Indiana U. hopes to become a model for how to teach teachers

For David Ellers, teaching is something special. His father is an assistant high school principal, and David, a second-semester sophomore in elementary education, hopes to carry the flame. But here, taking a break after a day of classes in Indiana University's education building, he has noticed some problems.

''We're just not getting the quality students into the profession,'' he says.

Downstairs, Lee Ehman, associate dean for academic affairs, echoes a similar sentiment about IU's education school.

There are problems in grade inflation, faculty and student morale, and that nagging inability to attract top students in most cases, he says. Average combined SAT scores of students involved in teaching are very low compared with other IU schools. Last year, only students in social work and physical education ranked lower.

The problems are not limited to Indiana University's education school.

As report after report has come out critical of public education, education schools increasingly have been blamed. Some critics say education schools are so bad that they should be eliminated altogether and replaced with teaching apprenticeships.

But Howard Mehlinger, IU's dean of education since 1981, has other ideas.

He agrees with much of the criticism that has been leveled at education schools. Education faculty are sometimes out of touch with the demands on today's teachers, he says. And for years, education schools were university moneymakers - they turned out volumes of students at relatively low cost, helping to subsidize more expensive departments.

The schools, which attracted the best female students before women's career options expanded, now generally draw students from the academic bottom third of incoming students.

Mr. Mehlinger is working mightily to change all that at IU.

Already he has tightened admissions standards to the education school, put in a minimum-skills test, and intends to institute a nonbinding ''safe-to-practice'' exit test. He also expects to promote more extensive exchanges between education-school professors and Indiana schoolteachers and administrators.

Mehlinger is also trying to raise $25 million to $30 million for an IU Center for Excellence in Education, which will have the mission of improving Indiana education and providing a national model for how a university can work with schools.

The center would forge partnerhips with businesses and education groups, find ways in which technology can help teachers, and address certain critical teaching topics, such as math and science instruction, adult illiteracy, and better development of teachers already in the profession.

Educators and other observers admit that beefing up education schools won't be a panacea. But Mehlinger says it could be a big first step toward improvement.

Both major teacher unions - the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers - support such efforts.

The NEA has proposed a set of 30 standards for accrediting education schools.

The union wants each school to be accredited by a state standards board made up of practicing teachers, school board members, administrators, and other specialists, says Bernard McKenna, a specialist in teacher education with the NEA. (In most states, the education schools are accredited by a lay board of education.)

For its part, the AFT proposes that graduates of education schools work with an experienced teacher for one or even two years, says Scott Widmeyer, the union's public relations director.

''My own feeling is that some of the salvation for the schools is not to get people who will make a career of teaching,'' but who will teach for about five years, Mehlinger says. The idea could be similar to an ROTC scholarship, where government helps pay college tuition in return for a certain number of years of service.

''We've got to find ways of getting good people who will come in (to the profession),'' he says. ''Otherwise, it's hopeless.''

Mr. Ellers, who considers himself an above-average student, says teaching should be more highly regarded. ''My father (the assistant principal) didn't want me to do this,'' he admits.

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