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Fred Belmont

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Teaching Teachers a Better Way

Posted: 11/23/10 04:48 PM ET

While a lot of focus here in Washington is on the new Congress, there is also a whole lot going on in American education. Just last week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan talked about the need to turn "the education of teachers in the United States... upside down" in a speech here. He was highlighting the findings of a report by a blue ribbon panel on teacher training put together by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

As a classroom teacher -- and long time union member -- I found the most intriguing suggestions focused around modeling teaching training after medical education. School districts would partner with colleges and universities similar to the way a teaching hospital works.

You get it. Envision Scrubs with teachers, not J.D. and Turk.

"Clinical faculty, mentors, coaches, teacher interns and residents (would) work together to better educate students and prospective teachers as part of clinical practice teams," the report concluded.

Teachers would be placed in collaborative programs much in the way medical interns and residents are placed in hospitals. These "teaching residencies" would be filled through organized "match programs."

The key would be to for universities and school districts to jointly fund these programs, which would make it, the report suggested, more likely they would work together.

Why is an overhaul of how teachers are trained needed?

Recounting conversations with teachers throughout the country, Duncan said he was told "that their teacher-preparation programs failed them." According to Duncan, aspiring teachers said they "were not getting the hands-on, practical training about managing the classroom that they needed, especially with high-need schools and high-need students."

Too much of clinical teacher training -- I like the simpler term student teaching -- is done in relative isolation. I spent only 10-weeks as a student teacher, but I had a great "master" teacher, willing to take on the extra work of dealing with a neophyte. But not everyone has my good experience.

Today in some states, students can still become certified teachers with just 10-weeks of student teaching. To make matters worse, some cooperating teachers have little or no preparation for their role as teacher educators. Can you imagine the quality of America's teachers, if as part of their certification or licensing requirements, they were to go through a process as rigorous as medical residencies -- both in the amount of time and the quality of supervision?

As important as the training, the focus on strengthening candidate selection and placement is equally important. An aging baby boomer teacher population means, Duncan estimated, that a third of the teachers and principals in the nation will retire in the next five years.

"That means up to 1 million new teaching positions will be filled by new teachers as we move ahead. And I'm convinced that our ability to attract, to prepare and to retain great teacher talent can transform public education in our country for the next 25 to 30 years. It is truly a once-in-a- generation opportunity," Duncan said.

He went on to say that the goal for American teachers "over the next five years is to take a giant step forwards towards developing the finest, most diverse teacher force in the world, especially in high-needs schools and high-need subject areas."

A recent McKinsey study said it best: "The quality of an educational system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers."

Fred Belmont, a National Board Certified Teacher, is currently an Albert Einstein Distinguisher Educator Fellow in Washington, DC and is on leave from his seventh-grade math classroom at Wood Oaks Junior High School in Northbrook, Ill.