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Attracting the `best and the brightest' to teaching

By Ronald SchachterSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 5, 1987



WHILE many from Harvard's class of 1986 were entering medical, law, and business schools this past September, five fellow graduates were entering public high schools. They were the first certified teachers to emerge from a new Harvard program in teacher education, and they bore witness to the intensifying efforts of Ivy League institutions to draw students into public school teaching. Several Ivy League colleges have recently modified their training programs. Dartmouth now provides a tuition-free semester to undergraduates needing extra time for teacher certification. At Brown, aspiring educators can combine their undergraduate degree with a master's degree in teaching and are placed in schools where they are likely to have positive teaching experiences.

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These elite colleges have heard the calls for better teachers, say the people responsible for the preparation programs. In the face of projected teacher shortages, Harvard's planned contribution to the teaching pool of 12 graduates this year and as many as 25 in the future may seem insignificant. Yet even these numbers can have an impact, says Katherine Merseth, in explaining why Harvard had her develop its program.

``The bottom line is quality, not quantity,'' Ms. Merseth insists, and says that the influx of teachers with high-powered educational backgrounds will help revitalize the profession. Adds Edith MacMullen, who supervises 35 teacher trainees at Yale, ``These students are the best and the brightest. They are exactly the kind that the reform reports say should be teaching.''

They are also the kind who should be leading. Says Merseth: ``We hope that these particular undergraduates will do more than simply become high school teachers.''

Harvard's goals in getting into the teacher training business extend even further, though. ``When Harvard does something, people notice,'' claims Merseth, and she emphasizes the program's ``lighthouse effect'' in showing the way to other institutions that will begin teacher training. Harvard is also enabling its own students to see teaching careers in a new, positive light.

Adds Faith Dunne, who runs a similar program for Dartmouth, ``We can prepare highly able teachers who will give the message to kids in the classroom that you can be bright and academic and still be a teacher. One such person can do more to help than a million people shrieking about our problems.''

Six Ivy League colleges, including Princeton and Pennsylvania, now offer teacher preparation that supplements undergraduate majors in subjects like biology, math, and history with the education courses needed for state certification. The five to eight courses usually include educational or developmental psychology, a study of schooling and teaching methods, classroom observation, and student teaching. These programs thus are a source of highly able people with solid grounding in the subjects they will teach. At a time when the combined SAT scores of prospective teachers average in the 700s out of a possible 1600, says Harvard's Merseth, the stream of Ivy League graduates contributes invaluably to the teaching force.

A major challenge for these colleges has been eliminating the barriers between Ivy League undergraduates and teaching careers. For years these students have bypassed the teaching profession for more lucrative and prestigious futures. Merseth indicates that Harvard's long-standing absence from teacher preparation denigrated the field, and she thinks that the present program will reverse the message.

Even Yale's program, which has existed for 16 years, still must work to keep the door to teaching careers open. Among those who have walked through is junior Karen Droga, who changed from pre-med to pre-ed because she discovered, ``It is all right for someone with other options to be a teacher.''

Getting a hold of attractive candidates before they get away has become a priority, Merseth admits, ``We might not capture these people if we don't get them now.'' Many participants in the Ivy League programs reveal that they would not have taken the time and expense to train after college and say they might have gotten ``sidetracked'' into other vocations.

Dartmouth's tuition-free semester attempts to solve the additional problem of asking students with already heavy academic loads to take education courses. Explains Ms. Dunne, ``We were frustrated at seeing people who wanted to teach in public schools but had too many other desires such as study abroad, senior seminars, and honors theses, all of which were wholly consistent with what we wanted from teachers.

Since 50 percent of all teachers are likely to leave within seven years, Brown uses its extensive research on school improvment to determine locations where students and recent graduates will get off to the best possible start and will find their instructional efforts supported.

``Teacher preparation needs to go hand in hand with school reform efforts,'' says Traci Bliss, who directs Brown's program. The list of schools to which Brown routes its graduates has grown beyond 100, and their principals are reporting that such programs mark a new era in education.

Despite its limited output, teacher training in the Ivy League is gaining momentum. More talented undergraduates are thinking about teaching than ever before. In the past six months, over 100 have inquired at Brown. And while Harvard sophomore Mary Ellen Ronayne always planned to teach, her roommate did not and followed her into the new program. Merseth has been responding to numerous requests for budgets, planning documents, and curricula.

The Ivy League graduates, without committing themselves to a lifetime of teaching, are at least entering a field they might never have considered. As Yale's Ms. Droga puts it, ``I'm not planning on teaching for three years and going on to law school. I'll teach and see.''