UW News

November 19, 2009

Community engagement, accountability, real-world experience key to UW teacher training

UW News

The U.S. Secretary of Education says it takes a whole university to prepare a teacher. Kenneth Zeichner, the UW College of Education’s new director of teacher education, says it takes even more than that.

“It has to be done by a close collaboration of K12 schools, of university faculty in educaton and the arts and sciences, and of people in communities,” he said. That’s why elementary teachers in training at the UW begin their program with community-based field experiences. “So you have school, university and community coming together in this process of teacher education.”

And lest we forget, the whole process is designed for the benefit of the young students in K12 schools — the citizens and decision-makers of tomorrow.

Zeichner, the Boeing Professor of Teacher Education, joined the UW this fall after a 33-year career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, most recently as associate dean for teacher education. In May he was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Education.

In a recent wide-ranging interview, Zeichner discussed the nature of teacher training at the UW in a time when funding is down, accountability and regulation are up and the need for capable and committed public school teachers has never been greater.

He described a program already good enough to be called “first rate” recently by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, but which still strives to improve in a number of areas. A main effort in this, Zeichner said, is a greater connection with the practical world of classroom education. “It’s important that we stay in constant dialogue with people in K12 … as well as our graduates, in getting data that is fed back into the program,” he said.

Zeichner added that he’s glad that the UW program shows “a genuine desire to connect more closely with the school-based portion of teacher education — the practicum work and the student teaching.”

It’s “a more inclusive process, a more deliberative process,” he said, than the decades-old model of program guidance which Zeichner described as “professors sitting around a table saying ‘I think we ought to do this or that.'”

Another recent shift, he said, is toward “the increased reliance on actual data about the performance of our students and our graduates in terms of what they actually do in the classroom.”

Toward this end the college is forging ever-stronger connections with “cooperating teachers,” already in the workforce. The college pays release time to enable area teachers to work as equal partners with UW researchers to improve the classroom experience.

“We’re more strategically working to make those connections solid, and I think that’s an exciting approach,” Zeichner said. It’s different than much of what’s emerging in the country, which he said is a model of putting new teachers in classrooms “as a sort of apprenticeship, (expecting) they will somehow learn in the practice of doing what it is to teach.”

Zeichner spoke of the “differential distribution of highly qualified teachers in the United States,” and the difficulty “high-need” schools have in attracting and keeping good teachers. “It’s the children of poor parents of color who are most likely to be in a school where they don’t have fully prepared teachers,” he said, “and that has a consequence, as research has shown.”

He said unlike “fast-track” programs that tend to place teachers in classrooms with little real preparation, often leading to departures, “we want to contribute something toward preparing teachers who are not only willing to go to schools where they are most needed, but will be successful and stay there.”

A new presidential administration and the coming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law, Zeichner said, may make for a “less punitive” climate for struggling schools. There may be a revision of timetables for improvement “that no school in the United States would be able to meet,” he said, adding, “every school would eventually become a failing school according to the original timetable.”

But that doesn’t mean backing away from a commitment to educating all children to a high standard, he stressed. “But to do it in a way that’s more supportive of these folks in public schools who are doing very hard and complex work.”

Zeichner said the college also plans to more closely track its graduates as they fan out into classrooms, “to learn what they say about their preparation after having been out in the field, and what their employers say about the quality of teachers we’re preparing … We want to see if they’re enacting the sort of research-based practices that they are learning about in the program and from their cooperating teachers. Are they engaging in these practices? Are they being successful with kids?”

Continued learning is also necessary for teachers; Zeichner said, “That’s one of the most important things we can contribute is teaching teachers how to learn from their practice.”

Summing up, Zeichner said he’d like to see graduates of the Teacher Education Program enter the workforce “with a vision of teaching … with the skills to be able to enact that, and an understanding of the context of public education.”

He described a practical, real-world approach guided by research-based strategies. “You need to prepare them to teach in schools as they exist, and also to contribute to making them better places with their colleagues.”

Zeichner takes on the leadership of the UW Teacher Education Program with the enthusiastic support of the college and of his predecessor in the role, Charles “Cap” Peck, who said, “There is no one in the country who is better positioned to move this program forward than Ken Zeichner.”