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Teacher-prep programs zero in on effective 'practice'

Photo: Charlie Mahoney/Prime for Education Week

Students at Match Community Day Charter Public School jump to attention at resident teacher Erica Vuolle’s command.

This is a reprint of an article that originally appeared in Education Week


by Stephen Sawchuk

​One thing is immediately apparent when Erica Vuolle teaches: Not a moment of time is wasted.

When she speaks to her class here at the Match Community Day Charter Public School, she expects all students' eyes to track hers. When she poses a question and a student answers it correctly, she asks the child to explain her reasoning. When a student gives an answer that's only halfway complete, she presses him to finish it. When she gives directions, students repeat them back in full, so that expectations are clear.

What's not immediately apparent from the ease with which Ms. Vuolle handles the room is that this is only her second time teaching a full class. She's among the 40 teachers-in-training at the Match Teacher Residency, a teacher education program run by the Boston-based Match Education, a nonprofit charter-management organization that requires candidates to practice and master a repertoire of specific competencies before they lead a full classroom.

It is an approach to student-teaching that does away with much of the trial-and-error that often characterizes the experience.

"It seems very basic, that all students should have their eyes on you when you're speaking," Ms. Vuolle said after giving her lesson. "But we take it totally for granted when we're trying to give a lesson eloquently and completely."

Opportunities to practice teaching strategies at the Match Teacher Residency in Boston begin through small-group tutoring and role play, and build in intensity over the program’s duration.

The Match Teacher Residency is one of a small number of teacher-preparation programs focusing on what's coming to be called "practice-based" teacher education. The approach is growing in popularity among charter groups and beginning to emerge in university-based programs as well.

"The principle underneath it is that this is not a sink-or-swim model," said Morva McDonald, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Washington, in Seattle, which runs traditional and alternative teacher-education programs.

Opportunities grow

The call for more intensive student-teaching protocols is decades old, but attempts to put that idea into practice have often stumbled on the details: Field experiences have lengthened, but the substance of what's happening in them often remains unchanged.

Match officials set out to fill in those details.

"We talk a lot in teacher preparation about reflective practice, and traditionally, candidates can connect their reflections to the larger fields of sociology and anthropology," said Orin Gutlerner, the director of the Match residency. "It's great to reflect on the big picture, but there are so many elements within the teachers' control that can have a dramatic effect on students' day-to-day learning."

In settling on a body of knowledge and skills for candidates to master, officials drew on a range of sources, from author Jon Saphier's focus on the link between broad goals and smaller units and lessons, to the classroom-management taxonomy developed by educator Doug Lemov, a managing director at the Uncommon Schools charter organization, to the cognitive insights of University of Virginia psychologist Daniel T. Willingham.

The program's focus on technique is in evidence throughout the three charter schools that Match oversees and in which its residents work.

When Judith Estime, who completed the program and is now a full-time K-1 teacher, asks her pupils comprehension and vocabulary questions about the book they're reading together, the children explain their answers to one another, building off their partners' contributions. The practice, taught by the program as "turn and talk," is meant to increase the proportion of students participating in class.

Ms. Estime, herself a former English-language learner now teaching in a school where nearly all students speak another language at home, sets the bar high for such interactions: Students must answer in complete sentences.

Teaching a lesson on telling time in quarter increments to a 3rd-grade class, resident Ben Paly hears a pupil exclaim, "This is so hard."

Judith Estime, a former resident and now a full-fledged teacher at Match Community Day Charter Public School, helps a student during a game-playing exercise. —Charlie Mahoney/Prime for Education Week

Without missing a beat, he moves quickly to engage her. "I've seen you do hard things before," he says quietly, without interrupting the other learners. "We're growing our brains today." In such interactions, Mr. Paly illustrates the practices of generating buy-in from disengaged students and building an authoritative presence.

The opportunities for student-teachers to practice such techniques compound over the course of Match's yearlong residency program. As the residents gradually take on more classroom responsibilities, they get specific feedback on both their teaching and the lesson plans they've developed.

So, a few hours after her lesson, Ms. Vuolle's instructional coach, a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education named Whitney Gruenloh, sits down with her to review the lesson. The eagle-eyed Ms. Gruenloh sees a few things that even others observing the lesson missed—for example, a few off-task pupils.

"Your takeaway is to improve your assessment for understanding to see who are the students who need extra help, and who are the ones who fly through their lessons," she tells Ms. Vuolle.

In a week or so, Ms. Gruenloh will check to see whether Ms. Vuolle has improved that particular skill.

Role-playing, rehearsal

The Match Teacher Residency program grew organically from the Match organization's academic programming, which features a heavy dose of individualized tutoring for every student. Over time, Match officials found that many of their tutors, mostly recent college graduates, wanted to take the next step and become teachers.

To tap the pipeline, they built the residency program around the tutoring, which all residents still provide four days a week. By the 2008-09 school year, Massachusetts had granted the organization permission to certify teachers. Last year, it received state approval to offer a master's degree program.

Other practice-based training programs, such as the Relay Graduate School of Education in New York City, have emerged from charter-management organizations' human-capital needs.

But the examples aren't limited to charters: Programs at the University of Michigan and at the University of Washington, among others, also are exploring permutations of the basic idea. At all of them, faculty members model specific teaching techniques, and candidates practice them through role-playing and rehearsals. Actual student-teaching is observed or videotaped and then discussed.

