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Teacher Training Too Academic, Not Practical

In examining what's ailing American teaching, a blue-ribbon panel decided that teachers should be trained the same way we train doctors — through clinical practice.
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Much of the furor over how to fix local education systems has focused on teacher evaluation. How do we hold teachers accountable and reward them for student achievement? Should they be paid according to how well their students perform on standardized tests? And is it fair game to publish any metric that evaluates them that way — teacher names and all — in, say, the Los Angeles Times?

The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education is floating another idea, one that looks not at how teachers are evaluated in the classroom, but the way they're taught before they get there. What if, at colleges and universities all across the country, teachers were instead prepared the same way future doctors are: through clinical practice?

"We think we ought to look to fields like medicine, nursing, architecture, clinical psychology," said James Cibulka, president of NCATE. "Teaching is a profession of practice, like these other professions."

Cibulka corralled a panel to study the idea nearly a year ago, and last week the group released its full report in Washington, calling for a total revamp of the way American teachers are, well, taught to teach.

"We're determined that this is not a report that's going to sit on a shelf and collect dust," Cibulka said. "It is ambitious, and transforming an enterprise is never an easy thing. But I think it's become so evident to a variety of stakeholders that the nation's needs make it imperative that we move forward in this way, that we believe that this report is potentially historic. It's a game-changer."

The report, "Transforming Teacher Education through Clinical Practice," was co-chaired by Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York, and Dwight Jones, Colorado's commissioner of education. The full panel similarly reflects an array of state officials, university leaders, teachers, union representatives and critics of teacher education.

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Their central concern is that teacher training has become disconnected from the experience in K-12 classrooms. And it is because of this gap, Cibulka believes, that many teachers in their first few years abandon the profession.

It would be unthinkable, on the other hand, to train doctors and nurses exclusively at the blackboard and then expect them to thrive in a working, chaotic hospital. Many would-be educators do a semester of student teaching, but that program is typically offered as an add-on to the main curriculum and not a recurring thread throughout it.

"It is time," the panel concludes, "to fundamentally redesign preparation programs to support the close coupling of practice, content, theory and pedagogy."

This does not mean, Cibulka stresses, "an old apprenticeship model where you go and watch what a teacher does."

Preparing teachers to work with children through clinical practice and case studies seems almost common sense. So why aren't we already doing this?

"From an historical perspective," Cibulka explained, "what happened when the normal schools became state colleges, and the state colleges became universities, the preparation of teachers became more academic in the traditional sense of the delivery of courses and credit hours."

The price of this evolution has been that growing gap between reality in the school system and theory in education departments. Now, to change that, the NCATE must simultaneously seed its ideas in local school districts and on college campuses. Eight states, including California, Ohio and Tennessee, have signed on to pursue the plan. This week, Cibulka was preaching it at a conference of university presidents, and last week he was visiting a national organization of state school officers.

The idea comes with some unknowns — clinical education would be more expensive than the existing model, although the report adds that it would also be more cost-effective in the long run (reducing, for instance, teacher drop-out rates and the need for teacher retraining). But it's unclear if any of this added cost would be passed on to the aspiring teachers themselves who — unlike doctors — aren't expected to make the kind of money that can pay off pricey clinical tuition.