Teacher Preparation

New York Thinks Outside Teacher Education Box

By Stephen Sawchuk — August 09, 2011 6 min read
President of the American Museum of Natural History, Ellen V. Futter in the Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth in the Priest Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, New York. The exhibitions in the Hall of Planet Earth feature earth and planetary science content that will be a key resource in the museum MAT program.
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Of all the states that have taken steps to rethink systems for preparing teachers, New York appears to be experimenting with the greatest variety of approaches.

Under a series of actions by the state board of regents over the past 1½ years, it has approved the first new graduate school of education in the state in more than half a century; cracked open the door to allow nonuniversity programs to prepare teachers at the graduate-degree level; and financed a variety of “clinically rich” pilot training programs at traditional schools of education. The state is also in the beginning phases of tying a series of teacher assessments to its tiered-certification system.

“The regents are interested in figuring out how they use all the levers at their authority to drive an increase in teacher effectiveness throughout the state,” John King, the state commissioner of education, said in a recent interview.

Making a priority of more hands-on, practical training linked closely to student achievement reflects a call from many in the teacher-preparation world, from the U.S. secretary of education to teacher education accrediting bodies.

New York’s steps have been aided by its unique governance structure, which gives the regents’ board oversight of P-12 education, higher education, and teacher certification, roles that are governed by several boards in other states.

But New York officials have promised much and face obstacles to the state’s agenda that are as much conceptual as practical. Several of the newest ventures have raised eyebrows among traditional teacher educators for de-emphasizing a more theoretical approach, even as others hope the momentum builds.

“New York is very brave in taking this on,” said Robert L. Hughes, the president of New Visions for Public Schools, which operates an unusual teacher-residency preparation program in partnership with Hunter College, part of the City University of New York. “I hope the state leadership will continue to eat its Wheaties.”

New Programs, New School

Look no further than New York City’s famed American Museum of Natural History, which won a share of some $12.5 million in a competition organized by the state regents, for an idea of what’s on the state’s teacher education agenda.

Next summer, it will become the first museum in the nation to formally train secondary-level science teachers, who will earn their master’s degrees under the authority of the board of regents.

The state competition was designed to fund pilot programs—both within and outside higher education institutions—to train teachers at the graduate level.

“There is a crisis in science education, and we have felt it incumbent on us, given the resources we have and the leverage we have, to play a prominent role in addressing that,” said Ellen V. Futter, the president of the museum.

In addition to a yearlong apprenticeship in schools, the museum will put a special emphasis on ensuring teachers-in-training not only know science content, but also engage in the scientific process: They will be expected to work alongside scientists over one summer.

A handful of other recent actions by the state board push the teacher-training envelope in other ways. In February, the regents approved the first new education school in 80 years, the Relay School of Education, which opens its doors this summer.

The program grew out of a teacher-training-program partnership, called Teacher U, between Hunter College and three charter-management organizations. That program focuses on the inculcation of specific teaching techniques and strategies and the use of video analysis to help candidates improve their practice. To graduate, candidates also must demonstrate during student-teaching that they helped their students gain at least a year’s worth of learning. (“College and Charter Groups Team Up to Train Teachers,” Feb. 6, 2008.)

According to Norman Atkins, the president of Relay, the school will maintain those features, while pushing the boundaries of teacher education even further—for instance, by doing away with the typical series of three-credit-hour courses in favor of 60 competencies students must master.

“Think about the traditional course if you’re a reading teacher. It finishes in one semester,” Mr. Atkins noted. “It’s not as useful as taking the instruction in reading and developing skills around that over the course of two years.”

The state is investing in traditional teacher education institutions, too. A majority of winners in the contest were traditional schools of education.

Former Chief’s Role

Those in New York’s teacher education community agree that many of the changes bear the imprint of David M. Steiner, the dean of the education school at Hunter College, who recently returned after a stint as state education commissioner from 2009 until this year.

Before his “sabbatical,” Mr. Steiner was instrumental at Hunter in introducing the use of video analysis to offer specific critiques to teacher-candidates keyed to a teaching framework. He also helped create the Teacher U partnership. (Mr. Steiner recused himself from the Relay decision and from the state competitive-grant program because of his connections to the applicants.)

In an interview, Mr. Steiner identified yet another recent regents’ decision that could potentially shift teacher education. Under the overhaul, the state will, in essence, require teachers to demonstrate student-achievement growth in a manner similar to that at the Teacher U and Relay programs to maintain a teaching certificate.

He believes the changes will cause more teacher education programs to rethink their curricula to ensure teachers are prepared for the review. “In my view, it’s among the most important work we’ve done,” Mr. Steiner said of the certification shift. “Teacher-preparation programs will undergo major changes. The performance assessments will match the teaching standards, some of which are very granular. Certification will be much more based on observation, and that is a sea change.”

National Debate

The new models and the planned changes have generated widespread discussion in New York, some of them striking at the very heart of what it means to prepare teachers in the 21st century.

Relay’s bid to operate a radically different graduate school of education, for instance, generated concern from eight higher-education-based programs in New York City. Many of them cited concerns that a focus on specific skills and competencies would devalue the production of scholarship that would help inform practice.

Mary M. Brabeck, the dean of New York University’s school of education, said high-quality graduate programs help candidates make the connection from theory to practice.

“In my judgment, graduate programs need to come out of places that have both the faculties and the facilities for ... theoretical and empirical work, and that’s universities,” she said.

On the flip side are those like Mr. Hughes of New Visions. His group unsuccessfully bid under the state competition to pilot a graduate-level program on its own.

“It’s been a powerful relationship, and we’ve learned a lot,” Mr. Hughes said of his group’s formal relationship with Hunter College. “But we think it’s important to lodge teacher certification and development directly in schools and more forcefully privilege the craft knowledge that emerges in highly effective schools over time.”

The contours of the debate are similar to those that have emerged in the national area of teacher preparation. In late June, five U.S. senators introduced a bill that would give federal grants to states to support programs like Relay, even if they were not run by universities—and that would free recipients from existing teacher education regulations. The proposal recently came under fire from a number of higher education groups, including the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

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Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world 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 August 10, 2011 edition of Education Week as New York Thinks Outside Teacher Education Box


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