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Additional Perspectives on the Future of Teacher Preparation in the Digital Age

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December 20, 2012 06:31 pm

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On December 11, the Alliance held a webinar on the future of teacher preparation in the digital age that attracted an audience of more than 500 people. As a result, we were unable to get to as many questions from our audience as we had hoped. Happily, our four panelists agreed to answer some of our leftover questions in this space.

If you missed the webinar, archived video from it is available at https://all4ed.org/webinar/perspectives-on-the-future-of-teacher-preparation-in-the-digital-age/. Below are responses from our panelists: Dr. Barnett Berry, president and chief executive officer at the Center for Teaching Quality; Dr. Lynne Schrum, dean of the College of Human Resources and Education at West Virginia University; and Dr. Ronald Thorpe, president and chief executive officer of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

What advice would you give to a student hoping to become a teacher or a career-switcher interested in a teaching career?

Barnett Berry: I would look for a program that offers serious clinical preparation, with assurances that master teachers have the time and support to mentor and as well as co-teach with you in an internship. I would look for a program that pays attention to the differences in preparing young college students versus more mature, and experienced adults who already had other careers. And if you are a career switcher I would look for a program that pays attention to whether or not you have had experience working with children or teenagers – or not.

Lynne Schrum: Individuals thinking about a career as an educator should have a variety of opportunities to figure out if this is a good path for them.

A challenge for potential educators is the current abundance of news and political statements critical of education and teachers; it would be important to counter that narrative with authentic information. We should encourage them to visit schools, informal learning places, and other ways to shadow educators. They need to be encouraged to write down their questions and be able to get them answered. This is done typically in “Introduction to Education” types of classes, but we can expand it by having stories of what educators’ lives are like, sessions such as “Think you want to be a teacher” available.

For career switchers, we need to consider what it might take to help them get into a pathway leading to being teachers. In some states, there is a formal program called Career Switcher; in these programs, potential teachers must have degrees in what they want to teach, experience in practicing their profession, and then they may take a few classes but complete their internships as teachers with a lot of support. Clearly these programs work better in hard to staff content areas. I used to work with such a program and many of these individuals had successful careers but were emotionally feeling they were not giving back to their communities, and now wanted to do more.

What do you think state policy-makers can do in terms of legislation and certification requirements to help improve teacher preparation programs and the connection to the needs of districts?

Barnett Berry: That is an easy one. The first thing is that states need to value teacher leadership and promote the cultivation of classroom experts who lead reform as well as teach students. A special certification, and incentives for teachers serving in hybrid roles, will go a long way in spreading pedagogical expertise and dramatically improving student achievement.

Lynne Schrum: I love this question because it really goes straight to the appropriate body where change can happen systemically. In general, we are one of the few countries that does not have a well articulated plan to find, prepare, and support an educational force of high caliber individuals to focus on our next generation of learners.

The first task is to encourage our best and brightest young people and career switchers to enter the profession. To accomplish this, certification might include credit for prior life experiences, differential pathways into the profession, and new ways to measure effectiveness. Most schools are in need of mathematics and science teachers but little is done to really lure those with these skills and knowledge into the classroom. I would like to see successful educators be tied to effectiveness rather than to time in the classroom. I would like to see (as was suggested during the webinar) exceptional practitioners working more closely with teacher prep programs to help teacher candidates see the ways in which theory and practice actually blend, rather than compete.

Legislation could return to the idea of rewarding teachers by reducing university loans for each successful year of teaching. Many states now have multiple ‘endorsements’ that are added to teacher certification, but not many have such an endorsement for teacher leadership, which would be an excellent model. Finally, I would love to see teachers not earn a full certification until they have taught successfully for two years, during which teacher preparation programs and school districts work together to support the new teachers. And teachers need renewal that is authentic and valuable, rather than ‘seat time’ in very weak professional development programs. These need to be tied directly to what teachers need to know. As an example, many states have moved to an endorsement requirement in order to teach AP classes and that endorsement needs to be renewed every two years. That model could be replicated for a variety of other teaching activities.

What do you think is being done in the colleges and universities to ensure the teacher prep programs are preparing our future teacher to create a learner-centered instructional model in their classroom driven by high-quality digital learning and the effective use of technology?

