ASU plans big change in teacher training

January 25, 2010

By hammersmith

ASU plans big change in teacher training

Less time on theory, more focus on subject

Pat Kossan, Arizona Republic

In a quest to turn out better teachers, Arizona State University is shaking up its training program for K-12 educators, requiring students to take more courses in subjects they will teach and fewer on how to teach and understand children.


The university, one of the largest producers of teachers in the nation, plans to cut in half, to about 25 percent, the time its undergraduates spend on teaching theory and increase to about 75 percent the time spent learning math, science, history, English and other subjects. Students will get more time working with experienced teachers in K-12 classrooms.


ASU also will try to improve the quality of its students by incorporating some of the ways the national non-profit Teach for America recruits and trains its corps members. Teach for America is controversial in the education community for its crash-course approach to training talented college graduates and sending them on two-year missions to teach in struggling schools.


“What ASU is going to do is pretty profound,” said Paul Koehler, education analyst for the research and policy group WestEd.


Changes to ASU’s curriculum will take effect in fall 2011 at a time when business and education leaders are bemoaning the lack of math and science knowledge among American students – and the shortage of good teachers in those topics.


Mari Koerner, dean of ASU’s College of Teacher Education and Leadership, also has a grand goal: “Parents will hopefully want more of their children to go into teaching and become teachers. They’ll see it as an esteemed profession and a place where highly achieving students can go because it’s such a wonderful life career.”


Rebalancing act


Students entering ASU’s teacher-training program can expect to be placed in a classroom at the same time they’re taking foundation, or pedagogy, courses such as child development and classroom management. The credit hours spent in foundation courses will drop from 60 to as few as 30 hours by 2013.


A new curriculum will be tougher and will consist of more content courses, especially in mathematics. Education students must specialize in a content area, even if they are teaching in elementary school.


“We’re talking about having a course in probability and statistics that elementary teachers will have to have because that’s what they use in elementary school,” Koerner said. “So you can’t be a teacher if you’re math-phobic.”


Koerner is working with all of ASU’s colleges to provide content courses that make it possible for education students to graduate with a dual degree. That means a student can get a degree in history, science or economics, in addition to a degree in education, within four years.


Koehler said the best part of this experiment is that ASU will collect data to determine its success as measured by teachers who graduate, stay in education and raise the academic achievement of their students. Depending on the evidence, it may help other education colleges, often far more bound to tradition, to make similar changes.


The spurs for change


The big changes to ASU’s teacher training were prompted in part by new expectations from students, graduates, taxpayers and parents.


• Two years ago, ASU began tracking and surveying its teaching students and graduates. Based on that feedback, “we have changed the way we offer courses, we have changed the number of courses, and we have changed the content of courses,” Koerner said.


It also has given the school a better understanding that students come to college with various levels of knowledge and experience. That led the school to provide flexibility in how students can earn degrees.


For example, ASU is doubling the number of its teaching programs, taught in person and through video conferences, at K-12 schools throughout the state.


• Public universities are expensive and more people are demanding accountability for the graduates they produce.


“We (currently) produce teachers (and) we say, ‘Congratulations, we hope you do well in your career. We don’t know if you’re really going to stay in teaching, we don’t know if you’re going to be a good teacher by any measurement,’ ” Koerner said. Now, ASU will follow their graduates, mentoring them in the classroom and gauging the success of their curriculum. If evidence dictates, changes will be made.


• Koerner said her faculty’s close relationships with principals and teachers make her understand that parents are looking for much more highly skilled teachers who can inspire their children, no matter what level the students are at, to obtain a college degree and good job in a globally competitive market.


Also, as part of its overhaul, ASU is adding to its faculty a winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine. Lee Hartwell, who won the 2001 prize for his work in cell division, is designing a course to help future teachers inspire elementary-school children to love science. He has agreed to teach at least one section of the course each semester and allow other professors to sit in and train to also teach the course.


Teach for America


ASU is accepting an $18.8 million private grant to examine the ways Teach for America recruits, trains and evaluates its members, then borrow what it likes to recruit and train its own students.

ASU already provides Teach for America recruits with ongoing training and supervision.


With the grant, ASU will help Teach for America track the success of its recruits, which is still up for debate among researchers. Teach for America will help ASU by sharing some of its secrets of success, such as its ability to recruit standout graduates and the way its recruits measure their students’ success at the end of each teaching day.


“There will be people shocked at this all over the country,” Koerner said. But “we want to look seriously at what they do, what’s successful and what can be scaled up.”


The University of Arizona’s education dean, Ron Marx, gives ASU credit for “a lot of creative and innovative thinking,” but he isn’t convinced that teaming up with Teach for America will provide much insight into how to solve the problem of teacher quality.


“I believe teachers have special knowledge and that knowledge isn’t created overnight,” Marx said. “It takes time, and if programs are designed in the beginning only to have people in schools a short time, they’re never going to have the skills set and knowledge that is required to ramp up the quality of education in the country.”