design rich field experiences.

“The whole district has to believe that their future depends on helping us prepare teachers,” said Nancy L. Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York system and the co-chairwoman of the NCATE panel.

Ms. Zimpher underscored that clinical approaches to teacher preparation can include a variety of methods and ideally knit together several, including the residency model; “rounds” in which teacher-candidates are exposed to a number of school settings; and simulations that allow teacher-candidates to practice their skills on virtual students.

But all programs that prepare teachers need to provide such experiences, she said. They should no longer be confined to a “cottage industry” of best practices located in a handful of initiatives.

Finally, the report notes that there must be more accountability for teacher preparation, with high-quality gauges of candidates’ ability to improve student achievement based on multiple measures.

The report’s thrust won the support of the Obama administration. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was highly critical of colleges of education in two speeches he gave last fall. (See “Duncan Shares Concerns Over Teacher Prep,” October 28, 2009.)

But speaking at a press conference at the National Press Club, in Washington, where the report was unveiled, Mr. Duncan said that the changes embodied in the NCATE report represent “the most sweeping recommendations” for teacher education made in the century-long history of the nation’s education schools.

Big Changes

But do those “sweeping recommendations” have the support needed to be put into place? It is not an insignificant question, given the countless number of reports that have called for changes in the preparation of teachers. One possible lever is an alliance of eight states that say they’ve committed to undertaking such reforms.

Announced at the press-club event, the states—California, Colorado, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Oregon, and Tennessee—will convene panels of stakeholders from higher education, K-12 administrators, teachers’ unions, and others to oversee the work; pilot various approaches in their institutions that prepare teachers; and track the results. For now organized under the auspices of NCATE, the state alliance held its first meeting yesterday.

A second possible lever could be in the accreditation process, which James G. Cibulka, the president of NCATE, and others hope to make more rigorous so that the voluntary process is more synonymous with quality. NCATE and a smaller rival, the Teacher Education Accreditation Council, recently announced plans to merge. (See “Merger Lies Ahead for Accrediting Bodies of Teacher Preparation,” November 3, 2010.) Over the next two years, the new accrediting body will put in new, higher standards, Mr. Cibulka said in an interview. And programs that don’t meet such standards, the NCATE report states, should be closed down.

Teacher education experts from across the nation largely praised the thrust of the report, its recommendations, and its vision for the field. But they also brought up a number of implications for teacher preparation.

One issue is that of the cost structure for how teachers are trained. Making classroom-based training the focus of preparation could conceivably mean throwing out the most venerable feature of university-based education, the Carnegie credit-hour-based system.

“The university financial system is based on courses, and courses are based on credits,” said Patricia Wasley, a former dean of the school of education at the University of Washington, in Seattle. “This is a very big issue for higher education institutions. It means a rethinking of how we charge for the work we do with candidates and what form it ought to come in.”

Another sticking point: Traditional education programs, like higher education in general, typically grant teacher-educators tenure for publishing. In practice, that has led to a bifurcation between scholars and those at the institutions who are charged with overseeing student-teaching experiences, said David J. Chard, the dean of the Simmons School of Education at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas.

Ideally, the two areas—scholarship and field-based preparation—should be intimately linked, Mr. Chard said. “We desperately need better knowledge about how to measure teacher-preparation outcomes,” he said.

Morgaen L. Donaldson, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, meanwhile, acknowledged that much clinical preparation has been an “afterthought” in teacher preparation. But she worried about the challenges facing universities that will scale up more comprehensive programs.

“A danger in focusing so much on the clinical component is the question of who’s responsible for quality control,” said Ms. Donaldson, who teaches courses both for teacher-candidates and budding education leaders. “We place students all over the place, and that’s a challenge—it’s a challenge to get the right people as clinical supervisors and to ensure that everyone is getting a similar high-quality experience.”

Questions about the political will of higher education to engage in such changes and to put a premium on responding to the needs of local districts, have long concerned people like Ms. Listak, of the Urban Teacher Residency United Group.

“How are we going to know if [these changes] are happening, and how much is it going to cost? Those are important questions to residency programs,” she said, “and they’re important to teacher education, period.”

Cautions Voiced

The director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, Frederick M. Hess, raised several concerns about the agenda as laid out in the report.

Among them is whether standardization in the preparation of teachers might jeopardize other innovations, such as new state-approved certification approaches run by Teach For America in Connecticut and by the High Tech High School in California.

“The huge challenge is to translate reforms into something that isn’t just a different set of checklists,” Mr. Hess said.

And other observers wondered about the place of alternative routes—both those inside and those outside of education schools—in the conversation about revamped teacher preparation. Though they are supported by the Obama administration and are being courted by NCATE, the report did not discuss their place extensively.

But such routes, said C. Emily Feistritzer, the president of the National Center for Alternative Certification, in Washington, have largely been developed with state and district approval, respond to a particular market need, and offer candidates on-the-job training—though they are typically not supervised in the manner called for by the panel report.

“More and more colleges and universities have seen the light and created clinically based programs,” Ms. Feistritzer said. “They’re called alternate routes.”

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students to tackle complex issues in fundamentally different ways is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org.
A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2010 edition of Education Week


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