A New Focus For Teachers In Training

As a student teacher, Sara Berlin says, she learned as much as she could about meeting the needs of children from poor, urban neighborhoods.
As a student teacher, Sara Berlin says, she learned as much as she could about meeting the needs of children from poor, urban neighborhoods. (Grant L. Gursky)
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Sara Berlin remembers the preparation she received for the biggest challenge of her life, teaching autistic kindergartners and first-graders in a poor Baltimore County neighborhood school.

As part of her studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Berlin spent long hours in classrooms, learning as much as she could about the students and their families.

"I learned that teachers do not teach alone but instead become partners with their students, their families and their community," said Berlin, 22.

There is a need for teachers who know how to reach out to parents who lack the confidence or know-how to contact school officials, educators say. There is also a need for teachers who understand the challenges of teaching children with learning disabilities or those whose family income qualifies them for federal lunch subsidies.

And with those needs has come an emphasis on getting student teachers into classrooms earlier -- and more often -- and making sure they're placed in schools that have had success in raising achievement among learning-disabled or poor students. Stephanie Knight, an educational psychologist who trains teachers at Texas A&M University, said her students learn best from veteran teachers "who don't see diversity as a disadvantage but see it as an opportunity."

This focus on preparing teachers for working with poor, urban students has become a particular priority at UMBC, where President Freeman A. Hrabowski III routinely takes visitors up to the roof of the main administration building and points to the Baltimore skyline 10 miles to the northeast. Berlin's school, Westowne Elementary, is in Baltimore County but is right on the edge of the city. About 28 percent of its students are poor. It is in the sort of neighborhood where many UMBC-trained teachers work.

The university is part of a movement to accelerate student teaching, which usually in the past has not begun until the last part of a student's senior year. Berlin, by contrast, was a sophomore when UMBC first put her in a classroom. "That is truly where I learned the most because it was hands-on," she said.

For teachers in training, said Diane Lee, vice provost for undergraduate and professional education, "there needs to be more time in the schools, not just in the college classroom." She said UMBC trainees get at least 100 days inside schools before earning their teaching certificates.

Despite the confidence such experience has given new teachers, there is little information on how much it improves teaching. "I think the research is entirely ambiguous," said Frederick M. Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Giving teachers the ability to raise achievement in low-income neighborhoods is still seen as an art, not a science.

James A. Alexander, executive director of the nonprofit Inner-City Teaching Corps in Chicago, raised the further issue of widespread inability among educators to consider teaching in poor neighborhoods. "Most schools of education do not spend enough time preparing their teachers for inner-city environments because they do not often think their graduates will teach in inner-city environments," he said.

It might be, some experts suggest, that good teachers are effective anywhere and that basic training should not be so focused on a destination. "Some would say that the initial training and education for those who are going to teach in such a school is basically the same as every other teacher," said Sarah Hopkins Finley, Virginia's deputy secretary of education. But "beyond initial preparation, ongoing professional development geared to a teacher's specific needs is important."

Several groups that focus on improving teaching say there is enough information on what does not work to develop a long list of additional skills needed for teaching in poor neighborhoods.

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