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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Michigan State University: An Ambitious and Ever-Evolving Program

Innovation aplenty.
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
Courtesy of Michigan State University

Michigan State University, the seat of early calls for reform in teacher education, remains a leader in improving the preparation of educators.

Its five-year program, launched in the early 1990s, includes a bachelor's degree and a postbaccalaureate internship and ensures that students who want to teach are shortchanged on neither a liberal education nor hands-on teaching practice. Other MSU innovations are new and evolving, proving that self-improvement must be ongoing.

"It's a very ambitious place," says Suzanne Wilson, chair of the Department of Teacher Education at the university's College of Education. "You have to try things, find out what doesn't work, and then figure out the next step."

Students take only five education classes as undergraduates, focusing mainly on general subjects. To give candidates a context for their studies, however, each education course entails twenty to thirty hours of fieldwork. Throughout the fifth year, every candidate serves as an intern in a school, gradually working up to lead teaching and then returning to the university to debrief and study further.

A coordinated platoon of support staff guides the interns. Field instructors, part-time faculty with little obligation for academic research, observe the interns and provide feedback. Cluster leaders support and supervise field instructors. And collaborating K-12 teachers -- typically handpicked by the university instructors most involved in the public schools -- give interns daily advice in the classroom.

"The internship year helps us work with students about things that you wouldn't see in a four-year program," Wilson says. "It's a hard first couple of years in teaching, and we're with them when other teacher-education programs are not."

The university had once been what Wilson calls a degree mill for teachers. In the 1980s, the Holmes Group, a coalition of reform-minded education deans spearheaded by those at MSU, prompted the school to refocus on subject-matter training and relationships with K-12 schools.

Today's innovations in the making include a three-year induction program for graduates, supported by a Teachers for a New Era grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Ford and Annenberg foundations. Through the pilot program, now in its third year, carefully selected and trained mentors meet weekly with groups of new teachers in the Lansing schools. Mentors are released from teaching one day a week, when they observe their charges.

"It's way different from models where the mentor just pats you on the back or is there for you once in a while after school," says program director Randi Stanulis.

MSU is also developing a program tailored to candidates with a passion for urban teaching, as well as scholarships for Detroit high school students who pledge to teach for at least three years in city settings. Enrollment in the Urban Educators Cohort Program jumped from thirty-eight in its first year (last year) to fifty-four this fall. "I think we're onto something," says Wilson.

Naturally, faculty are busily examining how well these inventions work and how to make them better. This is just a beginning.

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

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