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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Montclair State University: An Interdisciplinary Approach

It takes a university and a community.
By Rich Shea
Related Tags: Project-Based Learning

In 1908, what's now known as Montclair State University began as a modest two-year college focused on helping young women become grade school teachers. A hundred years later, this New Jersey institution offers 16,700-plus students degrees in the arts, sciences, business, and K-12 education.

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Universities such as this sometimes obscure their humble beginnings by eliminating teacher-education programs or turning them into cash cows. "That has never been the case at Montclair State," says Ada Beth Cutler, dean of MSU's College of Education and Human Services, which applies an interdisciplinary approach to innovations borne from the needs of public schools.

The college's Center of Pedagogy, for example, is where representatives from the education, arts, and sciences colleges and the teaching programs' twenty-five partner school districts gather, primarily, to make policy decisions about teacher preparation at MSU. The center takes this all-hands-on-deck approach because the academic colleges and partner schools play essential roles in teacher training.

"For our students to have a vision of teaching as something that is an intellectually challenging and collaborative learning experience, they must have experiences in schools where teachers learn together," Cutler explains. Which means MSU faculty -- aside from instructing and mentoring education students -- often teach model classes and serve in residence at partner schools. In reverse, those K-12 teachers who complete courses on critical thinking, mentoring and coaching, and cultural responsiveness qualify as clinical faculty.

All teacher candidates must complete at least one urban field experience early in the program. During the senior or culminating year, two semesters are usually spent in one school.

Guiding the students throughout their education is the "Portrait of a Teacher," a twelve-point declaration of what an educator should know and do. It's informed by a nurturing pedagogy adaptive to all learning styles and the notion that we live in an imperfect democratic society. The "portrait" teacher is, in brief, a community-oriented subject-area expert who advocates for social justice.

Teacher candidates are continually assessed for adherence to the portrait's standards. The result is a microscopic examination of one's strengths and weaknesses so that graduates "essentially have a portrait of themselves as teachers," says Jennifer Robinson, executive director of the Center of Pedagogy.

Courtesy of Montclair State University

Most graduates end up working in New Jersey and, in surveys, typically praise their preparation; any negative feedback serves as fodder for program improvement -- an ongoing process that's resulted in numerous awards. One, given by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education in 2002, was for MSU's work in diversifying the teaching ranks.

Recent tweaks in the program have resulted in innovations such as the digital backpack, a package equipped with a laptop, a digital camera, an MP3 player, and other technology tools used in partner schools by MSU students and cooperating teachers.

The college deliberately chooses partner schools where student teachers are considered junior faculty and where new teachers -- alumni among them -- are nurtured and encouraged to take on leadership. It is through these partnerships, says Robinson, that MSU underscores "the whole continuum of teacher development."


Rich Shea is a freelance writer in Maryland.

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