By Peter Hansen
n the early 1990s, in the face of increasing teacher turnover and poor student performance in many big-city public school systems, leaders of UWMs School of Education decided that their teacher education program needed a sharper focus on urban schools.
We gutted it. I dont know how else to say it, recalls Linda Post, chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. We really wanted to come up with something that would prepare teachers for urban schools.
In the redesigned program, called the Collaborative Teacher Education Program for Urban Communities, field experience is integrated into students professional program much earlier, which Post says helps students learn what to expect sooner in their program and makes their coursework more meaningful.
Theres a real effort to make those connections, to help students really begin to understand how what theyre learning here translates or transfers into the field, she says.
Its a very different way for us of doing business, if you would, than this notion of theyre admitted, they go through their methods courses as isolated courses whenever they choose, and we see them as a group at the end when theyre student teaching.
People involved in teacher education werent the only ones to see the shortcomings of traditional programs.
Theres a lot of concern about conventional teacher education, says Bruce Thompson, president of the Milwaukee School Board. You get this not only from board members, but from teachers, and often people in the teacher education program. Potential teachers tend to spend too much time in university classrooms and not enough time actually out with kids learning what it is to actually get out into the (school) classroom.
Another innovative feature of the program is how the students go through it. Rather than the traditional method of students going through courses and fieldwork individually, groups of 30 students progress through their four-semester professional program together. Collaborative Program Director Marleen Pugach says this cohort model helps students support each other while giving them exposure to the contemporary school environment.
They really become a professional collaborative group, which sort of models the direction schools are going in terms of teachers working together more closely, supporting each other, and not just going and closing their classroom door, which used to happen when I was in school. So they become a support to each other.
Cooperation with other schools and colleges
In addition to how education students learn, what they learn is also changing. To create the Collaborative Program, the School of Education drew not only from its own expertise, but from that of UWMs College of Letters and Science and School of the Arts.
We looked at developing minors that would have more focused work on what we felt was really needed in urban schools, Post says. We really looked at how to develop a sense of the urban context and diversity throughout the program as themes. Help for developing the new program was also enlisted from public school representatives, including principals, teachers, and parents.
In recent years, departments in L&S have begun to offer courses in math and science specifically for education students. Aspiring teachers at UWM take courses such as Basic Chemistry for Teachers, Introductory Biology for Teachers, and Mathematical Explorations For Elementary Teachers. Math and science departments also offer courses for in-service teachers.
Through a Title II partnership grant from the U.S. Department of Education, veteran MPS teachers are collaborating with science and mathematics professors to instruct students and reshape the teacher education curriculum.
Thats remarkably new, Marshall Goodman, former dean of L&S, says of the new courses. Because in the past, letters and science colleges said, Well, if they come to us well teach them, but were not going to redesign our curriculums for one particular audience. Everyone gets the curriculum that the faculty in L&S say you have to have.
We no longer do that. Were definitely working in close cooperation with the School of Education in terms of developing a curriculum that is really targeted for the needs of teachers. And that came out of this partnership.
In the future, the School of Education will also be working with L&Ss departments of English, History, and Political Science.
With the School of the Arts, the School of Education has been working with faculty from dance, visual art, music, and art education, in collaboration with its own faculty involved in classroom drama activities.
Were reconsidering what the best means of preparation for having an arts orientation is, in an urban teacher education program, Pugach says. Elementary education students have to be prepared to teach everything. Because there are so many cutbacks in the arts right now, we really have to think strategically about how we use the course space we have thats devoted to the arts.
Weve talked about the importance of our students understanding the function of community arts organizations in urban areas, she continues. And thats something weve never talked about systematically before. Thats a really different way of thinking about how to prepare our students. Its exciting.
Overcoming political pressures
To improve the education of future educators, L&S hired several faculty in mathematics and the sciences who focus more on teaching and less on research, an often contentious idea at a research university where tenure and promotion are determined by publishing and attraction of extramural funds.
When you start saying, Were going to bring in somebody whos not going to join those research groups to the same level as others, but is going to focus on teaching chemistry and innovating new curriculum in chemistry and working with the local school districts, thats very novel.
To accommodate the new faculty, L&S developed a separate set of promotion and tenure criteria. Thats quite new, Goodman says. Some people refer to it as a dual track. In the past, faculty have not liked that, because everyone should be judged on the same criteria. Otherwise there can be a reduction in the quality of the faculty. Well, thats absolutely nonsense. We can do both. ... Its working flawlessly.
With the help of the new faculty, L&S has created the Center for Science Education, whose scientists, mathematicians, and educators host thousands of schoolchildren every year. The staff also holds training and curriculum development workshops for MPS science teachers during the summer.
Says Goodman: Were trying to open science up to schoolchildren at a time when we can make a difference at the intervention stage that really awakens them to the process.