"Ideas We Should Steal" is a regular feature of the Philadelphia Citizen, which will be holding an Ideas We Should Steal Festival on Nov. 30.
Several years ago, during a review of the teacher training program at the University of Michigan's School of Education, dean Elizabeth Moje uncovered an unexpected — and disheartening — piece of information: The more time her students spent in nearby Detroit schools applying the knowledge they'd been taught, the less confident they felt about using the skills they'd mastered in their own college classrooms.
This was after months of training, at one of the top-ranked teacher education programs in the country. And it remained true for Michigan graduates who went on to work in urban settings. Out of 260 grads surveyed across the country, the only ones with less than stellar ratings were the eight who taught at city schools.
Moje's research hit on an issue that afflicts pretty much every urban district in America, including Philadelphia. The nation is facing a teacher shortage like never before. As school started in Philadelphia this year, Superintendent William Hite celebrated the fact that the district only needed to hire 550 new teachers over the summer — a number that has been consistently going down the last few years. But that is still 550 jobs that were vacant in June. Despite their degrees from schools as lauded as Penn, or Michigan, new teachers often don't know how to manage an urban classroom, with its unique set of social, academic, and financial issues. This is a significant factor among the 50 percent of teachers who leave the profession within five years, and in why academic improvement among the city's neediest students is often slow.
And it's why at Michigan, Moje has spent the last several years shifting how the university trains students interested in urban education, to give them more time in classrooms, with better and more focused training from mentors and peers — a model based on how medical schools train future doctors. Michigan now sends cohorts of history and social science education majors, whom they call interns, on rotations among a select number of excellent professional teachers with whom the school has worked. Together, the students learn particular lessons from each teacher and learn to apply them in the classrooms.
Now, Michigan is set to take its approach one step further, thanks to a collaboration with Dr. Jonathan Zimmerman, the director of medical education at Beaumont Hospital-Dearborn. A few years ago, Zimmerman visited an apprentice classroom with Moje and pointed out what he saw as a flaw in the design: Each of the inexperienced teachers was working on his or her own, with occasional feedback from a mentor teacher. None had the chance to learn from one another. Instead, he suggested the university consider "near peer" cohorts, as they have in medical school, where at every level, there is someone just a little bit more senior who can give feedback, suggestions, and recognize struggles a little more readily.
Next year, Michigan will launch a multiyear apprenticeship teaching program in a Detroit school that will become, in essence, a teaching school, like a teaching hospital, but for educators. Starting with one grade, the school will pair a mentor teacher with a field instructor from the University of Michigan, a graduate education student, and undergraduate education students who want to be urban teachers. Eventually, 50 to 60 percent of teachers in the school will be veterans, and the rest interns. This will allow student teachers the benefit of not only their professional mentors but also their peers.
Once they graduate, the new teachers will then get jobs at the school for an additional three years, allowing them to continue working with their Michigan instructors and mentors for the first few critical years of their careers. Only once they've completed that internship will they go on to other teaching jobs, by now well-trained and prepared for the rigors of urban teaching. This medical-school model makes Michigan's program more intensive than the types of residencies here in Philly, at Penn, Temple, and Drexel, which are mostly one-year teacher immersions.
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It will take years of careful study from both the teacher and student perspectives to know if Moje's plan for Michigan could succeed in bringing needed change to urban education. But it's clear that the teacher education system we've had until now has failed to produce the teachers we need for the students of today. And the Michigan program speaks to something teachers themselves often say is important to their profession and to their students: their own learning.
Roxanne Patel Shepelavy is executive editor of the Philadelphia Citizen, where a version of this piece originally appeared.