During the past couple years, teacher preparation programs have been taking a lot of heat. Everyone from the Secretary of Education to the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) is concerned about the performance of colleges of education, calling for teacher education to be "turned upside down" in this country. And the National Council on Teacher Quality and U.S. News and World Report recently announced an ambitious new project to rate the teacher education offerings in all 1,400 of America's schools of education, one might assume in response to concerns about their quality.
The vast, vast majority of new teachers come through colleges of education. And to be honest, I am sure that some of those programs are not so hot. But there are others that have developed innovative strategies to prepare their students to teach in 21st century classrooms -- and we should take care not to lump all programs together in conversations about the state of teacher preparation in this country.
University/District Partnerships in Florida
A recent Blue Ribbon Panel on teacher preparation stressed the importance of grounding the pre-service teacher experience in clinical practice. The University of Florida's College of Education does just that. For over ten years they have worked in partnership with the communities they serve, developing clinical programs that meet community needs while helping their own students gain important experience. For example, in the first field experience the university offers, pre-service teachers work one-on-one with children who live in public housing communities, generally in a recreation facility or center in a public housing neighborhood.
The program was developed with the executive director of the local public housing authority and a captain from the police department as a result of their concerns for children in those neighborhoods, and as a result of feedback from university graduates who felt they lacked preparation in working with children and families from backgrounds different from their own.
The college is also working with school districts to strengthen its ESOL program. All its students graduate with ESOL endorsement from the state of Florida, with ESOL competencies woven throughout the program. But in the area where they are located, there is not a large population of students who speak English as a second language. So the college has partnered with other districts throughout the state -- districts serving a larger population of ESOL students -- to give their students more experience with the unique challenges and opportunities of educating this population so that as teachers, graduates will be better equipped to serve them.
Co-(Student) Teaching in Minnesota
Another innovative approach to teacher education comes from Minnesota's St. Cloud State University. The University's "co-teaching" model of student teaching prepares new teachers for the challenges of the job while keeping master teachers in the classroom. The rationale is two-fold. Research shows the importance of mentoring new teachers, so why not push that mentoring down into the student teaching experience? And also, why do student teaching programs take effective, experienced teachers out of the classroom while novice teachers are learning? They should always be available to work with kids.
In these co-taught classrooms, a student teacher works with a cooperating teacher. The student teacher is actively engaged with children from the first day, assisting the cooperating teacher. As the experience progresses, the roles reverse -- the cooperating teacher becomes the assistant.
The benefits are huge. Not only do student teachers have support in the classroom, but the expertise of master teachers is not "lost" for a semester while a novice teacher takes over. Plus, student teachers learn how to effectively utilize adult resources, helping them maximize the impact of a paraprofessional or parent volunteer in the classroom, for example. And they graduate knowing how to collaborate with other professionals -- a skill that is increasingly valued in educators.
The best part of this model? It benefits children. Four years of research show that students in these co-taught classrooms outperform students in classrooms using other models of student teaching. They even outperform students taught by a single experienced teacher.
The Bottom Line
Given all the negative attention that colleges of education have received over the past several months, it would be easy to write them off -- to dedicate our teacher preparation resources towards alternative (and unproven) preparation programs, rather than university-based programs. But we shouldn't do that. Again, colleges of teacher education prepare the vast majority of our new teachers -- and they are constantly developing innovative new ways to ensure these teachers are ready to be effective in the classroom.