UIndy undergrads work with sixth-graders in a program to better refine teaching skills.

Armed with clipboard and pencil, John Somers, an associate professor of teacher education, watches over a group of sixth-graders and two teachers-in-training at an Indianapolis elementary school.

“A small concert hall has 98 seats and seven rows,” one aspiring teacher from the University of Indianapolis tells the children. “How many seats are there per row?”

After a few moments, answers are shared. “I divided seven by 98,” says one student, reversing the order of the equation. The teachers remain silent.

Somers jots down several notes and steps into the hallway, mulling over the moment.

“I wish . . . that one of them would have said, ‘That’s interesting, tell me more,’ ” he says of the student teachers.

Somers debriefs lessons with all of his university trainees. To help refine teaching skills he points out how they might have responded or describes examples of poor preparation or ill-conceived questions.

Once a week, his undergraduate class of 32 teams up with the Decatur Elementary Learning Center and teaches lessons to sixth-graders in an effort to refine teaching skills.

The program is an example of how UIndy’s education school, home to 304 students seeking bachelor’s and master’s degrees, has redoubled its efforts to incorporate classroom experience early and often into its teacher-training program to help refine teaching skills.

It is part of a larger effort to keep up with the latest trends in teacher preparation as federal pressure rises to refine teaching skills and improve the training and quality of U.S. teachers.

Starting next year, Indiana will join a growing number of states assigning letter grades to teacher-preparation programs. Those grades will be based on how well their trainees fare in the classroom, and that will be based on their students’ performance on standardized tests.

UIndy and colleges of education across the state have concerns about the process and especially whether letter grades will drive improvement. Meanwhile, they are doing their best to head off the critics and refine teaching skills.

UIndy, for example, is actively recruiting those interested in switching careers to teaching.

The university also is part of a consortium trying to help refine teaching skills by developing a performance assessment in which teachers would be rated on how they teach a lesson while student teaching.  Would-be teachers would have to pass the assessment to be licensed.

“We’d maintain we’ve been reformers all along,” said Kathy Moran, dean of UIndy’s School of Education.

It’s now generally accepted wisdom that, when it comes to influencing student achievement, teacher effectiveness is the most important factor in the classroom.

Politicians, researchers and teachers unions all have called for revamping teacher-training programs to better refine teaching skills.

Such programs have faced harsh critiques over the past few years, including criticism from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. In October 2009, Duncan said “many if not most of the nation’s 1,450 schools, colleges and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st century classroom.”

Critics argue that the curriculum isn’t robust enough and that, ultimately, the education schools don’t produce effective teachers.

“We’ve created a system of schools where you just have to basically go and buy your credential in the form of tuition dollars,” said Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute.

Attracting the best

Many education schools in Indiana say they have made improvements in recent years.

Some note they have increased their focus on teaching diverse students and non-native English speakers. Others say they have incorporated more classroom experiences into the curriculum so trainees have opportunities to refine teaching skills by observing, tutoring and student teaching.

CONTINUE READING this article by Sarah Butrymowicz

Butrymowicz is a reporter with the Hechinger Report, a nonpartisan, nonprofit education news outlet affiliated with Teachers College at Columbia University, which partnered with The Indianapolis Star.