09/06/2012 06:05 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2012

How to Improve Teacher Training: The Clinical Model

Until recently, the model for student teaching has been that the teacher-candidate follows a cooperating teacher, slowly moving from observer to participant-observer, and finally becoming a full participant responsible for the classroom instruction. This type of experience is not only becoming difficult to sustain due to tightening resources and expanding responsibilities impacting PreK-12 schools, but current research supports the need to move in a different direction for pedagogically appropriate reasons.

Teacher preparation is substantially strengthened by increasing the amount of supported field work prospective teachers experience within their preparation programs, according to a 2010 report of the Blue Ribbon Panel commissioned by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). Although the report presents the conceptual foundation for increasing the amount of clinical training in the natural setting of actual classrooms, it does not address how to build the partnerships between school districts and institutes of higher education (IHEs) that will cultivate the kind of relationships that facilitate appropriate clinical and field experiences for candidates. Also, the Panel realized that local circumstances dictate the actual design of a clinical model that would make the partnership effective for the given situation.

To effectively redesign the clinical and field work experience for prospective teachers, several requisites are necessary for viable change. First, it would have to provide equal advantage for both the school system and teacher education program. The presence of IHE teacher-candidates must be a valued resource to the schools in meeting the learning goals of their students, and assignments should be made based on the particular strengths of the candidates to help meet a specific set of school needs.

For example, if an elementary school has a goal of raising the reading levels of third graders, candidates identified as having gained significant initial preparation in teaching elementary reading should be placed in that school for an extended period to work collaboratively with school personnel to help reach the reading goal. Concurrently, these interns would be given opportunities to gain classroom experience and plan instructional units and lessons with both peers and teachers of record. Teacher-candidates with mathematics specialty might work within a school where the principal and faculty have set a goal to improve mathematics performance, and so on. In some ways, these advanced candidates would resemble medical interns or residents who gain experience in a teaching hospital.

Teacher-candidates in their final year must be prepared to accept the kind of responsibilities such a model would require. By the time students enter the teacher education program at most institutions, they have passed through a number of formidable gates that allow the faculties of an IHE to determine their preparedness to move forward. No students should be given advanced candidate status until they are completely ready to do so. I must say, however, experience informs us that many students who have been admitted into teacher education programs and have mastered the fundamentals of the profession would do well in clinical roles that are meaningful, valued by the school's staff, and vital to the success of the PreK-12 students. Candidates develop a real sense of purpose while advancing their pedagogical skills in such situations.

Finally, the need to develop creative ways to meet new challenges requires that regulations be pliant and faculty be flexible. To pilot innovative strategies for preparing future teachers, school districts and IHEs need the latitude to work together in a non-heavily regulated manner, and need to be nimble in constructing designs that will help candidates develop competencies while meeting specific needs of the schools' students. Even though all competencies would be met by every program completer, a one-size-fits-all structure for teacher preparation would be replaced by customized programs that provide resource benefits to the school. The school provides the real experiences that allow teacher-candidates to truly develop into effective professionals.

Of course, the common denominator indicating the value and viability of any teacher preparation partnership remains the positive impact such a relationship has on the learning and lives of the young people in the schools. The IHE faculty, the PreK-12 faculty, and the candidates need to work together to develop authentic assessments that evaluate the impact the programs have on student learning and other important elements of the educational process. Obviously, the effect these customized models have on student performance on external assessments should add to the credibility of the programs. And, student performance on the multiple assessments provides rich research data to inform program improvement and add to the knowledge base of best practices for preparing the best teachers.

In becoming truly innovative partners in developing authentic teacher preparation programs, school systems and IHEs can share valuable, often dwindling resources, while creating outstanding learning experiences for many students and prospective classroom teachers.