Teacher Preparation Opinion

Time, for a Change

By Suzanne Kaback — November 02, 2004 8 min read
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I have stories to tell about what happens when you limit the way teachers learn and grow.

There is a Buddhist saying about control: If you want to keep a cow, give it a large pasture. The implication is, those with more freedom tend to stay put. State departments of education would be well advised to integrate some Buddhist philosophy into their approach to school reform, particularly in the way they address the issue of graduate teacher education. As a faculty member in the education department of a small liberal-arts college in New York state, I have stories to tell about what happens when you limit the way teachers learn and grow.

Let me tell you about Beth. Beth is a first-year 5th grade teacher. She’s also a full-time graduate student in the literacy education master’s-degree program at the college where I teach. If all goes well, Beth will earn her graduate degree in the spring of 2005, just two years after enrolling in the program. In order to graduate “on schedule,” she will need to complete two graduate courses a term for four terms, take a six-week seminar during the first summer of her enrollment in our program, and complete a six-week practicum in her final summer. Did I mention that Beth is a first-year teacher?

Why would anyone do this to herself? The answer, in New York state, is easy: Because she’s required to. All new teachers must have earned a master’s degree within three years of their first teaching appointment, according to new state regulations. The repercussions are already being felt on our campus. While it’s typical to hear veteran teachers who take our graduate classes lament the sacrifices they’re making in terms of their teaching, learning, and, often, their family lives, we dread the consequences recent state standards will have on new teachers’ thinking and teaching. We’re trying to be open-minded. Our department is familiar with the research that says teachers’ beliefs and practices are most susceptible to change in the first five years of their careers. Yet, the situation is complicated by the reality of the nontenured teacher’s life. Many are excited about learning, yet they feel limited in the way they can use their new knowledge to encourage pedagogical change in their schools. Case in point: Beth.

Just before her return from winter break last year, Beth’s school changed her grade-level assignment. She was moved from her 1st grade teaching position (where she started the year) to take the place of a 5th grade teacher who took an early maternity leave. Beth’s 1st graders were split up and divided among the other six 1st grade classrooms in the school. She was allowed to walk all of her former students to their new classrooms before going to a different wing of the school to meet her new students. This is not a young woman who can spend a lot of time considering the application of theory to practice in her teaching and learning.

So what’s the solution? Obviously, teacher quality needs to be raised to meet national standards and to improve the profession in general. Attrition rates are chilling. In New York state, 50 percent of teachers will leave the profession within the first five years of their careers (www.casdany.org). This statistic is consistent with national data that show between 30 percent and 50 percent of new teachers leaving the field within five years of beginning to teach. And while it is seductive to think that requiring master’s degrees early is a smart solution, the reality, both theoretically and practically, suggests that rapid-fire graduate school is myopic.

Reviewing the research on professional development makes it easy to see why the system needs an overhaul. Studies show that the best professional-development programs offer teachers time, choice, support, and resources along with a context that allows for school-based study. When teachers learn on-site, they establish mentoring networks that contribute to continuous inquiry and sustainable change. We should flip the idea that early graduate degrees prepare high-quality teachers for life. Instead, the fragile first few years of teaching should be about on-site support for developing those intellectual communities that are a precursor to meaningful graduate studies and, more important, to thriving intellectual communities in schools. In the time it takes many of my graduate students to commute one way to our campus, they could have participated in a study group, a practice that is growing in school districts around the nation.

Studies show that the best professional- development programs offer teachers time, choice, support, and resources along with a context that allows for school-based study.

Take Colorado, for example, where a successful school reform initiative led by the Public Education and Business Coalition is rooted in “intensive professional development for teachers and principals [across] Colorado school districts” (www.pebc.org). Through an active, on-site mentoring program, both new and veteran teachers participate in laboratory-style teaching sessions with content-area specialists who observe, demonstrate, and debrief with classroom teachers. The number of professional books published by PEBC-affiliated teachers is testament to the effect the program has on teachers’ thinking and practices.

