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Transforming teacher preparation, student readiness


October 20, 2010

By Betsy Loeff

For all the disagreement about how to implement educational reform in America, there is little argument about the central assumption of that debate: our country’s approach to delivering learning needs an overhaul. Those who enter the work world without a college degree can expect to earn 33 percent less than those holding a bachelor’s degree. Educational deficiencies affect everyone in a given community, because low levels of educational achievement are correlated with many problems, from higher rates of unemployment to increased health care costs over a lifetime.

Only about 70 percent of American students graduate from high school, a figure that has remained largely unchanged since the 1970s and holds as true in Arizona as anywhere else.

Students who do graduate often lack vital skills, and that affects their employability. With all this on the line, the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU is remaking itself in order to fulfill what Dean Mari Koerner calls the college’s central mission: transforming education from pre-kindergarten through graduate school. Koerner, her faculty colleagues and her staff are harnessing new technologies, forging alliances with other ASU schools and colleges, and crafting partnerships with local school districts, policymakers and think tanks to improve educational outcomes and dramatically shift how learning happens in a classroom setting.

The dean’s goal is “creating the college of education for the 21st century,” and she’s tapping resources from across the university, not to mention the community, to get the job done.

Funding excellence

Arizona’s budget crisis has gouged state funding for education at all levels. But Koerner and her team are moving forward with their transformative work, thanks to boosts from several key grants her college has received.

One major funding source is an $18.9 million investment made by entrepreneur and philanthropist T. Denny Sanford to fund the Sanford Educational Project. This project will allow the teachers college to collaborate with Teach For America (TFA), a non-profit organization that has recruited and trained more than 24,000 top-performing college graduates to become highly effective teachers in underserved areas.

A crucial part of the TFA program is its Summer Institute, an intense, five-week training program that combines instruction on teaching theory with hand-on classroom experience to get TFA corps members, most of whom are not education majors, ready to lead their own classrooms. ASU’s teachers college is partners with the TFA program and looking at providing a similar offering. “We’ll take the best from their program and incorporate it into our own,” Koerner says.

TFA also measures student performance to track the effectiveness of the teachers it trains. As a presidential initiative and with a grant award to design a system which tracks the performance of her college’s graduates, Koerner’s team will be able to follow their teacher graduates through their teacher preparation programs and into their careers to see how long they stay in teaching and measure their impact. Called the Teacher Research and Evaluation Project , it will provide valuable information over time about the effectiveness of the college’s programs as it relates to the effectiveness of their teachers. Asserting that performance should be measured by other factors beyond test scores, Koerner says, “A prepared teacher has a measurable impact on students.”

Off the treadmill, onto the path

More than 6,000 ASU students attend the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, which was created from a consolidation of the university’s existing education programs in May, and about 4,000 of them are engaged in teacher preparation courses. Any education major destined for classroom teaching eventually will come face-to-face with one of the profession’s biggest challenges: student readiness.

According to David Garcia, an associate professor of education who tracks student-preparation rates, part of the decline in student readiness in recent years is due to what is known as the “recession effect,” which is caused by increased enrollments in college programs during economic downturns because jobs are scarce. Many underprepared college students might have been able to find adequate employment in rosier times and ignored higher education as an option.

For those who enter college without the background to handle the coursework, Garcia says many will wind up on an educational treadmill.

“We know that students who are not ready for college are less likely to finish,” Garcia explains. “They take developmental classes and often repeat them.” As a case in point, he references 2009 figures from Maricopa Community Colleges showing that only 53 percent of students in developmental math courses made passing grades. The rest had to retake the classes.

Two significant factors play a role in the creation of this situation, Garcia continues. One is the disconnect between what schools expect students to do related to college preparation and what students actually do. Another issue stems from disagreement about whether student readiness is properly classified as an input measure for universities to evaluate, or an output measure for high schools to determine. Many educators think it should be  considered a bit of both.

That’s why the Center for the Future of Arizona, an independent public-policy research organization located in Phoenix, has developed an initiative to link high school requirements more strongly with higher education expectations. Known as Pathways to Postsecondary Education, the program involves collaborations among ASU experts, local school administrators, as well as community college officials, and it aims to make sure high school graduates have both skills and the will to continue with school.

The need for the road between high school and college to be free of obstacles has never been more urgent, according to Sybil Francis, executive director of the center and leader of the Pathways project.

“Less than 2 percent of new high-growth jobs don’t require education beyond high school,” Francis said. “For many years, a high school diploma was a respectable degree that could take a person down many paths. But, that’s not the case anymore. High schools need to be the starting point to education, not the endpoint.”

Francis added that there must be more interaction between secondary and postsecondary educators to ensure that students who want to progress are ready to do so.

