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Teacher training: what's the best way?

Some policymakers say the focus needs to be on improving traditional education schools, while others are advocates of so-called alternative models, which can speed up entry into the profession.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 27, 2009

'I've gotten so much hands-on experience.' – Lana Marchand, a participant in the Academy of Urban School Leadership program

Stephen J. Carrera/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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Chicago

Johanna Klinsky remembers her teacher training ruefully.

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She loved the theory she learned, but her only classroom experience was 10 weeks of student teaching, which did nothing to prepare her for the chaos she would encounter as a teacher in an inner-city Chicago school.

"It was pure hell," she remembers. "I was wildly unprepared." In the end, though, she became part of the 55 percent or so of teachers who stick with the profession beyond five years. "But I guarantee you those kids didn't learn a thing," Ms. Klinsky says.

These days, she works as a coach in a Chicago teacher-preparation program far different from the one she went through: Aspiring teachers are paired with mentor teachers for a full year in urban classrooms before becoming teachers themselves. It's one model gaining attention right now as educators and policymakers debate how best to train teachers – particularly for the high-needs urban classrooms that need good teachers the most and are often saddled with those who are least-prepared.

There's now wide agreement that good teaching is the most crucial factor in raising student achievement. But when it comes to how to train those teachers – and how to make sure they are ready to hit the ground running and are likely to stick around – there's a deep ideological divide. Some policymakers say the focus needs to be on improving traditional education schools, which produce 4 out of 5 teachers in the United States. Others are strong advocates of so-called alternative models designed to streamline entry into teaching for exceptionally talented students or mid-career professionals.

"The vast majority of both traditional teacher-education programs and alternative certification programs are not meeting the needs of kids," says Barnett Berry, president of the Center for Teaching Quality in Hillsborough, N.C. The debate between the two is "a false dichotomy," he argues, since there is often far more variation in quality and design within the two camps than between them.

In particular, Mr. Berry notes, most programs right now are doing a poor job of preparing teachers for schools in high-poverty neighborhoods. "The pace of life in those schools is such that it's not all that amenable to learning on the job," he says. "It's too intense."

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, and some people point to studies showing that training makes little difference in teacher effectiveness.

"The variable that makes the most difference is the recruitment and selection on the front end," says Emily Feistritzer, president of the National Center for Alternative Certification in Washington. She's a proponent of easing the entry to the classroom, especially for well-qualified or older candidates who may be less inclined to return to school for a traditional teaching degree.

Alternative routes to teaching, which number more than 100, share certain

characteristics: They generally speed up the process of entering the profession, and usually, participants take at least some of the course work concurrently with the first year of teaching.

But the programs range from highly selective ones with finely honed training segments and good on-the-ground support to programs that many consider "degree mills" and may have no real supervised training.

Some of the ways to get into teaching

There are some 1,200 universities that certify teachers and about 140 alternative routes, according to the National Center for Alternative Certification. Here's a sampling of some ways that people become teachers:

• University-based undergraduate education program: This is still the most typical route. Students enter college knowing they want to become teachers and earn a certificate as part of their bachelor's degree. Those getting high school certification also take course work in the subject area they plan to teach, while future elementary school teachers often focus on child development or related subjects. Some student teaching is also required.

• Master of arts in teaching (MAT): Graduate-level course work is combined with some in-classroom experience. As with undergraduate teaching programs, the requirements for both course work and practical experience vary. Some programs are rigorous and have an extensive mentoring component. (MAT is one of several graduate degrees in education that can be earned.)

• Urban teacher residency (UTR): So far, only a handful exist. Usually these programs involve a partnership between an urban school district, a degree-granting university, and a nonprofit that oversees the program and covers most of the cost through fundraising. A group of residents takes educational-theory classes in the summer and during the school year (often just one day a week). But the focus is on the year-long residency in a high-needs school, with collaboration with a trained mentor-teacher. Residents typically get paid a stipend for that year, in return for a commitment to teach several years in the district. They continue to get coaching and mentoring for the first few years of teaching.

• New Teacher Project and Teach for America (TFA): These two alternative programs are well known for the high caliber of candidates they recruit. The New Teacher Project tends to attract older career-changers, while Teach for America concentrates on people just graduating from college. But their model is fairly similar: an intense, "boot camp"-style training institute in the summer, focused on the needs of the urban, high-poverty schools in which they will teach; course work at a university and support throughout their teaching experience; and a commitment to teach in urban schools for a certain length of time (two years, in the case of TFA). The actual teaching certificate is usually granted by a partner university.

• Emergency licensure: This practice of giving virtually anyone a provisional license to teach in cases of teacher shortages was outlawed under the No Child Left Behind Act. But more than 40 states still issue such licenses, using loopholes in the law. Twenty-two states will also renew emergency licenses. Typically, teachers with these licenses take some course work on the side, but there are no minimum standards or requirements.

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