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.
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.
More than 60 percent of teachers surveyed reported that their schools of education inadequately prepared them to cope with the realities of today’s classroom. Fewer than half of the principals said schools of education were doing a good job preparing teachers to implement curriculum and perform- ance standards or to assess those performance standards appropriately. These problems in the classroom stem from a litany of shortcomings Levine observed in the nation’s worst schools of education, including disorganized curricula, faculty who are not in tune with the realities of today’s classroom, and low admission standards.
Darling-Hammond ties teacher education’s decline to the 1950s, when teachers began learning their craft at universities. At many schools, academics could not strike the right balance between teaching pedagogy and learning on the job, and some programs today still fail to achieve this balance. But teacher education could experience an across-the-board turnaround. In the early 1900s, there were concerns that medical education for doctors was not rigorous enough. Doctors in training would sometimes shadow more experienced practitioners and learn by example, but this left them without much-needed content knowledge in biology, chemistry, and anatomy, as well as knowledge about the causes and treatment of disease. The solution: the birth of the first teaching hospital at Johns Hopkins University, where theory and practice were learned in tandem, just as they are at the best schools of education.
Duncan noted the importance of keeping track of teachers once they reach the classroom. Louisiana is the only state in the nation using data culled from hundreds of thousands of students and tens of thousands of teachers to identify effective and ineffective teacher education programs. Duncan is pushing for all states and all school districts to adopt similar practices. Students would then be held accountable for their performance on the job, and so would the schools that educated them. Data analysis identified the teacher education program run by the University of Louisiana–Lafayette as one in need of improvement, and officials at the school have increased admission requirements and added a career counseling program to better prepare teachers for their transition to the classroom.
One practice Alverno student Clements will take into the classroom is an attention to students’ demonstrated knowledge of skills and concepts rather than their ability to memorize and regurgitate material. “The strategies that are reviewed on teachers’ professional development [days]—like the different strategies a teacher can use in reading—are skills that I’m already a step ahead on because of this program,” Clements says. “Just yesterday, someone asked if I was familiar with a particular learning strategy, and I happily responded, ‘Yes, I learned that from Alverno.’ “