Turning education of would-be teachers into a 'living laboratory'


You may not like Ralph Fessler's proposals for overhauling teacher education in Maryland, but it's hard to argue that he doesn't know his subject matter. The former elementary school teacher, principal and administrator now directs the Johns Hopkins University's Division of Education.

His specialty: the professional training of teachers.

So last year, when the state's school superintendent and commissioner of higher education jointly appointed a task force to redesign teacher education, it was hardly a stretch when they asked Dr. Fessler, 51, to be chairman.

The task force's proposals, released last month, are aimed at creating better prepared teachers by requiring them to spend more time learning the subject matter they are to teach and much more time working with children before getting their teaching degrees.

That would take five years of training rather than four. His task force's proposals will be considered by the State Board of Education and the Higher Education Commission.

QUESTION: What deficiencies do these proposals address?

ANSWER: I don't look at it as we have this awful, terrible system out there that's deteriorating and hopeless. Rather, I see this as building upon some of the good reforms that have been done in sort of a piecemeal way till now, but looking at it in a much more dramatic fashion.

Q: The proposal that has generated the most attention is this idea that teachers should be better grounded in their academic subjects.

A: That's attracted a lot of attention and justifiably so. Having a strong background in the content to be taught is a prerequisite for an effective teacher, but it's not sufficient alone.

If you look at the total proposal, it uses that as a base, that teachers have to come in with a strong academic background, but it builds upon that base.

Q: How so?

A: The recommendations call for an extensive, probably yearlong teacher internship where teacher candidates work within school settings, where we develop partnerships between schools and universities, so that we look at not only how schools and universities can work together to prepare teachers but also how that partnership can affect ways to work with schools toward improvement, toward continuing development and education of teachers within those schools.

To me, the most exciting part of the report is that professional development experience. It's the opportunity to take education course work and research about what works with children and making it come alive in a living laboratory, taking teacher education to the schools where children are.

Q: So you want more academic training and more teacher education. Is that why you need a fifth year?

A: What this proposal is really saying is that both are important. It's not just the subject matter, and it's not just the teaching methodologies and understanding how to get kids excited about learning.

Both are critical ingredients in making effective teachers. But you get into this time problem: You can't do both in four years.

Q: Would everyone who wanted to go into teaching need the fifth year?

A: There is a bit of openness in the report that needs to be defined further. The report leaves the door open in terms of options for those people who decided early to become teachers, so maybe it won't be a whole year internship. Maybe those people will be able to demonstrate to their mentoring team that they're ready before the year is up so there will be some accommodation made.

There is a tendency to overstate the rigidity of this. I see it as an opportunity to have all kinds of creative options emerge. It throws out a challenge to universities and school systems to get together and to look at ways to develop programs that are unique to them, that express their unique programs and their unique strengths.

I envision all kinds of options coming out of this, not just one cookie-cutter approach.

Q: The proposal says that prospective elementary teachers, while graduating with a liberal arts degree, must emphasize math and science. Why?

A: Because there's a commonly held belief that elementary teachers in particular do not have a very strong background in math and science.

During formative periods when youngsters are being exposed to math and science, it's important to have teachers who feel comfortable about mathematics and science, and bring enthusiasm to it.

Q: Aren't you concerned that the extra time and expense of a fifth year will discourage some from going into teaching?

A: That's a concern that many have expressed and I agree with. One of the recommendations is that the internships be paid.

When you think about the populations we're drawing from, we're drawing from people fresh out of college, but also career changers, people giving up jobs, giving up careers to go this route, often people who are older and have families. We're also talking about the need to attract a significant number of highly qualified minority candidates.

So I would not want to see this proposal approved without provisions made for paid internships. I think it's essential.

Q: What are the political obstacles to your proposals?

A: There's generally a broad base of public support for it. The people who have voiced the most concern are people who have a heavy investment in undergraduate teacher education programs now. I understand their concerns; I really do.

It shouldn't be assumed that all people who are in teacher education are opposed to this, however, because in fact many teacher educators in the state were involved in developing this and a number of universities have indicated that they are looking forward to developing pilot programs to begin parts of this. There are some universities that are embracing this with enthusiasm. Others are real concerned about how it will affect them.

Q: Will these proposals mean more public money?

A: I don't pretend to be an expert in that area, but it's going to take some new money, in particular to pay interns.

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