Exactly thirty years ago, the Curry School of Education and the College of Arts and Sciences challenged the status quo of teacher education by eliminating the undergraduate education degree.
In a radical departure from typical teacher preparation at the time, Dean James M. Cooper led the charge to integrate a liberal arts major with a master’s degree in teaching through a five-year, dual degree program.
This evidence-based innovation made the Curry School a national model. It gave students more courses in education methods and far more hours of field experience across the five-year program than they could get in typical four-plus-one programs at other education schools.
Arthur Levine in his 2006 report, “Educating School Teachers,” selected the Curry School as one of four teacher education programs to feature as exemplary. He applauded our clinical experiences, the reputation of our faculty, and the high quality of our students. Others have cited our program’s combined emphasis on extensive subject-area knowledge, fieldwork and pedagogy, as well as our integration of technology.
The school administrators who hire our graduates overwhelmingly rate them as well prepared and able to meet professional teaching standards.
I always can tell when I am in the classroom of a Curry alum. Pam Moran
“I always can tell when I am in the classroom of a Curry alum,” says Pamela Moran (M.Ed. ’80 Sci Ed; Ed.D. ’97 Admin & Supv), superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools. “Students are talking excitedly, there’s activity in all corners of the room, and technology is fully engaged. It’s the discovery process at its best, and it allows all students to reach their full potential.”
The Curry School’s teacher education programs remain a fixture at the top of national rankings. U.S. News & World Report ranked both the secondary teacher education and special education programs seventh best in the country this year. The elementary education program was close behind at 11th.
Not inclined to rest on our laurels, we continue pursuing advances in teacher preparation. While we must respond to external forces like school demographics and government policy, we also endeavor to lead and innovate using the tools of research as our foundation.
“Continuous improvement is a hallmark of any successful program,” says Linda Boone, administrative manager of the program.
A Common Language
A recent breakthrough change in our program is based on an extensive body of research produced by our very own Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL). Founded by Dean Bob Pianta, CASTL has reams of data from scientific studies of teacher effectiveness—how to measure it and how to increase it—and its direct impact on student achievement.
An adaptation of CASTL’s rigorously researched MyTeacherPartner™ coaching model provides an opportunity for all teacher education students to learn about and develop a common language and lens for their interactions with students – across elementary and secondary education programs as well as among student teaching supervisors and classroom mentor teachers.
CASTL’s work focuses on features of teacher-student interactions, an area in which novice teachers sometimes experience more of a challenge.
“Our students are very bright academically,” Boone says. “They know their content and do well on the Praxis exam.” Now, she adds, we can use an evidence-based model for developing their skills in features of teacher-student interaction, such as sensitive responsiveness to student cues, taking the perspective of the student, effectively managing classroom behavior in a productive learning environment, providing rich and aligned feedback to students, and building an instructional focus on conceptual understanding.
Students learn to describe and observe these features of interaction during coursework, then they become a focus of supervision in their field placements. Along with this new supervision model comes intensive training for supervisors in teacher observation and a narrower set of issues to address during each observation.
The part about focusing in on the dimensions has been the most valuable. Ben Allen
“The part about focusing in on the dimensions has been the most valuable,” says Ben Allen, a 2013 graduate of the M.T. program who is now working on an education specialist degree in administration and supervision. “Often, I think observations are too broad, and the teacher — especially a novice one — may not know where to begin with feedback on so many areas. But if the focus is on two to three then they are more likely to improve.”
The opportunity for students in our leadership preparation program, like Allen, to supervise student teachers is a recent innovation as well and has become a feature of their internship. (Previously, most supervisors were education doctoral students.)
“Working with teacher candidates and their mentor teachers gives our graduate students a better understanding of an evidence-based teacher coaching protocol and also familiarizes them with the professional developmental stages from preservice teacher to novice teacher,” says Adria Hoffman (M.Ed. ’05 Soc Fdns), Curry’s field placement coordinator.
Allen, currently a history teacher at Albemarle High School, agrees. “It has been very valuable in preparation for administration. In this experience I had to build a rapport and relationship with the teachers, provide feedback both positive and negative, and more importantly, work as a team to improve or sustain pedagogy.”
Mentor teachers, who have also been trained in the MyTeachingPartner coaching lingo and style of communication targeted to interactions, provide daily feedback to student teachers. Supervisors may make additional in-person visits after the initial conference at the beginning of the semester, but most of their observations are made remotely.
Observations are based on 20-minute videotaped segments of teaching submitted by the preservice teachers and follow a coaching protocol of web-based prompts, responses, and action planning based on the footage. As preservice teachers are guided by supervisors to view themselves in action, they develop self-observation and analysis skills, becoming independent professionals who can make sustained positive changes in their teaching practices.
This pilot supervision model has opened up options for student teachers to work in schools outside the Charlottesville area. This fall we have student teachers working in classrooms in Albemarle County and Charlottesville City, as usual, but also in Alexandria City, Falls Church City, Fluvanna County, Henrico County, Louisa County, Newport News, and Richmond City Public Schools. (Read more: “Preparing Teachers for Diverse Classrooms“)
The ability to provide consistent, high-quality feedback to all preservice teachers, regardless of location, allows us to expand the program into some high-need areas of the state, as well. This fall we offered for the first time an M.T. degree in special education at our Northern Virginia Center in Falls Church.
More Changes Afoot
Other changes are afoot in the program, as well. With the addition of Tish Jennings to the faculty in 2013, we are placing more emphasis on teacher mindfulness in our elementary classroom management course. A brand new agreement with the School of Engineering and Applied Science opens up the dual degree to engineering majors in the hopes of attracting them into science and mathematics teaching. Coursework leading to endorsement in English language learners and gifted education are now offered online, as is our reading education program.
We are exploring new areas where digital technologies like simulations might play a role in low-stakes preparation of preservice teachers for challenging interactions with students and parents.
The Pursuit of Excellence
“Our teacher education faculty — 72% of whom are tenured or tenure-track — conduct cutting edge research and use their work to inform their high quality teaching. They are focused on providing a high quality student experience and are committed to preparing excellent teachers who make a difference,” says Stephanie van Hover, associate professor of education and chair of the Department of Curriculum, Instruction and Special Education.
“The faculty and staff work hard to keep the program relevant to the current education context and the challenges facing today’s students,” she adds.
Pam Moran compares our teacher education program to a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval of sorts for teachers. “Excellence is embodied in a Curry diploma,” she says.
The past 30 years have shown us that the means for getting there may continually evolve, but excellence will always be our goal.