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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.

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But all too often, university programs are criticized for being divorced from what students will find in the classroom and for giving inadequate preparation to those planning to work in very rural or very urban districts.

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Mr. Levine is working state by state to try to improve the quality of university-based training. In Indiana, where he has done the most work, his foundation is offering universities $500,000 in matching money that they can use to change their curricula. They're also offering those schools 20 fellowships of $30,000 each – similar, in some ways, to the residency model. The fellowships are for well-qualified individuals who make a three-year commitment to teach in high-needs urban schools and who get three years of intensive mentoring from the university.

Doing it state by state, Levine says, is conducive to getting the necessary coalitions on board among government, universities, school districts, unions, businesses, philanthropies, and other key players. And it makes for a more targeted impact. In Indiana, where four universities are participating, the efforts are increasing the number of math and science teachers by nearly 25 percent, according to Levine.

"I'm a pragmatist in these education wars," he says. "The universities tend to be too theoretical, and a lot of the alternative programs are too practical…. It would be really nice if we could meld the lessons of both."

One current weakness of many programs, Levine and others agree, is that at the same time they're under pressure to turn out higher-quality teachers, they're also under pressure to increase the number of teachers – which often leads to decreased admissions standards.

"If medicine starts to have a shortage of surgeons, they don't say, 'Let's get people of lesser ability.' In education, we lower the bar," says Thomas Lasley, dean of the education school at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

One failing of many large education schools, Dean Lasley adds, is that they don't do enough to prepare teachers for the specific needs of today's students, especially those in high-poverty neighborhoods. So the University of Dayton has started its own Urban Teacher Academy. Students committed to teaching in urban environments get training in the classroom and are paired with experienced teachers.

Stanford has also started its own schools. "This is the wave of the future," Professor Darling-Hammond says. "Medicine wasn't able to teach doctors how to practice better until they created teaching hospitals. Schools of education have to create teaching schools."

Back at Dodge Renaissance Academy, the students are used to having the teacher mentoring as part of the classroom experience, teachers say. And the focus on teaching has made a big difference: Between 2006 and 2007, a few years after AUSL turned it into a teaching academy, the portion of students passing state achievement tests jumped from 26 percent to 62 percent – the largest gain in the city during that period.

"I've gotten so much hands-on experience," says Lana Marchand, an AUSL resident who worked in human resources for six years before deciding she wanted to become a teacher.

Ms. Marchand is in her second day of taking over all the lesson preparation and teaching for her third-grade classroom – a task she's been working up to over the course of the year. During one exercise on nonfiction reading strategies, her mentor, Amy Versaw, unobtrusively takes notes on how well she holds students' attention.

"The engagement fluctuated, but she's grown a lot" in classroom management, Ms. Versaw says. "She feels more comfortable in her own skin as a teacher now."

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.