Teacher preparation programs are taking a page out of medical education’s book.
In an effort to alter the debate about teacher preparation, a comprehensive report  being issued today will demand significant changes of colleges, school districts and policy makers. The emphasis will be on the clinical preparation of teachers who are more equipped to instruct in the 21st century.
While many colleges have taken steps of various sizes in that direction, this report aims to streamline them. To do that, the report panel says, will require nothing less than turning teacher training “upside down” by implementing a long-term, clinically based approach, similar to the model used in doctor education.
“The way in which we once prepared teachers, from primarily an academic classroom-based model, no longer suits the diversity of today’s student body,” said James G. Cibulka, president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, which commissioned the report prepared by a panel of various education stakeholders. “We do know what needs to be done. It’s a question of creating the political will to make the kinds of transformations that will really make a difference in the overall quality of the teaching force that we prepare for classrooms today.”
At the report’s core is the assertion that for teachers to be effective, they need educations grounded in immersion and clinical practice. The report calls for more rigorous accountability; strengthening candidate selection and placement; revamping curriculums, incentives and staffing; and identifying what works and supporting continuous improvement. Some of the clinical principles identified in the report include making student learning the focus; using technology to enhance productivity and collaboration; preparing teachers who not only have content expertise but can also teach it, innovate, collaborate and problem-solve; and – this is a big one – building strategic partnerships between preparation programs, school districts, teacher unions and state policy makers.
While teacher candidates have long held student-teaching positions toward the end of their educations, the system being called for would make real-school experiences central to teacher education from the time someone first enrolls and as part of every curricular decision.
That means teacher preparation programs and the P-12 school districts the teachers-in-training will go on to work at will join forces to identify the needs of all students. Future teachers will be immersed in classrooms before they begin their careers, and will have obtained both practical knowledge and academic knowledge. Evidence will suggest how to develop teacher preparation programs that work – and everyone will know when they don’t because they’ll actually be held accountable.
It may sound daunting, but it’s not a new concept, nor an unexplored one. “I think a lot of it is in response to the criticism of teacher education, and especially the criticism which says that particularly programs in higher education are not changing, they’re not responsive to the needs of the schools. That sort of chatter has been going on for a while,” said Donna Wiseman, a report panelist and chair-elect of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. “This is an effort to really give us some guidelines on how to make changes and how to work together as a profession.”
Eight states have already signed letters of intent to implement a clinical training agenda in teacher preparation, as sort of pilot programs to begin gathering data that will – in theory – prove that this agenda produces better teachers.
As dean of the College of Education at the University of Maryland at College Park, in a state that has committed to this project, Wiseman is all too familiar with the difficulties of aligning preparation processes across campuses. “It’s hard to maintain it across all the programs, even though we really try to do that,” she said.
That’s why Cibulka and the Blue Ribbon Panel wanted to develop this report. And they’re confident it will lead to more streamlined programs and better teachers. They may be met with concern about funding to support the necessary infrastructure of individuals to carry out this work, but Cibulka and other panelists say initial steps can be taken without cost, and later on, there’s room for a reallocation of resources.
“I think it’s an urgent matter,” Cibulka said. “We are not finding that student achievement or student engagement is at the level it needs to be for our nation to prosper. We also know from growing research evidence that strong clinical programs are effective in preparing teachers. So the time to act is now.”
One very public proponent of clinically based teacher education is Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York and co-chair of the report panel. As head of a system that produces 5,000 future teachers a year, she has already made clinical training part of SUNY’s new strategic plan, which took effect in April of last year.
Yet SUNY is another system that exercises a few elements of clinical training – virtual classrooms, case literature, internship programs – but as of now has no consistency across programs. “This is really a turning point,” Zimpher said. “This is knitting a profession together that is really quite fragmented right now.”
The report panel is well-positioned to recommend the way to go about this training revamp. The 40 or so members include stakeholders in higher education, secondary education, teaching associations, unions and accrediting groups. U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan is expected to speak at the panel’s press briefing today in Washington and show political support for a clinical approach.
Now it may just be a matter of time before the panel starts seeing results – especially if accreditors have anything to do with it. NCATE, for one, plans to weave this training approach into its accreditation criteria as soon as possible once it merges with the Teacher Education Accreditation Council, he said, because “accreditation really needs to play its part in responding to the educational needs of our country.”