Seemingly everything about our schools is changing as America shifts from a national, analog, industrial economy to a global, digital, information economy–demographics, technology, curriculum, standards and testing. The skills and knowledge students need, as they compete for jobs with peers from around the world, have risen to the highest levels in history. Demands for accountability by policy makers have mounted. The job of teacher today is very different than it was only a few decades ago; however, teacher preparation has remained stagnant.
This has served our students and our schools poorly, particularly in high-need schools and high-need subjects such as science and math. As AdvancED readers already know, research shows that having a great teacher is the single most important element of learning for children, especially those in high-need schools.
The question, then, is how to bridge the current realities with the clear needs for the future. With all we know about teaching and learning in the 21st century, how can we ensure that the next generation of educators, those who will only know a digital age, are the classroom leaders we need and seek, as well as those the future demands?
Pipeline of Excellent Teachers
Our experience with the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship has taught some key lessons about how to accomplish this.
In states like Indiana and New Jersey, Ohio and Michigan, and now Georgia, we are seeing new paths blazed in the area of teacher preparation. There, institutions of higher education are partnering with local school systems, state government leaders and community voices to redesign teacher education. The objective: to better prepare tomorrow’s teachers, ensuring that they are ready to take full advantage of new paradigms they will face during a career in the classroom—and at the same time, to change the way future educators are prepared.
There, institutions of higher education are partnering with local school systems, state government leaders and community voices to redesign teacher education.
For the past seven years, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation has been working in these states to help spur the reinvention of teacher education. Today, we are partnering with 28 universities to ensure a strong pipeline of excellent STEM teachers for tomorrow’s classrooms. As a result, those who either have been or are currently Teaching Fellows will touch the lives of more than 1.5 million students over a 15-year teaching career. Just as important, these Fellowship programs are now serving as a model for how a new, more relevant approach to teacher preparation can be institutionalized in states that share little in common other than a desire to improve the teacher education process and close the achievement gaps.
STEM Teacher Preparation
The Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellows program is focused on preparing the next generation of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachers, because that is where state leaders told us they had the greatest need, particularly in historically underserved and disadvantaged communities. By focusing on the area of teacher preparation most acutely in need of redesign, we have identified four key lessons important to the ongoing dialogue on how to better align teaching and learning with the opportunities before us.
Recognize that recruiting STEM teachers is difficult. It can be challenging to recruit STEM teachers, particularly recent college graduates who are being offered attractive private-sector career opportunities. That is why it is important to seek prospective educators from non-traditional paths. In addition to pursuing recent college graduates, for instance, we must also look to career changers, veterans and those with private-sector STEM experience.
Move beyond standard coursework. Today, effective teacher education requires three key components—rigorous, relevant and up-to-date academic instruction; intensive clinical experience integrated with academics; and ongoing mentoring. Each piece is essential to the success of both the teacher and the student, and none can be overlooked.
Focus on high-need schools and high-need subjects. This is where the real shortages are. It seems unlikely there will ever be a shortage of elementary school teachers in the nation’s suburbs. We must ensure that our teacher education efforts build stronger pathways into high-need schools, providing a wealth of excellent middle and high school teachers in urban and rural communities.
In both Ohio and Indiana, components of the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowships are focusing particularly on rural communities’ often-overlooked need to strengthen STEM education. Through Purdue University, Fellows are part of a statewide “STEM Goes Rural” initiative. And in Ohio, the Ohio University Learning Network uses distance-learning models to ensure strong collaboration between Fellows in rural areas and their mentors elsewhere in the state.
Reinforce the importance of mentoring. In other industries, mentors support new employees for years, even decades. We should bring the same best practice to the teaching field. Every new teacher should have a mentor for at least the first three years in the classroom. And that mentor should support additional professional learning, with both pedagogical and practical help.
When the Foundation began the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowships, there were some who said that the goal was impossible to achieve. That excellent teachers couldn’t be prepared at traditional education schools. That it was too ambitious to focus on STEM teachers for high-need schools. That we were expecting too much from a field that is experiencing high turnover, particularly of new teachers in hard-to-staff schools. Rather than adjust the “floor,” we focused on the ceiling. All Fellows earn a master’s degree at a partner university. All gain certification in a STEM subject. All go through a year-long rigorous prep program before becoming a teacher of record. All commit to three years as a teacher and receive the support and mentoring throughout those three years to succeed.
The result? Let’s look to Indiana to see the potential outcomes. In school systems there, more than 85 percent of Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellows remain in the classroom after their three-year commitment. The teachers themselves are quickly becoming the excellent teachers we collectively seek, especially given that more than 90 percent of Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellows have field STEM certification, compared to just 20 percent of non-Fellow peers.
Amerah Abed, a 2012 Woodrow Wilson Ohio Teaching Fellow said, “I teach STEM because it’s the future.” It is educators like Abed that are the future. As 21st century classrooms, schools and expectations continue to shift, we need to ensure that the educators leading those classes have the knowledge, skills and confidence to rise to the occasion. We hope other states will learn from the new ground broken by states like Indiana, Michigan and Ohio to reimagine how we prepare the classroom leaders of tomorrow.