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Wisconsin College’s Teaching Methods Gain Attention

MILWAUKEE – Ivelisse Cruz can barely watch the video footage from her first time teaching a math lesson.

The video shows Cruz, a first-semester sophomore at Alverno College at the time, hesitantly starting her lesson seated with a group of seventh-grade students around a small table at Fairview Charter School in Milwaukee. She doesn’t quite explain what the focus of their math lesson will be, looks slightly uncertain and speaks in what she would later criticize as a monotone voice.

“It was terrible, I don’t even know how these kids were even paying attention,” Cruz, now in her senior year at Alverno, said as she watched the video.

Fast forward through three more semesters, learning the art of teaching and spending time working with students.

Now the video shows a more confident woman standing at the front of her class, reviewing her work with the students from the week before, forecasting what the next lesson will be, calling a student to stand beside her at an overhead projector to walk through a practice problem.

Alverno College, the small women’s college on Milwaukee’s south side, has been widely cited as a national model for training teachers, thanks to its combination of clinical and classroom experience and use of video and other tools to evaluate whether graduates are meeting the standards for what makes a good teacher.

Now, with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan calling for “revolutionary change – not evolutionary tinkering’” at the country’s more than 1,400 education schools, the question is whether tiny programs like Alverno’s—one that Duncan singled out—can be replicated on a national scale.

Beyond that, at a time when education schools are under enormous pressure to improve the ranks of teachers, there is no universal consensus on what goes into a successful program—large or small.

“Teacher education has a long history of neglect in higher education,”’ contends Dr. Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York and chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee from 1998 to 2003. “For years, people believed you enrolled great numbers of people in teacher education programs because it was relatively inexpensive to train teachers—as if teachers could be trained in some sort of passive, didactic format.”

Research is sparse on the type of program that can create a teacher with high student achievement results.

Still, common themes emerge in talks with academics, their students, beginning teachers and school administrators. More clinical experience in the classroom, greater emphasis on classes that build teachers’ subject knowledge and teaching skills, and better efforts to recruit promising students should be top priorities in any reform efforts, they say.

Educating someone how to be a teacher while in a college classroom is like trying to teach a child to ride a bike in a garage, said Andrew Dicker, a secondary social studies education major at UWM. What future teachers need is more experience working with children in one- or-two-year paid residencies at schools designated for training, much like hospitals that accept medical residents, he said.

Otherwise, he argues, it’s too easy for education students to skate by and end up unprepared after graduation.

The type of residency that Dicker suggests is almost identical to what is proposed in a recent report from a panel Zimpher co-chaired for the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. The panel pulled together major stakeholders—teachers, administrators, government officials, union leaders and representatives from colleges of education—to outline a framework for reforming how teachers are trained, specifically increasing the amount of time spent in classrooms.

The study pointed to residency programs, such as master’s degree programs in cities like Chicago, Boston and Denver, and a successful collaboration between a school district and colleges of education in Long Beach, Calif., as promising models. Eight states signed letters of intent to implement the new agenda. Wisconsin did not.

The expense of such programs—which include paying the residents a salary equivalent to a beginning teacher—could lead to drastic reductions in student enrollments, UWM School of Education Dean Alfonzo Thurman warned.

“That would drain us of resources,” said Thurman, whose university boasts that it places more graduates in schools than any other teacher preparation program in Wisconsin.

Little cost was required to implement the Long Beach residencies, said Christopher J. Steinhauser, superintendent of Long Beach Unified School District, adding that his district “didn’t add one penny” to its budget, but rather rearranged how money was allocated.

Such extensive fieldwork doesn’t have to be the only answer, however, especially if students experience a meaningful clinical practice that allows them to transfer their classroom learning into ongoing work with children, some say.

That’s what happens at Alverno.

In addition, programs that offer alternative routes to certification other than the traditional model, such as Teach For America, provide perhaps the ultimate field experience by placing teaching students in classrooms after completing limited training.

In Teach For America, which came to Milwaukee last year, non-education graduates are selectively recruited to teach in high-need districts for two years after only a five-week summer training period. They continue work toward master’s degrees in education while they teach during the day.

“I think Teach For America brings wonderful people in for very brief times,” Alverno Dean of Education Mary Diez said. “The thing that bothers me about it is it assumes you don’t need a professional program to become a teacher.”

Inside the college classroom, teacher preparation programs are being called upon to expand the scope of instruction to cover everything from cultural understanding and developmental stages of children to more classes focused on teaching skills and subject mastery.

Most often lacking, recent graduates say: teaching how to manage a classroom full of children and provide instruction for students at different academic levels.

“There isn’t a class that says Classroom Management 101,” said Tess Wielochowski, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Lincoln Intermediate School in West Allis, who recently graduated from Alverno after transferring from UWM’s School of Education. “You’re just thrown in there and expected to manage a room.”

Another common criticism of education schools is that they do not guarantee that their students will graduate with enough content knowledge about the subjects that they will teach.

Currently, Wisconsin requires education graduates to pass tests of basic skills and content knowledge before they can receive teaching certificates. The state also is working to develop new assessments to help identify education students who will be effective teachers.

Ensuring that education graduates not only know the subjects they teach but also know how to teach those subjects in a way that their students can understand should be a requirement for any preparation program, said Deborah Ball, dean of University of Michigan’s School of Education.

Her school is working to develop such assessments—modeling them on what is required of skilled trades from nursing to plumbing—as well as helping preparation programs produce graduates who can master what is necessary before they enter classrooms.

“We’re trying to build examples of what really high-quality material and supports would look like so that programs that don’t have as much capacity don’t have to do it by themselves,” said Ball, who said Alverno was a model program that her team visited as part of the process.

Getting the desired end result—a better teacher—could start with setting higher standards for which students are allowed into programs in the first place.

“I don’t think teaching should be for people who don’t know what else to do,” says Alyson Keith, a social studies teacher at Ronald Reagan College Preparatory High School in Milwaukee who earned her teaching certificate from Marquette University.

Bill Henk, dean of Marquette’s College of Education, says standards should be raised for admission to teacher preparation programs. Academics as well as personal and communication skills should be key factors, he said.

“My recommendation to teacher education is spend a lot of time on who gets let in the door to become a teacher,” he said.

A recent survey by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute identifies another way to improve the quality of education graduates: nearly three-quarters of education professors from among 716 four-year universities and colleges told Fordham researchers that their programs need to do more to remove unsuitable candidates.

The problem is that it can be difficult to tell who will be a good teacher until that person has a chance in the classroom, said Arthur Levine, former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College and now president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.

It becomes difficult to evaluate students, for instance, in tough districts like Milwaukee Public Schools, said Randy Goree, UWM professor of curriculum and instruction for the social sciences at the secondary level. Bad communication with a cooperating teacher, behavioral issues among students or lack of effort on the student-teacher’s part can all lead to a disastrous experience.

Even so, “there are times when a person shouldn’t be in a classroom with children,” Goree said. “They just don’t have it.”

So what if an education school had a chance to do it all over?

That’s what’s happening at UW-Parkside, where university administrators are overhauling the teacher education program, which last year was cited for numerous violations by the state Department of Public Instruction.

Although much still needs to be developed, Provost Terry Brown said she envisions a new program that follows teachers into the profession and provides further development where needed, incorporates useful technology into teaching methods classes and develops professionals who can work with English-language learners and students with disabilities in general education classrooms.

“We have this opportunity that very few programs around the country have,” Brown said. “We are going to create a 21st century program in the 21st century. … I think we’re building a national model.”

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