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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly. The way America teaches its teachers is under fire. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been leading the charge with a series of speeches calling for education schools to reinvent themselves.

Secretary ARNE DUNCAN (Department of Education): The programs are heavy on educational theory and too light on developing core area knowledge and clinical training under the supervision of master teachers.

KELLY: Duncan says it's crucial to change now, as schools prepare to replace a wave of retiring baby boomer teachers.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports on one university trying to rebuild its teacher training program by taking a page from doctors.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Deborah Ball says most professions are clearly defined. We know, she says, what a lawyer or a doctor has to be able to do, same for a plumber or a hairdresser.

Ms. DEBORAH BALL (Dean, School of Education, University of Michigan): We expect people to be reliably able to carry out that work. And we don't seem to have that same level of either expectation or requirement around teaching.

ABRAMSON: As dean of the education school at the University of Michigan, Ball is trying to change that. She and her faculty have taken apart their training program and then reassembled it, trying to figure out what skills teachers really need. The Teacher Education Initiative, as their overhaul is known, 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.

Ms. BALL: Imagine 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.

ABRAMSON: Stress what teachers have to do, not simply what they have to know.

Professor Robert Bain says when the effort is finished, the education program will no longer be a series of courses students have to take.

Professor ROBERT BAIN: But rather a program that's building on these experiences, much again like most professional schools, like a good med school or a law school.

ABRAMSON: So the university has picked up an idea from medical school: rounds.

Mr. STEVE HUDOCK (Teacher, North Middle School): Is it possible for the readings to be about the same length?

Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman #2: Sure.

ABRAMSON: You can see the idea in action at North Middle School in Belleville, Michigan. Teacher Steve Hudock is talking to four University of Michigan student teachers before seventh and eighth graders arrive for a class on comparative religion.

(Soundbite of people talking)

ABRAMSON: 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. Professor Bob Bain says before class, he demonstrated how the teachers in training might approach this challenge.

Prof. BAIN: What their job is, is to practice the experience with - of actual students, but then also looking to see how Mr. Hudock, a skilled teacher, does exactly the same sorts of things. Then on Thursday, they'll debrief.

Ms. STEPHANIE SMITH(ph) (Student Teacher): I see a connection between Buddhism and Shintoism. What connection do we see here?

ABRAMSON: Teacher-in-training, Stephanie Smith, is leading a group of six students trying to understand the relationship of Shintoism to Buddhism in Japan.

Ms. KATIE WESTIN(ph) (Student Teacher): That's great, Markie(ph). So...

ABRAMSON: Student teacher, Katie Westin, says that when she compares notes with teaching students in other programs, she notices a big difference.

Ms. WESTIN: 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 like the one we're doing today.

ABRAMSON: Once the class is over, the group sits down with Hudock and talks in a focused way: What worked? What didn't? Steve Hudock says this is a lot different than the student teaching experience he had 15 years ago.

Mr. HUDOCK: I set up my own experiences, contacted teachers, sat and observed on the sideline. I didn't really get to interact with students.

ABRAMSON: There's a good reason the folks at the University of Michigan are making these changes: Their very reason for being has been called into question. Some studies have shown that teachers who get on-the-job training do about as well as those who went to teachers' colleges. Dean Deborah Ball says training programs need to show they can do a better job of equipping the huge number of teachers needed in the coming years.

Ms. BALL: What we need to be more responsible about is not just the recruitment problem, which I think is important, but the training problem, what we equip people with before they do it.

ABRAMSON: The medical rounds model is a popular one among education reformers, but it is clearly a lot of work. And it requires plenty of coordination to move students in and out of different schools. It may be difficult to scale this model up to train the quarter-million new teachers who graduate every year.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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