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An expert panel is drafting recommendations for how teacher colleges can craft courses and curricula so that future educators have a stronger understanding of how children develop emotionally and psychologically, from the early grades through high school.
The group, which met for the first time last month, was convened by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, an organization that accredits schools of education. Its work is the outgrowth of a collaboration between NCATE and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, or NICHD, part of the National Institutes of Health.
The panel is expected to produce recommendations on how colleges can better incorporate child-development training into their teacher education programs. It will also make suggestions on how NCATE can revise its standards for accrediting teacher colleges to meet that goal. NCATE, based in Washington, accredits about 650 teacher-training programs, which the organization estimates produce more than two-thirds of the nation’s new teachers each year.
The premise underlying the panel’s work is that teachers and school administrators can have a more positive influence on student learning if they have a stronger grasp of the cognitive, psychological, physical, social, and other factors that guide students’ development—and are able to use those insights to shape classroom lessons.
But many teacher colleges struggle to prepare future educators for that work, the panelists say.
A report released last year by NCATE and the NICHD found that those colleges tend to focus heavily on developing future teachers’ academic-content knowledge—an area widely regarded as crucial in teacher preparation—and relatively little on child development. Many of the courses, child-development textbooks, and materials used in teacher education classes also are not geared to the needs of K-12 educators, it concluded. (“Teacher Colleges Urged to Pay Heed to Child Development,” May 2, 2007.)
In addition, the child-development courses that aspiring teachers take in schools of education tend to be taught by faculty members from universities’ departments of psychology or human development, who, while having deep expertise in those fields, may not have any experience in K-12 settings, NCATE President Arthur E. Wise said in an interview.
“Most mental-health professionals are being prepared to work one-on-one with clients,” he said. “Teachers need to be prepared to work one-on-many.”
Helping to Motivate
Some teacher colleges are trying to find ways around that disconnect. Child development courses at the Curry school of education at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, are taught by faculty who have studied developmental psychology as it applies to classroom processes, said Robert C. Pianta, the dean of the school. Students at Curry typically take one or two child-development courses, he said.
Teachers who understand child development can shape group or individual lessons based on knowledge of how students of a certain age are likely to respond, said Mr. Pianta, who serves on the NCATE panel. That background knowledge can help educators motivate students and know when to include them in “goal setting” for lessons, said Dr. James P. Comer, a professor of child psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine Child Study Center.
In such instances, not all the lessons are coming “from the adult on down,” Dr. Comer said.
NCATE’s standards currently offer stronger guidance to teacher education colleges on child-development curricula at early grades; the organization hopes the panel’s recommendations will help it strengthen its standards for training middle and high school teachers, Mr. Wise said.
The panel has a budget of about $500,000, Mr. Wise said. Its work is being supported by the Foundation for Child Development, in New York City; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in Battle Creek, Mich.; and the A.L. Mailman Foundation, in White Plains, N.Y.
Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia, said that while there are probably benefits to strengthening educators’ understanding of child development, teacher colleges face a tough task in coming up with courses and materials to help educators who will be adhering to a diverse set of curricula and academic subjects once they enter the field.
A version of this article appeared in the June 18, 2008 edition of Education Week as NCATE Revising Standards on Child-Development Preparation