UW News

May 8, 2008

College of Education begins sweeping changes in its teacher training program

UW News

The UW College of Education is unveiling sweeping changes in teacher training, aimed at giving future teachers more extensive real-world experience — especially in low-income and disadvantaged areas — and encouraging a more holistic view of helping children learn.

The changes come from a five-year, collegewide effort to better prepare UW-trained educators to teach in diverse and high-need schools, and to focus more directly on issues of equity and academic excellence for all students.

Charles “Cap” Peck, the college’s director of teacher education explained, “The thinking behind it … is that we’re making a rather focused effort to bring the intellectual and human resources of the University to bear directly on the problem of the achievement gap — or what we call the ‘opportunity to learn’ gap” — where students of color have historically fared less well than others in classroom education, based on testing.

“The idea is to prepare teachers to work in communities where kids historically have not achieved at the level we find acceptable,” Peck said. “We’re trying to attract people who have a common focus and level of commitment to working in poverty-impacted communities.”

Briefly put, the new approach — coming to training for elementary grades this year and secondary grades next year — involves several key changes, notably:

  • Students can begin coursework for teacher certification even as undergraduate seniors, making the process shorter and cheaper. Then they complete a year of intensive training, culminating in certification to teach. They may then complete their master’s degree during their first year of actual teaching.
  • Fieldwork begins during the first quarter in a “community-based organization” in a poverty-impacted neighborhood in the Seattle area, followed by a full academic year in a partner school classroom.
  • Students can enter the program either in spring or summer quarter, and the two groups are combined to start fall instruction together.
  • Residency certification for teaching can be completed in a single year, allowing candidates to work full-time as a teacher even before finishing their degree.
  • Students may begin coursework for special education or English as a Second Language certification as part of the program.
  • Graduates are supported during the first two years of their teaching careers through quarterly Saturday “Reconnect and Recharge” workshops in which they work on problems of practice from their own classrooms.

Morva McDonald, an assistant professor who has been working to forge partnerships between the program and local community organizations, said, “One of the things we came to understand about the program was that it’s a big challenge to prepare people to work in diverse communities or high-needs schools.”

The college is trying to meet that challenge by helping new teachers see students “in the context of their whole lives,” McDonald said. If a student is struggling academically, she said it should be part of the teacher’s job “to think about what other places in that child’s life they might be successful in.” She said teachers should ask, “What can I learn about this kid? How do I understand where he can be successful and how do I leverage that success to inform what happens to that kid in the context of my classroom?”

Peck said the older model of teacher training had future teachers taking coursework followed by field work. The new approach has the two “continuously interwoven,” with each informing the other.

At times, too, the education flows both ways. Peck said the process of building relationships with community partners “has already begun to lead us to ask new kinds of questions about what we’re doing. It’s begun to educate us.”

The community partnerships also provide excellent locations for students to gain key early experience with fieldwork, McDonald said. “The design was to place them in community organizations that are in the same neighborhood as the school with which we partner. We want to make an investment in particular neighborhoods … if we concentrate our resources we can have a greater impact.”

Current students seem to appreciate how the revised focus will strengthen their professional skills, and they like the convenience of the early start. Kelly Gavich, who started this spring quarter and is already doing fieldwork, wrote in an e-mail, “We get some great experience working in Seattle communities before we even step foot in a classroom.” She added that being able to start the program while still an undergraduate “was a huge bonus for me because it meant I could pay undergrad tuition.”

Another student, Elisabeth Buccino, is a piano teacher ready to move to full-time teaching who says she has found her “true home” in the program. Buccino said in an e-mail, “I love children, and more importantly I love teaching children.” With obvious enthusiasm she added, “It is no longer enough to be the neighborhood piano teacher. I would like more pay, more responsibility. And a greater challenge.”

None of this means that the training the UW College of Education has long provided teachers is insufficient. Far from it, Peck said. “The program has been highly regarded for years and years, and it’s generally in or close to the top 10 nationally.”

And these changes are not a reinvention as much as a shifting in priorities, Peck said — the response to a serious issue of public policy. “Many people understand that if we don’t find a way to do a better job of educating children in poverty, their life trajectories are not particularly promising.” He added, “Education is not the cause of the troubles kids are having in schools,” he said, “but it’s an opportunity to help kids.

“It’s not theory versus practice, it’s theory in practice,” Peck said. “We think it’s an ideal mix.”