On a smaller scale, a school-based research group at Mapleton Elementary School in Mapleton, Maine, devoted a year to studying spelling instruction in the members’ classrooms. The Mapleton project is a particularly valuable model of what can happen when teachers learn on-site, over a sustained period of time, on a pedagogical issue relevant to them. From its yearlong teacher-research project, the group published a book, Spelling Inquiry: How One Elementary School Caught the Mnemonic Plague (Stenhouse, 1999).

The Mapleton project heralded a trend that is now gaining ground in teacher education. Both the Harvard Education Letter and the Journal of Staff Development have devoted special issues and articles to the concept of school-based coaching, an approach that involves, as the Harvard publication explains, “experts in a particular subject area or set of teaching strategies working closely with small groups of teachers to improve classroom practice and, ultimately, student achievement.” Public schools in New York City are experimenting with on-site mentorship to improve the professional-development experience of teachers and to spark gains in student achievement. In one low-performing school, according to a November 1999 article in the staff-development journal, “within a year’s time, all kindergartners and 1st graders were reading, none of the 3rd graders were reading below the 50th percentile, and the school had been lifted off the state’s review list” as a result of the mentoring program.

Many other coaching projects show promise, as indicated by improved standardized-test scores. Students in traditionally low-performing districts in Texas and California, the journal reports, have benefited from the on-site coaching their teachers receive in reading, writing, and math instruction. Test scores in all these districts have steadily improved, with some schools doubling “the state-set targeted increase in test scores between 2002 and 2003.”

New contexts and approaches to teacher learning are not the death knell for departments and colleges of education, however. Teacher-educators will be needed to provide the kind of expertise for on-site coursework that combines observation, reflection, and problem-solving. The fact that many districts using a coaching model are facing difficulties in recruiting and training their coaches underscores the need for well-educated faculty members who bring their academic backgrounds to school-based teacher education.

The University of Maine, for example, has been experimenting with new models of teacher education for several years. Its “learning labs” involve mentor-teachers who host teaching interns to observe classroom instruction. Preservice teachers watch and take notes as their host conducts a lesson with her class. In debriefing sessions afterward, the interns, led by the teacher and a faculty member, discuss what happened during the lesson, with an emphasis on theory, connections to other classrooms, curricular projects, and the needs of individual children.

Instead of being a long-distance event in which teachers have time to stretch intellectually, the coursework has become a sprint toward the finish line.

Another example of the way teacher-educators might support more substantive professional-learning initiatives comes from the National Council of Teachers of English’s Teachers as Readers Project. When “teachers read and enjoy quality literature with confidence,” the council maintains, “they contribute to the rich, literate environment of classrooms.” In one small community in New York, a group of middle and high school teachers, along with education faculty from the local college, meets every six weeks to read young-adult literature and discuss ways this genre can support learning across the curriculum. The positive response from teachers who participate in the book clubs is encouraging, and it supports data from the Teacher Survey on Professional Development and Training, which showed that “in-depth study in the subject area of their main teaching assignment” was the activity teachers chose when asked what most improved their teaching.

Neither does a change to on-site professional development make state departments of education obsolete. They can play an important role in providing seed money for mentoring programs and materials, and in helping design educational standards that reflect research-based evidence about teacher learning and its relationship to improved quality.

It’s discouraging to think that a 100-meter-dash mentality is taking hold of the way graduate teacher education is designed. Instead of being a long-distance event in which teachers have time to stretch intellectually and apply techniques over a varied course, the coursework has become a sprint toward the finish line, signifying very little creativity or exchange of ideas. Teachers need better choices. A return to a more reasonable timetable, and a shift to learning that takes place in school-based contexts, sends the important message that professional development is much more than a hoop to jump through: It’s the initial induction into a culture where curiosity is rewarded, questions are encouraged, and inquiry is essential.

Graduate studies represent the beginning of a lifetime of learning and should not be rushed. Such deeper learning should be shared with other teachers who are dedicated to ideas and practices that make education valuable for all stakeholders.


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