America's teachers' colleges are facing some pressure to reinvent themselves.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been leading the assault, with a series of speeches calling for better teacher training. Duncan says it's crucial that education schools revamp their curricula so they can help replace a wave of baby boomers who will soon retire from teaching.
One university is trying to rebuild its teacher-training program from the ground up.
At the University of Michigan School of Education, Dean Deborah Ball and her faculty have taken apart their training program and reassembled it, trying to figure out what skills teachers really need.
Katie Westin, a senior at the University of Michigan and a student teacher, says that when she compares notes with teachers-in-training at other schools, it's clear that her program is more hands-on.
Katie Westin, a senior at the University of Michigan and a student teacher, says that when she compares notes with teachers-in-training at other schools, it's clear that her program is more hands-on. Larry Abramson/NPR
"We expect people to be reliably able to carry out that work. We don't seem to have that same level of expectation or requirement around teaching," Ball says.
Teacher Education Initiative
The program overhaul — an ongoing process that began five years ago — is called the Teacher Education Initiative. It will cut the number of classes students must take, and it will turn time in the classroom into an experience that is tightly focused on problem solving.
"Image the difference between learning about child development, which is unquestionably helpful, and learning how to have a sensible interaction with a child, which permits you to know exactly what's going wrong right now with that child's reading, or why is this error occurring over and over again in math. That's actually being able to do something with that knowledge," Ball says.
The program stresses what teachers have to do, not simply what they have to know.
Professor Robert Bain says that when the effort is finished, the education program will no longer be a series of courses students have to take, "but rather a program that's building on these experiences, much like most professional schools, like a good med school or law school."
The university has also picked up an idea from medical school: rounds.
You can see the idea in action at North Middle School in Belleville, Mich. Teacher Steve Hudock is talking to four University of Michigan student teachers before seventh and eighth graders arrive for a class on comparative religion.
This is one of several schools these budding teachers will visit as they learn to analyze various teaching problems in different settings. Here, it's how to deal with students in small groups.
Bain says that before class, he demonstrated how the teachers-in-training might approach this challenge.
"What their job is, is to practice the experience with actual students, but then also look to see how Mr. Hudock, a skilled teacher, does the exact same sorts of things," Bain says.
Student teacher Katie Westin says that when she compares notes with teaching students in other programs, she notices a big difference.
"We take on more of an interactive role, I think, than some of the other programs do, because we actually lead lessons, and we get to work with the students in group activities."
Once the religion class is over, the group sits down with Hudock and talks about what worked and what didn't.
Hudock says this is a lot different than the student-teaching experience he had 15 years ago.