Barnett Berry: There is a lot being done – the problem is that it is not well known. The University of Wisconsin-Madison prepares future teachers to draw on edugames to teach their student. West Virginia University and the University of Central Florida (and about 18 other colleges) are preparing future teachers, with avatars, to offer them a chance to learn about teaching and managing classrooms in contexts different from their own locales. High Tech High has its own school-embedded teacher prep program with a tight focus on digital, project-based learning. I would look to the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education for other examples as well. Unfortunately there are lots of short-cut alternative certification programs that totally ignore preparation for digital teaching and learning.

Lynne Schrum: My belief is that we must approach this from two directions simultaneously. We must help faculty in teacher preparation programs become comfortable in modeling effective, student centered teaching that incorporates technology in appropriate ways. I do think it is time to eliminate the three credits, just in case you need it, type of class that lumps all technologies into one class. Instead, I think we need to reconfigure our methods classes to reflect the research-based approach, TPACK. Professors need to require that lesson plans reflect appropriate use of technology, creativity, and data driven outcomes. Our teacher candidates then will be comfortable and they will learn to create rich and complex project based learning.

At the same time, we need to support schools (and in particular school leaders) in using technology in rich and authentic ways. We need to foster the notion that our teacher candidates and their mentor teachers have a lot to learn from each other about teaching, but also about using new technologies, social media, and alternative assessment models that take advantage of the affordances of the technology.

In order to accomplish this, both locations (the universities and the K-12 classrooms) need to have access to the same types of technology. I have heard that some universities are poorly equipped, so that their teacher candidates are not familiar with the types of things in schools, and vice versa. This model requires more communication, better funding, and very intentional professional development for educators, professors, and teacher candidates.

Ronald Thorpe: Let me begin by saying that I have pretty much crossed into that place where I don’t need to use words like “digital” and “technology.” It seems to me that they are inextricably linked to high-quality learning and teaching. Still, we know that our practice isn’t there yet. No matter what the tools and the processes are that we want to introduce into our classrooms, I believe that the first thing any teacher preparation program must focus on is creating environments in which their students – both undergraduates and graduates – are actually learning using them. For me it goes back to what most of us acknowledge: we tend to teach the way we were taught. In some cases, that means how we were taught in primary or secondary school, but it also can mean how we were taught in our preparation programs. The best example I can think of is case methodology. It was a context for learning that I never experienced until I was in graduate school, and before I experienced that sort of learning for myself, I could not imagine deploying it.

The same holds for technology. If I have learned – either as an 11th grader or an undergraduate – how to use the tools of computational science to explore the relationship of force, mass and acceleration (Newton’s Second Law), I am far more likely to use those tools either in teaching high school physics or even at a more basic level with my elementary school students. If there is any transferable truth from my own cognitive patterns – and I think there is – then our teacher preparation programs must lead the way in providing would-be and developing teachers an environment that is rich in these ways of learning.

I’m sure there are examples of this approach in colleges and universities – Frank Moretti runs the Center for new Media Teaching and Learning at Columbia University, for example, and I have seen amazing changes in university-level teaching there as a result – but I doubt this kind of institutional commitment is universal enough to ensure that the next generation of our nation’s teachers is as comfortable using technology in their teaching as they may be in other parts of their lives.

The National Board is making a direct commitment to this kind of thinking about teaching and learning. As we gather the videos and reflective papers from teachers who successfully Board certify and make them available to pre-service and in-service programs through a searchable data-base, teachers all over the country will have access to such practice, often having multiple and different examples of how to approach the same learning challenge. ATLAS – Accomplished Teaching, Learning and Schools – will not only show educators what accomplished teaching looks like, but it will also help educators get inside the heads of accomplished teachers to understand how they think about their work with students. And it will do this with unprecedented quality control and quantity.

How can K-12 and higher education collaborate to ensure that teacher candidates’ can transition seamlessly from higher education institutions into the learner centered classroom where personalized learning for each student includes rigorous content delivered through technology in a collaborative environment?

Barnett Berry: As I noted on the webinar we need more bold policymakers who will fuse higher education and K-12 resources there can be a more seamless transition from pre-service training, through induction as a new recruit, to on-going development as an expert teacher and leader from the classroom.

