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Changing how teachers are taught: a bid to transform education

A new graduate school and research lab, announced Tuesday by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and MIT, is a major effort toward revamping America's system of education schools.

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    Head teacher Lizaday Rancap-Perez works with a small group of students on literacy as others study on computers using online learning at Rocketship SI Se Puede, a charter, public elementary school, in February 2014 in San Jose, California.
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When Jeffrey Chiusano starts his job as a high school physics teacher in the fall, he’ll be doing so with a full year of teaching already under his belt.

His teacher license and degree were largely earned in a high school classroom, in a yearlong residency in which he could dissect with his professors and his mentor the experiences he had in creating lesson plans and working with students. The mentorship will continue for his first few years on the job.

“It’s easy to read it in a book, but it’s a lot different when you get up in front of 20 students to put in place what you learned,” Mr. Chiusano says.

His experience is emblematic of a new approach to teacher preparation that top education reformers say is the direction in which the field should be headed. That emphasis on lengthy classroom experience and mentorship, rather than seat time and textbooks, is needed, they say, given how inadequate the vast majority of education schools are when it comes to preparing teachers for their careers.

The training that teachers receive for their jobs is no obscure matter. Evidence increasingly points to teacher quality as the most important factor in determining how much students learn.

But too often, critics say, America's education schools are not serving their enrollees well – with low standards for admittance and graduation, no consensus about what training teachers need, little meaningful clinical experience, and courses that are behind the times and unrelated to real-world experience.

“Teacher education in the US is broken and outdated,” says Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, which has been a leading force behind improving teacher preparation. “The US is moving from a national analog industrial economy to a global digital knowledge economy, and every one of those [education] schools was created for the former.... We can try to repair them or try to replace them. I’m convinced you have to do both.”

A new graduate school and research lab, announced Tuesday by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a major effort toward changing the system.

The Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning (WW Academy), which will be located in the Boston area, is designed to be a showcase of the best sort of teacher preparation possible. It will have an emphasis on competency rather than time and will include a laboratory in which researchers do intensive studies on what works when it comes to educating teachers.

The hope is that the successful elements of the WW Academy will be replicated elsewhere and that the laboratory's findings have far-reaching effects.

“We’re not interested in creating a hothouse, some small education school,” Dr. Levine says. “What we’re really interested in is transforming teacher education around the country.”

He envisions a graduate program that is the education equivalent of West Point – the absolute best when it comes to teacher education. And in lab, MIT researchers can design thoughtful, intentional experiments to add concrete data to what can seem a very muddy field.

While there isn’t a great deal of data about what works in teacher preparation, there is a growing consensus both on the need for that data and the need for more rigor and standardization in teacher accreditation, so such accreditation is more akin to that used for medicine, law, or nursing.

“We know that of all the in-school measures, teacher quality has by far the biggest impact” on education quality, says David Steiner, dean of Hunter College’s school of education and a former New York State education commissioner.

Dr. Steiner, like Levine, says the current state of many education schools doesn’t come anywhere close to what’s needed in preparing teachers, and that too often, the least effective teachers end up in the most high-needs schools.

To change, Steiner says, the system ultimately needs to have fewer education schools with higher standards and strong clinical experience that prepare teachers for the jobs that actually exist – as opposed to the current system, which is licensing far more teachers (at least in some parts of the United States) than the country needs. This wouldn’t take care of all the challenges to developing a stronger teacher pool – like the low pay, poor working conditions, and lack of prestige that the profession currently struggles with – but Steiner thinks it would go a long way toward helping.

“The challenge here is to ratchet the entire system up,” says Steiner. “If you are more selective, if you can have a serious clinical preparation and then deliver those selective candidates who have been well prepared into a school system, I suspect we’d take the working-conditions issue more seriously, both in terms of salary and conditions. We’d move the entire system up several notches.”

The federal government has trained its sights on teacher preparation as well, most recently proposing new regulations that would grade education schools and alternative certification routes through measures like graduates’ job placement, retention, and the academic performance of the graduates' students.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan called improved teacher preparation “a moral issue” when he announced the proposed rules last November, and he has called for “revolutionary change.” His proposal was highly controversial, however – particularly the fact that it would factor in students’ academic performance – and put many schools on the defensive.

But if teacher training is truly to get where it's needed, say education experts, more data, rigorous research, and transparency are needed – and data on education school graduates could potentially take up a wide range of factors, including surveys from teachers and students.

“No regulation is perfect ... but the thrust of what the Feds are trying to do is fair and right and potentially helpful,” says Benjamin Riley, founder of Deans for Impact, a coalition of leaders of top education schools who are committed to transforming the field. “We’d like to engage in a dialogue to shape it in ways that are meaningful.”

Mr. Riley, like Levine, says that a lot of what is needed to transform teacher preparation is rigorous research on what works and where investments should be made. Emphasis right now is on the sort of residency and mentorship programs that Chiusano got in his fellowship. But such programs can be expensive, and cost is a big barrier when it comes to shifting an entire system of teacher preparation.

If good research existed about the return on that investment and the success of the model, says Riley, it would be much easier to make the case for that investment.

“We’ve got some hunches [about what works], but we haven’t really tested them to the degree of rigor we’d like. There are 1,450 or so odd colleges of education, and there’s unbelievable variance in what they prioritize.”

It’s common for critics of teacher training to bemoan the quality of people drawn to the profession: Unlike countries like Finland, Singapore, or South Korea, where nearly all teachers come from the top of their classes, the US has few such teachers. A 2007 McKinsey study found that while those three countries recruit 100 percent of their teachers from the top third of their academic cohort, in the US, 23 percent of new teachers come from that top third. In high-poverty schools, the number is 14 percent.

When he hires new teachers, their achievement and solid content knowledge from their own academic experience is important, says Doug McCurry, co-CEO and superintendent of Achievement First, a charter school network in Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island. But he also looks for passion and commitment to educating disadvantaged students – and an unwavering belief that they can succeed – as well as a mind-set that welcomes feedback, criticism, and growth.

“We need to be looking at the top quartile people and then filtering out for these other things,” says Mr. McCurry, who notes that getting the right teachers is one of the most important decisions that he or any school leader has to make. “That’s what this country needs.”

If the working conditions were changed, and teachers were encouraged to grow and have an impact, McCurry believes more top people would be drawn to the profession.

Several years ago, Achievement First was one of three charter networks whose leaders banded together to create a stand-alone education grad school, Relay. Like the Woodrow Wilson fellowships and the teacher training program at Hunter, Relay emphasizes residency, mentorship, and real-world experiences for aspiring teachers. And it has high standards for admission.

“If our education schools across the country were all like Relay, I think that would be game-changing for the US,” says McCurry.

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