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Government Initiative Tests Education Graduate Schools

President Obama wants data on student performance tied back to teacher preparation.

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After 28 years working at a specialty chemical company, Michael Fowler of Whitestown, Ind., 50, felt the urge to inspire a love of science in teenagers, much as his own high school chemistry teacher had in him. In 2011, he was enticed by a three-year-old master's degree fellowship program for would-be science and math teachers at the University of Indianapolis.

The fellowship, which provides Fowler with a $30,000 stipend for the yearlong program, had him doing intensive coursework in summer 2011, then shadowing and studying teachers in action at a local high school all fall, and, since January, teaching several chemistry classes under the supervision of a teacher-mentor.

That near immediate on-the-ground time in the classroom (along with ongoing coursework) dramatically improves a traditional trajectory that puts future teachers in a K-12 classroom for only a few months at the end of their training, experts say.

[See U.S. News's rankings of top education graduate schools.]

Now, when class members discuss strategies for engaging their own students, "they are able to bring the realities of what they have witnessed into the discussion. It makes it more real," says Kathy Moran, dean of UIndy's School of Education.

The University of Indianapolis is one of many institutions retooling their graduate education programs to take account of the latest thinking. Some are determined to raise their game; some, to stay competitive with alternative teacher-prep pathways like Teach for America, which recruits top college grads into highly streamlined training. And some are responding to new pressure from the government.

"The education sector is regarded as the next healthcare," says Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Prince­ton, N.J., and coauthor of "Educating School Teachers," a 2006 report that was highly critical of the low standards and performance of too many of the nation's ed schools. "Traditional schools are being given opportunities to improve what they do—but I don't think there are going to be unlimited chances."

[Learn about programs that help education grad students with tuition.]

Indeed, the push for change comes from the top, in a blueprint issued in fall 2011 by the Obama administration. "Our Future, Our Teachers" laments the shortcomings of many teacher-prep programs, especially the shortage of time actually spent teaching.

States and the schools must follow up on actual performance, the administration report insists, because now schools "operate partially blindfolded, without access to data that tells them how effective their graduates are in elementary and secondary school classrooms."

That's easier said than done, points out Linda Darling-Hammond, an expert on ed school reform and a professor of education at Stanford University, because of the tangle of other contributing variables such as class size, curriculum, and student backgrounds. But she agrees that "there's a relatively small evidence base on what teacher education strategies lead to student learning."

"Our Future, Our Teachers" calls on states to gather meaningful data on the effectiveness of their ed schools. "The picture these feedback systems paint of differentiation in teacher preparation program effectiveness is striking," the report notes. Testing of Tennessee students through grade 12 reveals, for instance, that grads of the most effective ed schools are "two to three times more likely to be in the top quintile of teachers."

Three measures outlined in a 2010 report by the National Research Council are key to an ed school's impact on pupil learning, experts believe: a firm focus on content knowledge, the amount of field experience provided, and the caliber of the teacher candidates accepted into the program.

One of the top performers in Tennessee's 2011 report card on teacher ed programs, Lipscomb University College of Education in Nashville, credits several factors for its graduates' success that reflect all three. An emphasis on content, for example, is illustrated by the three-year-old program granting a Master in Education with a Math Specialty degree.