Reforming university-based teacher preparation

This is the moment to reform university-based teacher preparation — the first time that government has been able to match the rhetoric of improving teaching with the resources to do it. Race to the Top and the upcoming Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization process provide opportunities to turn a smorgasbord of teacher preparation initiatives into more comprehensive approaches. The most promising such approaches include top-level state leadership, universities, school districts, unions, and start-up funding. Federal legislation needs to encourage such partnerships.

{mosads}The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation has been working with states to create a new Teaching Fellowship that focuses on preparation of teachers in science and math, the most understaffed areas. While this fellowship seeks to recruit accomplished teacher candidates, retain strong teachers, and staff high-need schools, it also is designed to transform university-based teacher preparation. Schools of education selected to receive these fellows must create model math and science teacher preparation programs, working closely with targeted high-need school districts as well as with arts and sciences faculty.

Working through university-based teacher preparation programs provides maximum leverage for reform. As Secretary Duncan has noted, schools of education still produce more than 80 percent of all of the nation’s teachers. Change in universities is also financially self-sustaining, given the ongoing nature of tuition revenues, and universities are unique in having the scientists and mathematicians, as well as education faculty, who can bring rigor to teacher preparation. Moreover, given the negative public view of university-based teacher education programs, education schools want to be seen as innovators.

States are also key partners for our Teaching Fellowship, not only because they are primary governing and funding units for education, but also because they offer the greatest potential leverage for change. At the state level, small numbers of teachers can have a surprisingly large impact.

For instance, in Indiana, where the program is producing 80 fellows annually, this increases the number of teachers certified in math and science each year in the state by over 20 percent.

The lessons we have learned thus far, in building partnerships through the Teaching Fellowship program, offer effective state/university teacher preparation approaches that federal initiatives can promote and reward:

•Work through the governor’s office and expand the constituency. It is essential to develop a coalition of support for improving teacher preparation that includes the governor, legislators, the higher education community, the schools, professional associations, business, unions, and philanthropy. This kind of outreach gives the initiative genuine roots throughout the state and the promise of continuity as leaders change jobs. It also creates the basis for real partnerships down the line, including collaboration between arts and sciences and education faculty as well as between universities and districts, which extends beyond pro forma engagement.

• Make expectations explicit. All partners must be clear about the characteristics of the new teacher education programs — goals; curriculum; staffing and connections between academic and clinical education; schools and colleges. They must also be explicit about the specific criteria for measuring success, what participants are expected to do and accomplish, what the timeframe is, and who is responsible for outcomes. State agencies, with federal encouragement, can help to remove some stumbling blocks in teacher licensing and program approval if the expectations are made explicit.

• Provide carrots and sticks, and require skin in the game. It is essential to give appealing incentives for participation —funding, public recognition, bragging rights — and explicitly wield sticks, such as the risk of upsetting the governor or other significant stakeholders in the coalition, or the potential for bad press. All have had potency in the states Woodrow Wilson has worked with to date. It has also proven effective to require that universities match the $500,000 provided to create the new Fellowship with new resources.

• Require accountability. Incentives should be tied to demonstrated change. Participating Woodrow Wilson universities sign a memorandum of understanding with dates and deliverables in order to receive the $500,000 grant, and they must complete satisfactory program implementation before they are allowed to receive fellows. State data systems and rigorous long-term third-party assessment, to ensure student learning, teacher retention, and sustained program change, are also essential.

President Barack Obama and his administration have been very clear that, to compete successfully for new dollars and ongoing support, states must take bold steps to gain real traction in education reform. For the states, few such steps could matter more than seizing the lifeline that these initiatives have thrown to university-based teacher preparation. Federal policymakers can ensure that that lifeline runs through ESEA and other federal initiatives, so that reforms are truly incorporated in our nation’s approach to teacher preparation.
Levine is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and former president of Teachers College, Columbia University.

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