Teacher Preparation

Teacher Education Homing In on Content

By Linda Jacobson — June 07, 2005 8 min read
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Just upstairs from an exhibit on African culture at the American Museum of Natural History, Robert V. Steiner sits in front of his laptop computer and clicks on an “interactive animation” that illustrates the concept of frames of reference.

On the screen, a glowing basketball bounces up and down against a black background. After watching the direction the ball is moving, the user is asked to determine whether the basketball player is standing still or walking east or west. The same questions are asked about the viewer.

The task, part of the museum’s virtual Seminars on Science for teachers, is meant to help educators better understand Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity. The graduate-level online courses, covering subjects from ocean systems to spiders, feature essays and videos of scientists affiliated with the museum.

Student-teacher Pax Figioli confers with teacher Tina Ballabio in a 6th grade class at Sepulveda Middle School in California.

“These are the most exciting scientific resources around,” said Mr. Steiner, a physicist and a project director of Seminars on Science. “We’re connecting working scientists with working teachers.”

The courses are also helping Bank Street College of Education here meet one principle of Teachers for a New Era, a five-year, $60.5 million initiative of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Ford Foundation and the Annenberg Foundation are also providing support.

Involving Bank Street and 10 other institutions across the country, the project has challenged those involved with making over their teacher-training programs in three ways: by becoming engaged with the arts and sciences, by treating teaching as a clinical-practice profession, and, perhaps most important for policymakers, by producing evidence of the effects their graduates have on student performance.

“I think a lot of people might have felt that teacher education reform was a hopeless target,” said Daniel Fallon, the chairman of the education division at Carnegie. “I think it has already changed, in some powerful ways.”

Calling Teachers for a New Era a “make-or-break project,” Arthur E. Levine, the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, here in New York, says the endeavor has the potential to prove that teacher education makes a difference in student achievement.

“There’s been a huge void,” he said. “For the most part, all we’ve been able to give are anecdotes.”

‘Furthering Teaching’

Jon D. Snyder, the dean of the graduate school of education at Bank Street, says he thought integrating the arts and sciences into the college’s coursework would be the most difficult aspect because Bank Street doesn’t have a college of arts and sciences.

Teachers for a New Era Institutions

  • Bank Street College of Education, New York City
  • Boston College
  • California State University-Northridge
  • Florida A&M University, Tallahassee
  • Michigan State University, East Lansing
  • Stanford University, Stanford, Calif.
  • University of Connecticut, Storrs
  • University of Texas at El Paso
  • University of Virginia, Charlottesville
  • University of Washington, Seattle
  • University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

SOURCE: Education Week

In fact, he still seems a bit amazed that Bank Street, which prepares early-childhood and elementary teachers, is even involved in the initiative. “Everything is based on a university model,” he said. “We’re not a university.”

But because Maritza Macdonald, who used to teach curriculum design at Bank Street, now directs professional-development programs at the natural-history museum, a partnership was formed.

“My goal here was to open the museum for teacher education because it’s an unbelievable resource,” she said.

Another arrangement has been forged between Bank Street and Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. Professors there are helping to evaluate Bank Street’s coursework and infuse it with more math and science.

A telling example occurred when a Bank Street professor and a physicist from Sarah Lawrence, Kanwal Singh, observed an elementary school classroom. When they walked out, the Bank Street faculty member said how engaged she thought the children were in the lesson. Ms. Singh’s response: “Engaged in what?”

At another Teachers for a New Era site—California State University-Northridge—Stella Theodoulou, the dean of social and behavioral sciences, showed her commitment to building future teachers’ content knowledge by opening seven tenure-track positions to academics who have excelled in their fields but also have backgrounds in K-12 teaching.

One such faculty member is Stephen Graves, a geography professor and former middle school teacher. While he said he’s always had prospective teachers in his classes, he typically tried to cover as much subject content as possible because of the standards-based environment in which teachers work.

But because of Teachers for a New Era, Mr. Graves said he has focused on how to teach the material so his students can be better prepared when they have their own classrooms. “I want them to use the tools of social science so they can begin to figure these things out for themselves.”

Mr. Graves’ enthusiasm for preparing teachers isn’t yet felt by all his colleagues. “There’s some generational resistance,” he noted, adding that some professors might think it’s “beneath them to train teachers.”

Harry Hellenbrand, the provost of CSU-Northridge, added that many faculty members feel responsible only for advancing their disciplines by producing future scholars and researchers.

