Improving Instruction on Instruction in Education Grad Schools

Few schools prepare teachers for life in the classroom, research shows.

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Katie Clements belongs to a family of educators, and her first instinct was to rebel against the tradition. But after tutoring college athletes, filling in as a substitute teacher, volunteering with teens, and even working for a freight company, Clements, 30, realized that teaching was her true calling, too. Now enrolled in the teacher licensure program at Milwaukee's Alverno College, Clements hopes to teach in the city's public schools.

Luckily for Clements, Alverno—a Roman Catholic, women's college that began offering coed master's degree programs in the mid-1990s—runs one of the best teacher preparation programs in the nation, according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who applauded Alverno in a speech last fall.

[Education student profile: How a Teacher Found Her Passion.]

With 30 percent to 50 percent of public high school students failing to gradu­ate, two thirds of college freshmen underprepared for the rigors of college coursework, and 1 million baby boomer teachers poised to retire in the next five years, demand for a new generation of teachers prepared at high-quality institutions has never been greater. But only a handful of teacher education programs received Duncan's praise. "By almost any standard, many if not most of the nation's 1,450 schools, colleges, and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st-century classroom," Duncan told the audience at Columbia University's Teachers College. He added that poorly run schools of education are "cash cows" for universities because they have consistently high enrollment and low operating costs. The implications for prospective graduate education students: When deciding where to apply and ultimately where to enroll, they must do the necessary research to weed out the bad programs from the good.

The best education schools offer rigorous instruction in how to teach specific content areas, such as English language arts, math, science, history, and foreign languages, and at least a full year of student teaching in preapproved schools and classrooms, according to Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford University School of Education. Darling-Hammond, who served as head of President Obama's education policy transition team, says the schools where they place student teachers should both serve diverse learners and reflect best practices in the field. These schools function like teaching hospitals, where medical students learn on the job before becoming full-fledged doctors. Darling-Hammond says the best teacher preparation programs also explore how to work with special-needs students, English language learners, and new classroom technology.

Amanda Ward, a student at Columbia's Teachers College, hopes to work with elementary special education students when she graduates. A recent assignment for her Curriculum and Teaching Methods course involved Ward, 28, observing a single student all day for 13 weeks. She watched the second grader in class, at lunch and recess, in study sessions, and so on throughout the day. Ward learned that a deep understanding of a student's friends, personality, likes, and dislikes can contribute to a teacher's under­standing of why that student is excelling or struggling. "This type of instruction definitely distinguishes Teachers College from other programs," Ward says. "Students from other programs and even some full-time teachers who work at the school were asking, 'What are you doing?' or 'Why are you following him to lunch?' I explained that I was following so I could learn more about why my student was doing well here and not well there, but it was odd to find out that that type of inquisition is not the norm for other students or for other practitioners."

What works. Even though Alverno College and Stanford University are quite different schools—one a small liberal arts college and one a large research institution—their education schools share critical attributes. They link rich instruction in content knowledge and learning theories to lengthy, carefully supervised clinical experiences, just as Teachers College does. In a recent report on educating teachers, Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, highlights these programs, along with those run by the University of Virginia and Emporia State University. But like Duncan's speech, Levine's report de­livered mostly bad news about the state of teacher education.