Ronald Thorpe: In my mind, there is no question more important than this one. At this point we have spotty teacher preparation programs with no connection to – nor responsibility for – what happens to their recently graduated students who enter the treacherous period of induction. Similarly, we have schools and districts that have little or no serious commitment to supporting teachers during those truly formative years, resulting in a “sink or swim” approach that simply doesn’t work. It is the worst of all possible scenarios. In essence, it is Ted Sizer’s metaphor of “Horace’s Compromise” when it should be exactly the opposite.

I didn’t have any formal preparation to teach, but I started in a highly-resource independent school where all new teachers could only teach two classes per semester. That gave me lots of time to observe and talk to experienced colleagues, to focus all of my attention on my two classes – which also were small . . . only 16 and 18 students . . . and to learn from my mistakes. I was given the gift of working under pretty ideal conditions and was able to shape my expectations with that in mind rather than make survival-dependent compromises. Since that’s not normal in education – although I wish it were – we simply must re-imagine the connection between preparation programs and the years of induction, and the quality of teacher preparation programs should be measured against how well their graduates do in their first three years as teachers.

The Teacher Preparation Assessment initiative (edTPA) created by colleagues at Stanford is arguably the most promising effort in the country at getting serious about improving preparation and induction by building natural connections between the two. The National Board is part of this effort, and thanks to our i3 grant, institutions and districts participating in edTPA will be using videos and reflective papers from National Board certified teachers in their instruction and professional development. Essentially, the use of these materials builds a coherent trajectory from preparation to induction to accomplished, and positions young teachers to sit for National Board certification after their third year as a full-time teacher. If we could ever make such a trajectory the norm in our country, it would truly transform the profession, and it would do so in the way true professions operate: by building expectations for effective practice based on peer-reviewed and performance-based processes.

When it comes to teacher prep, there is ‘traditional’ teacher prep and ‘alternate routes to certification.’ I’d be interested in knowing if teacher prep should be different for these two groups of individuals.

Ronald Thorpe: Teacher preparation should be standards based, and those standards, while minimally defined by state licensure requirements, should be primarily shaped by the profession itself. Achieving consensus around this single point is essential if teaching is ever to achieve the same strata as other professions such as medicine and law. There are very few “alternate routes” into other professions. An undergraduate could take a traditional approach to medicine, for example, by taking the required undergraduate courses in science (and other areas) and the Medical College Admissions Test. An older, mid-career person could decide to go into medicine – and is welcome to do so – but he or she must meet those same requirements. The situation is now similar in law. Neither of these professions started out with such conformity: 100 years ago there were many ways to become “a doctor” and it’s been more recent that a person could “read for the law” rather than attend law school. The stature of both professions – and others to which teaching ought to compare itself – is now heavily dependent on a single pathway into the profession.

Let me say something about alternate routes to teaching and especially Teach for America (TFA). Teachers and other detractors of these programs spend a lot of time criticizing them, but their concerns are misplaced. TFA only exists because our teacher preparation programs are so inconsistent. I doubt we’ll ever see Teach for Finland or Teach for Singapore because in those countries, as well as in other high-performing countries, much has been invested in ensuring a quality pipeline into the profession. We need to double-down on creating quality teacher preparation programs, and those programs must be designed not at helping people receive a license to teach but at the much more important goal of becoming accomplished – as measured by National Board certification – within 3-5 years. Until we do that, we will continue to have the terrible attrition we see among those in their first five years in the profession – costly beyond belief in terms of dollars and lost opportunities for our children – and the general low stature for people who truly deserve to be considered among the most important people in our country.

Teaching is a cognitively complex, collaborative, and high expertise profession. It also requires time and practice (in the professional sense of that word) in order to become accomplished. There is no “fast-tracking” the attainment of accomplished status. No first or second year teacher can be as effective as a fifth or sixth year teacher because they simply haven’t been immersed in enough teaching and learning situations to inform their judgment. Preparation programs, regardless of whether they are deemed alternative or traditional must ensure that their graduates possess the requisite subject matter expertise, pedagogical knowledge and skills, and pedagogical-content knowledge that lead to being effective in the classroom. What that expertise and knowledge is best defined by the profession the same way it is in all professions.

A special thanks to our panelists for taking the time to address these additional questions. Please feel free to respond to their points or continue the conversation in our comments section. Again, if you missed the webinar when it aired, you can watch the complete webinar at https://all4ed.org/webinar/perspectives-on-the-future-of-teacher-preparation-in-the-digital-age/.

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