“You’d be amazed at how little communication there is between sectors,” she said. She pointed out that, until a couple years ago, most Arizona high schools only required two years of math for graduation, while universities required four years of math for admittance: “Right from the start, we were getting students off track.”

Teaching the teachers

Students aren’t the only ones headed down a path of different and more rigorous study.

According to Koerner, her newly reconfigured college will dramatically change the way it equips teachers to teach. She said effective teacher preparation programs integrate pedagogy – the art of teaching – with the content that the teacher will eventually teach, such as math, science or English.

“We’re reducing the amount of pedagogy courses in the undergraduate programs by 25 percent and replacing (those courses) with content-based ones,” she explains. The remaining hours of pedagogy will be “more intense,” she adds. Meanwhile, the amount of time student-teachers will spend delivering instruction in school environments will double.

For some of the college’s students, time spent immersed in classroom settings already is well above average. Associate Dean Scott Ridley runs the district-based Professional Development School (PDS), a program that partners with school districts around the state to offer teaching school students an intensive curriculum from ASU mixed with classroom experience. Currently, some 250 ASU students participate in the PDS, but Ridley expects the number to grow to as many as 500. Last year, PDS received a $33.8 million federal grant to expand across its reach to include 15 member school districts across metropolitan Phoenix and the state of Arizona, spanning rural American Indian communities and the Tucson area.

“A lot of curriculum assumes that if you know the concepts of teaching, you’ll be an effective teacher,” he says. “(But) it’s not just what you know in your head that counts. Teaching requires that you deliver what you know and create relationships with your students in a motivational context.”

Learning to do that takes hand-on experience. But, according to Ridley, traditional education programs often have people other than college professors managing the in-classroom practicums, so there is no way to know if theory gets put into practice. By contrast, Ridley’s PDS program monitors student teachers closely. In fact, he arms his student teachers with video cameras, and part of their curriculum requires them to tape themselves in front of their own students so that their teaching can be critiqued by ASU peers.

PDS also has a “grow your own” component that allows people in rural parts of the state to acquire teaching credentials without ever attending classes in the Valley of the Sun. As  Ridley explains, people in outlying areas who might want to teach may have family obligations or other conditions that prevent them from leaving home to attend the university. “So the program goes to them,” he says. Each community has an ASU coordinator who works with student-teachers to offer face-to-face instruction; effective remote learning venues, such as teleconferenced classes, are also built into the program. The program turns out teachers who feel at home in front of a class, and who also understand the most effective ways to help youngsters master challenging content.

“You get so much more in-classroom experience than you would in a traditional program,” says PDS graduate Rebecca Maestas, who did her student teaching at Copper Trails Elementary in Avondale before accepting a position at Desert Spirit Elementary in Glendale after graduation. She credits the program’s immediate feedback – plus highly effective mentor teachers – with giving her what she needed from a condensed course of study.

New lesson plans

In the PDS program, student-teachers partner with ASU peers, teaching mentors, site coordinators and school administrators to acquire the skills and knowledge they need. James Gee, Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies, sees this model, which emphasizes teamwork, as a crucial step to promoting a truly 21st century learning environment.

“Modern kids learn differently than Baby Boomers, and they certainly learn in ways that are different from what professors choose,” he says. “Professors learn through texts, through reading alone. Modern kids learn through activity, problem solving and collaboration.”

The Internet is a large part of the shift, he notes.

“University classrooms are built on the model that information is rare, and faculty members spend decades acquiring it so that they can pass it on to students,” Gee adds. “But, today, information is not rare. You can find information on the Internet in a second. What is rare is being able to use information, apply it to problem solving and use good judgment about its accuracy.”

One new learning model Gee envisions mirrors the online knowledge communities that have cropped up around subject matter. At these sites, newcomers learn from experts, and the digital forum propagates excellence. This mentoring approach could benefit those who enter school with less readiness for it, he explains.

“Digital media, collaboration and problem solving are good ways to remedy the problems of people who come into classrooms with less experience,” Gee continues. “They get more time on task, motivation and help” to bring them up to a mastery level.

ASU already is constructing teacher-training coursework that takes advantage of these new ways of learning. For instance, Nobel laureate Lee Hartwell, ASU’s Virginia G. Piper Chair of

Personalized Medicine, will be teaching classes on the scientific method in the education college so that soon-to-be teachers can cascade this learning down to the students they’ll touch in their communities.

Such tools for educating teachers-to-be and the students are all part of a goal summed up by Ridley: “If we can impact success in school districts, if we can produce excellent teachers who boost student achievement, then we’re in the right place as a college of education.”

Betsy Loeff is a freelance writer based in Denver.