“What we’re asking people to do is to think of furthering teaching, and not to think of that as a lesser goal,” said Mr. Hellenbrand, who plans to hire someone to continue the work of Teachers for a New Era when the grant ends.

In fact, of the $5 million each college put up to match the grant, 20 percent must go into a permanent endowment.

Education ‘Residencies’

Giving prospective teachers more time in the field—and deciding just how much they need—is also something the institutions are learning through the process.

Teacher education is essentially going through what the medical profession experienced more than a century ago, said Philip Handler, the vice provost at Northridge and the university’s project director for Teachers for a New Era.

“Doctors did not used to do residencies,” he pointed out. Future doctors “did not see sick people.”

Here at Bank Street, the graduate students, many of them already working in schools throughout the city, have a convenient laboratory in which to practice their skills and learn from excellent teachers. During the day, most floors of the building are occupied by the 450 pre-K-8 students who attend the college’s School for Children.

“At 4:30, the classrooms for children become classrooms for adults,” said Reuel Jordan, the dean of the children’s programs.

All the school’s teachers also help supervise student-teachers from the college. But leaders here know that studying in a $23,000-a-year private school doesn’t expose teachers to the wide range of instructional settings and student needs found in public schools. That’s why the School for Children is only one site used to place student-teachers.

CSU-Northridge is working with an elementary, middle, and high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District to give its prospective teachers clinical experience—more than a short-term student-teaching assignment typical in traditional teacher-preparation programs. And a cohort of 14 education students is spending an entire year learning on the job at Sepulveda Middle School, located near Northridge in the San Fernando Valley.

“We got to see how discipline starts the first couple of days, how classroom management is implemented,” said Pax Figioli, a CSU student working at the middle school. “I think what they’ve done is try to make our college experience more like the real world.”

But Mr. Handler says it will probably take four or five years to give all the students the kind of exposure they need.

The colleges are also being challenged to improve teacher-induction programs, something that Bank Street hasn’t had before. The college has long taken pride in the tight relationships that form between faculty advisers and students. But Bank Street has never had money for a formal program of ongoing support.

“Most of what new teachers need is an opportunity to talk about their feelings,” said Barbara Stern, the Bank Street professor in charge of induction. The program will include study groups held at the college, online discussions, and what Bank Street educators are calling an “alumni partner” program that will link recent graduates with more experienced ones.

Measuring Performance

Establishing a plan for tracking graduates once they become employed—and then deciding how to measure their performance in the classroom—has probably required the most effort from the 11 sites. And no two colleges are doing it the same way.

At Northridge—one of California’s largest teacher-training institutions—a majority of the 2,000 aspiring teachers who graduate each year take positions in the Los Angeles district. So the college is working with the district to gather and analyze standardized-test data.

But a very different situation exists at Bank Street, whose graduates are scattered throughout New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and beyond. A progressive institution founded in the early 1900s and influenced by John Dewey, Bank Street has a different philosophy toward assessment, one that seems almost at odds with what the Carnegie Corporation is requesting.

Because Bank Street faculty members are focused on working with students on an individual level, Dean Snyder said, there is some skepticism about what conclusions can be drawn about the teacher-candidates as a group.

So in addition to using standardized-test data on the precollegiate students a Bank Street graduate teaches, the college is collecting assessments related to a teacher’s curriculum and examining the level of complexity in student work.

Before gathering student-achievement data linked to specific teachers, several of the Teachers for a New Era colleges have also been conducting extensive and detailed research on teaching. Team members at Bank Street, for example, were trained to observe both recent graduates and more experienced teachers to identify the essential aspects of good teaching. And some faculty members are using that research to help advise their students.

“For our folks, it’s been eye-opening,” said Nancy McKeever, a faculty member at Bank Street. “In education, there’s been a real attention to pedagogy. But when you attend to one thing, you say, ‘Oops, where’s the content?’ ”

Lessons learned from Teachers for a New Era, which the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corp. is evaluating, will also be disseminated over time in the hope that other teacher-preparation programs will be able to benefit.

“If it turns out that by introducing a two-year period of induction, we can demonstrate that the attrition is reduced by 50 percent, and that these are teachers who can show gains in student achievement, then the [savings are] pretty big,” Carnegie’s Mr. Fallon said. “That’s an argument that you can sell to a state legislature.”


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