Elham Kazemi, an associate dean for teaching and learning at the education school at the University of Washington, teaches her mathematics-methods classes not on the university's campus but at a Seattle elementary school.

During the four-hour sessions, teacher-candidates are introduced to a new mathematics activity, practice role-playing it with others, and receive coaching from Ms. Kazemi. Then, they move next door to a classroom to work with students.

In small groups of teacher-candidates and students, one resident begins to teach the lesson, which is taped for later analysis. Afterwards, the pupils rotate to another group of candidates, where a different math concept is being practiced, and a second resident steps up to instruct an incoming group of students in that same lesson.

Ms. Kazemi uses a sports metaphor to describe her program's approach: The role-playing beforehand is like a pregame scrimmage, followed by a review and discussion of the play afterwards. "We're kind of doing the same thing with teaching," she said.

Skilled technicians?

As befits a fairly new approach to training teachers, the programs are giving rise to a number of conceptual questions.

Scholars and practitioners aren't in complete agreement on how fine-grained the practices novice teachers learn should be. Mr. Lemov's taxonomy of practices, adapted in the Relay and Match programs, outlines 49 specific skills in all. A team of researchers at the University of Michigan have identified 19 essential practices for novice teachers. (An initial list had more than 60.) At the Boston Teacher Residency, a nonprofit-run program for city schools, aspiring teachers must master 29 teaching-and-planning "gateways," situated within several larger goals.

Those variances reflect broader tensions within the teacher-preparation field. As teacher education gained a foothold in universities in the early 20th century and remade itself into an academic discipline, it moved toward a vision of teaching that put an emphasis on experimentation rather than technique.

Orin Gutlerner, the director of the Match Teacher Residency, discusses classroom techniques with resident Kyla Brown at Match Community School. -- Charlie Mahoney/Prime for Education Week

"At a certain point, 'skill' became a bad word in teacher education. Skill is critical," said Pamela L. Grossman, a professor of education at Stanford University, who has been studying teacher practices in English and language arts. "At the same time, I'm not interested in preparing teachers just as technicians. Professionals not only understand these skills but why they're using them. They have some principle of teaching and learning on which to hang them."

Match officials are sensitive to such debates, but they believe that a degree of prescription gives new teachers a foundation on which to build.

"I do think that, at some level, the exercises would strike some in the academy as anti-intellectual," Mr. Gutlerner acknowledged. "We are not having residents weigh the evidence asking them to make decisions for themselves about what these practices should look like. We are training people for a job that has a very particular skills set that happens to be nuanced and difficult to master."

That's Ms. Estime's belief, too. "If you can't control a classroom of 18 hyper kids, you are going to be stressed out," she said. "That's what's going to run you out of the building."

Subject by subject

A related issue raised by practitioners and scholars is how particular practices ought to look in the context of different subjects. The practice of having students interact, for example, may look different in language arts, with its focus on critiquing one another's writing, than in mathematics, where error analysis and understanding logical fallacies predominate.

Ms. Kazemi's mathematics classes, for instance, are based on what she calls "routine instructional activities" in that subject: how teachers structure student learning of word problems, number patterns, the relationship of whole numbers in a base-10 system. Once good content units are devised, she said, practices, such as how students should be grouped and managed, fall into place.

"What we've thought about in our math work is that in any lesson or activity that you structure for children, those [instructional] practices are really in relationship to one another," Ms. Kazemi said.

In addition, the question of whether it's possible to scale up new teacher-preparation approaches differs based on context.

One of the Match program's strengths lies in its internal coherence: Nearly all the teachers trained through it go on to work in the network's charter schools, or in others with similar philosophies. As with other "no excuses" charters, Match schools set strong norms for behavior and discipline for students that reinforce what its aspiring teachers learn.

Dylan Kane, an aspiring middle school teacher in the program, believes that most of the tools he's learned would "absolutely transfer" to a noncharter setting. But, he added, the advantage of teaching at such a charter means "certain elements, such as merits and demerits—we can be confident that we'll have those things to work with."

Higher ed tensions

University-based programs face a different set of challenges in devising coherent practice-based programs. They prepare teachers for dozens of districts, and faculty members are typically divided into clinical staff and researchers, not all of whom embrace the more-specific focus on practice.

"It's not only hierarchy, it's autonomy or uniqueness, where what you get rewarded for as a university faculty member is your own work, your own ideas, and your own research," said Magdalene Lampert, a former University of Michigan professor whose research with Ms. Kazemi and others has helped lay the groundwork for some of the university-based practice-oriented programs. "If a novice is going to experience a coherent practice-based program, it needs to be operated by a group of people who can agree with each other."

Ms. Lampert now is a senior adviser to the Boston Teacher Residency. Partly in response to a mixed 2011 research study, that program has put a stronger emphasis on the integration of coursework and fieldwork in its practices by having the same individuals teach courses and supervise aspiring teachers.

Others in the field are still wrapping their heads around the implications of programs like the Match Teacher Residency for universities.

David Monk, the dean of the education school at Pennsylvania State University, praises the quality and the detail of the feedback teachers at the Match program receive. But he acknowledged challenges for noncharter-based programs to adopt some of its techniques.

"There's an interest and a willingness to take these insights pretty seriously and fold it into prevailing practices," Mr. Monk said. "[But] you run into all these real-world constraints. The byproduct of [the No Child Left Behind law], and the focus on exams and performance and accountability, has been a reluctance on the behalf of districts to bring in novices."

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