A Lesson Plan
Neglected on most campuses, teacher education is the key to better schools. A bold new program in Cincinnati lets students learn by doing
By Steve Wulf
(TIME, May 26) -- Tracy Robinson was losing them. The lesson for her fourth-grade class at Cincinnati's Vine Elementary School on this Friday afternoon was fractions, and as she stood at the front of the room with her textbook, explaining why 1/3 is larger than 1/4, she saw blank stares. No hands were raised. She drew shapes on the blackboard, shading in parts of them, but that didn't work either. The kids were wiggling in their seats. "I was getting so nervous," Robinson recalls. "I was feeling like, 'O.K., now what do I do?'"
Despite their best efforts, American educators well know the sensation. New demands are being placed on teachers that make their jobs harder than ever. Students arrive at school with greater difficulties than in decades past, yet the public's expectations of what children should achieve increase each year. Tougher new academic standards are being instituted in schools around the country, and teachers are being held accountable for seeing that all children reach them. One survey found that 40% of public school teachers would not go into teaching if they had to choose a career again. According to the federal Department of Education, 30% of new teachers leave the classroom within the first three years. Those who stay feel overworked, underpaid, underappreciated--and poorly prepared.
Six hundred experienced teachers surveyed in 1995 were brutal about the education they had received, describing it as "mind numbing," the "shabbiest psychobabble" and "an abject waste of time." They complained that fragmented, superficial course work had little relevance to classroom realities. And judging by the weak skills of student teachers entering their schools, they observed, the preparation was still woefully inadequate.
It is little wonder, then, that educators worry about meeting the growing demand for teachers without drastically lowering the quality of teaching by hiring untrained recruits. In California more than 16,000 teachers were hired this year to accommodate state-initiated class-size reductions. Barbara Burch, former president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, has warned that unless the lesson plan for teachers is revised, "it is increasingly clear that we are indeed a profession at risk."
Tracy Robinson is part of one of the most promising efforts to remake teacher education--a unique collaboration among the University of Cincinnati, the Cincinnati public schools, the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers and the city's business community. Called the Cincinnati Initiative for Teacher Education, or CITE, this five-year program requires participants to obtain a bachelor's degree in humanities or the sciences, then spend a fifth year in the classroom, with pay, under the close guidance of a mentor teacher to earn a teaching diploma. What sets these CITE "interns" apart from traditional student teachers is that for the entire year they are the teachers of record, fully responsible for student behavior and achievement, but they receive lots of help from mentors who have been certified as exemplary teachers.
"The CITE approach makes great sense," says U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley. "Though you prepare for teaching by taking courses, the best preparation is teaching itself. To learn with the support of master teachers is absolutely critical, and I think teaching colleges are beginning to realize this."
Perhaps. But teaching colleges, which Riley calls the "forgotten stepchildren" of higher education, are known mostly for inertia and mediocrity. "The low status and general neglect of teacher education over the years have contributed to a kind of hardening of the arteries,'' says John Goodlad, director of the Center for Educational Renewal at the University of Washington, Seattle. It doesn't help that many education schools function as cash cows, a place in the university system to collect tuition, not spend money. Equally disadvantageous is the historic low esteem in which the profession is held, owing in large measure to its century-old roots as a female occupation.
Reforming this sorry situation has been the topic of many commissions and consortiums over the past two decades. A 1986 report, Tomorrow's Teachers, by the Holmes Group, a coalition of 100 leading universities, scolded, "If someone had argued that doctors should practice modern medicine with the terms of an 1850s job description...he would be ridiculed by any audience. Yet most Americans think nothing of requiring teachers to carry out a late-20th century assignment when locked into a mid-19th century job description. Nor does it strike them as odd to then blame teachers for a job badly done."
The University of Cincinnati was a charter member of the Holmes Group. When it joined, in 1986, its College of Education was poorly funded and generally overlooked. The university asked Bob Yinger, an educational psychologist by training, to rethink the program and build a better bridge between academia's ivory tower and reality's classroom. Yinger recalls, "We looked at what we were doing in our old program, and we said, 'Let's redesign our entire program from the ground up. All new courses, all new experiences, taught in a completely new structure.'" The debate within the faculty was intense and at times divisive. But, according to Piyush Swami, a professor of science education, "people knew that what we were doing wasn't working. One day a well-respected faculty member said, 'I've got about 15 years left in my career, and I would like to make those years worthwhile. Let's give these new ideas a chance. The worst we can do is fail.'"
