Educators flock to Phoenix to learn how ASU trains teachers to succeed

By

Mary Beth Faller

“It’s going to be messy,” Sarah Beal told the room full of educators on Wednesday morning.

“But you have to create that sense of urgency to make the changes that need to happen.”

She was talking about the need to reinvent teacher training, a shift that Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College has tackled for the past four years.

It’s why experts from 30 educational institutions gathered in Phoenix this week to learn how Arizona State University reversed a model that was entrenched for decades.

It was hard work, Beal told the Excellence at Scale: ASU iTeachAZ Conference, and it’s not done yet.

Beal, executive director of college partner grants, was on the team that reworked the program. Starting in 2010, coursework became harder and students were held to a rigorous accountability system. In 2011, seniors were offered a chance to become immersed in a “residency.”

In just a few years, the changes have produced results. According to the teachers college, of students who completed the iTeachAZ residency program, 92 percent are still teaching in Arizona. That compares with a first-through-third-year teacher retention rate of 80 percent nationally and 76 percent in Arizona.

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, an online database highlighting innovative practices, cited iTeachAZ as a program that gives teacher candidates a competitive edge in the field.

The reinvention was driven by a realization that the old model wasn’t working anymore.

“Over the years, at teachers colleges, faculty have owned their courses. They have complete autonomy, and their teaching is somewhat isolated from the program as a whole,” Beal said.

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Education proposed new rules that would require teacher-preparation programs to report more data on teacher hiring, retention, effectiveness and student achievement.

“This is urgent,” Beal said. “Our students need good teachers.”

She said research has found that many students in teacher-prep programs got good grades and went on to be highly evaluated as teachers, but those results were not translating into student achievement.

Beal said the teachers college students have become critical consumers.

“When they don’t feel their teachers are modeling good instruction, they get angry about that. And they should.”

Convincing faculty to change was the biggest challenge.

The team had to overcome the natural tensions between tenured faculty members, who focus on research, and the clinical staff, who emphasize teaching. One way they did that was to videotape each other while teaching, then critique the results together. Some of the faculty members hadn’t taught a classroom lesson in years, and the exercise reinforced the importance of their shared mission.

Margarita Jimenez-Silva, associate professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, was also on the team. She said the group had to reassure tenured faculty who were concerned the changes could compromise their academic freedom.

“But at the end of the day, it’s not about your research, it’s about making the best teachers we can,” Jimenez-Silva said.

Among the biggest innovations was iTeachAZ, launched in 2011, which places groups of seniors in a yearlong residency in a school district. The students work alongside teacher-mentors for the entire academic year, not just one semester.

At the same time, the student-teachers still take ASU coursework. And instead of returning to one of the campuses, they attend classes at the school where their site coordinators teach the coursework.

About 30 districts now partner with ASU by hosting iTeachAZ candidates.

Janet Tobias, a principal of Kyrene de la Paloma Elementary School in Chandler, said, “I see a reflectiveness in the iTeachAZ candidates, which is what I’m looking for in a teacher, because if you’re reflecting, you’re growing.”

She said that the accountability is rigorous.

“We have seen that if the teacher candidates aren’t cutting it, the mentors are brave enough to say, ‘This isn’t going to work out,’” Tobias said.

ASU’s work is not done, Beal said. The iTeachAZ method is now offered only for teachers training in K – 8 schools, not high schools.

“And not all teacher-educators are on board,” she said.

On Wednesday, a room full of conference participants cited faculty resistance as the biggest obstacle they face in importing ASU’s methods at their institutions.

“What resonates is how worried the university is about being evaluated according to the same standards that we expect our teachers to perform at,” said Jennifer Tuttleton, director of school improvement for Ascension Parish Schools in Louisiana.

She praised the changes that Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College has made.

“Teachers are faced with high accountability. Their jobs are on the line, and I love this initiative.”