George Lucas Educational Foundation

Stanford University: Where Theory and Practice Meet

In the field from day one.
Sara Bernard
Related Tags: Project-Based Learning
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Credit: Bart Nagel

At the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP), a twelve-month master's program at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California, theory and practice don't merely coexist; they actively and continually inform each other.

Not only does coursework overlap with clinical work (homework assignments for the Curriculum and Instruction course, for instance, often include planning the next lesson in a real classroom), but STEP students also benefit from devoted professionals whose job is to make those connections seamless.

Cooperating teachers at partnering K-12 schools, STEP faculty, and STEP supervisors make up a trio of mentors for the program's inductees. Between weekly meetings, constant feedback, and continual communication and reflection, "you couldn't fall through the cracks here, even if you wanted to," explains Rachel Lotan, STEP's secondary-education director.

Students begin fieldwork on the first day and continue daily throughout the year, but "we're not just put in the water and told to swim," says Pablo Aguilera, a 2007-08 candidate. "They ease us into it."

Candidates' responsibilities slowly build up over the academic year and, in partnership with a cooperating teacher, culminate in a full-time takeover of his or her classroom. Students continually learn by doing. "Honestly, I think you can make people go to school for five years and tell them to read any number of books, but they won't really learn anything until they're in an actual classroom," Aguilera says.

At STEP, a commitment to serving traditionally underserved urban student populations, as well as an emphasis on personalized learning and education-reform initiatives, is paramount. Program leaders aim to prepare not only excellent teachers but also agents of change in education. STEP, therefore, makes sure to cultivate these ideals within its growing network of reform-oriented professional-development schools, where candidates do their real-world training. These teachers share a unified vision for urban-school reform, including an emphasis on community connections and the importance of smaller schools.

So far, prospects look good. For example, graduation and college-entrance rates at the East Palo Alto Academy, a charter high school operated by Stanford Schools Corporation and one of the local professional-development schools for STEP students, have increased dramatically.

The unity of vision draws STEP students to each other, as well. Surveys of graduates reveal that more than 90 percent maintain contact with individuals in their cohort, even years later. Many graduates seek employment alongside other graduates, and continue their professional development in partnership with STEP. More than 50 percent of cooperating teachers are also STEP graduates. All these factors makes the program's cheery mantra, "Once a STEPie, always a STEPie," a fitting one.

Sara Bernard is a former staff writer and multimedia producer for Edutopia.

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