Fortunately, Yinger found willing allies in Cincinnati school superintendent Michael Brandt and teachers' union head Tom Mooney. As part of Brandt's reform-minded agenda, several schools decided to transform themselves into Professional Practice Schools. CITE interns learn to teach in these schools, which give teachers a greater voice in determining policy and implementing change. Mooney persuaded his membership to give up certain job slots to CITE's fifth-year students. "As a union, we think of programs like this as the professionalization of teaching,'' he says. "We are not here to defend the weakest link, because if we do that, the chain will break."
The university faculty was worried about adding a fifth year, as competing education schools at nearby Xavier University and Northern Kentucky University could send their graduates out into the world after four years. But when Yinger took his five-year plan to high school students who had indicated an interest in teaching, he was encouraged by their response. "They could see the value added," he says. "They liked the idea of spending a full year in the classroom before going out to teach on their own, and the notion of getting two degrees." Teachers sometimes feel trapped in the profession because they don't have a degree in anything else. "In the old traditional programs," says Yinger, "we put a lot of teachers out there who already knew they didn't like teaching. I think that accounts for some of the burnout and failure."
Equally important, CITE interns study specific theories of learning, behavior and classroom management while testing them in real-world situations. In the typical teachers' college, such subjects are taught as large lecture classes in the first or second year.
When the bell rang after her unsuccessful lesson in fractions, Robinson immediately sought out her lead teacher, Sandy Luebbe. Lead teachers are considered the very best in the Professional Practice Schools, and they not only counsel the interns but also evaluate their performances. "Sandy is like a video camera," says Robinson, "observing me, saying 'O.K., this is working really well' or 'If you move your arms down to the side, you'll look more open and the kids will want to approach you.'" Luebbe listened to Robinson's account of her ordeal and, referring to little colored bars used to convey the concept of fractions, said, "Manipulatives. You have to use manipulatives so they can do hands-on work to understand what you're teaching."
Robinson is the first in her family with a college degree, as are many teachers. She says she knew she wanted to be a teacher when she was in kindergarten. Like every other CITE intern, she is strongly encouraged to keep a journal of her year at Vine Elementary--whose students have the highest rate of poverty among the city's schools--to reflect upon her worries, her triumphs and her progress.
Often the lead teachers use the journals in their mentoring. Early in the school year, Karon Jacob, another intern at Vine, wrote, "We try to get parent participation by sending home the weekly behavior charts of the students to be signed. However, no parents have sent their child's back. Also, homework given to the children is never brought back." In her response, mentor Cheryl Hilen wrote, "Offer bonus points, an incentive, or special privilege for kids who bring them back. Make a big deal about it."
Among the most hotly debated issues in the profession these days is how to certify those who come to teaching from another career. Not surprisingly, CITE takes a more rigorous approach than most to "alternative certification," which is sometimes just "a fancy name for emergency licensing," says Karen Zumwalt, dean of Columbia University's Teachers College. CITE offers a two-year program for those who choose teaching as a second career. Carolyn Toney, a fifth-grade intern at Vine, is a former research scientist for Procter & Gamble. She decided to enroll in CITE after her two children graduated from college. Toney spent one year taking education classes and substitute teaching. Now, in her second year, she is teaching fifth-graders, with the help of Luebbe. "I'm working harder than I ever did in the corporate world because I'm working around the clock," says Toney. "My friends at P&G do not understand why I'm doing this. There's no money, at least from their perspective. I tell them I get a greater sense of personal satisfaction right here than in the corporate world. It's a challenge every day."
CITE is a work in progress. Almost 10% of students have quit before completing their internship--some complaining that even with this innovative work-study model, they feel ill prepared to run a class. The interns' journals brim with fears and frustrations, and their mentors are still learning when to intervene and when to let interns learn from their mistakes.
Before her fourth-grade class on the Monday after her Friday disappointment, Tracy Robinson loads the manipulatives--the little bars of different colors, each representing a different fraction--into plastic bags. When her students walk in, she distributes the bags. The book she was reading from on Friday is nowhere in evidence. She asks her pupils to use the bars to construct flat, box-shaped designs on their desks. Three of one color, they soon discover, will fill the same space as four of another. When each child has a mosaic on his or her desk, Robinson begins the verbal part of her lesson. She challenges them to come up with ways of figuring out which color is bigger and how many it would take of each to make a whole. Hands fly up. Voices have to be restrained. Soon the students are calling out the answers in unison.
The hands-on approach worked that day in a fourth-grade class at Vine Elementary. The same method seems to be working in Cincinnati.
--Reported by Melissa Ludtke/Cincinnati
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