Reframe: Episode 80

Reforming Education Through Student Teaching

Reframe Episode 80

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For decades, critics have called for education reform on several fronts. What hasn’t received much attention is rethinking how new teachers are trained to become professional educators in the first place. But Dr. Leah Wasburn-Moses aims to change this by starting with one of the most powerful experiences aspiring teachers can have: Student Teaching.

In this episode, we discuss her new book, Student Teaching: Past, Present, and Future, and the profound implications it has for education reform.

Additional music: Ketsa, “Parallel Worlds.” Little Glass Men, “Golden”

Read the transcript

(Music up)

James Loy:

This is Reframe. The podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.


It’s been said, in various ways, that if you were to somehow pluck a person from the 18th Century, and bring them straight to our modern era, one of the only things they would recognize today would be our educational system.

Sure, chalkboards have been replaced with whiteboards, or even smart boards. Instead of notebooks and textbooks, many students use laptops and iPads.

But some technologies aside, the structure – including the way classrooms are managed, the way teachers interact with students, and even the way new teachers are trained to become professional educators -- it’s all still largely the same as it was generations ago.

For decades, critics have called for education reform on several fronts. There have been, and continue to be, attempts to challenge testing standards, for more classroom teacher autonomy, to push for more culturally relevant and responsive curricula, and so on.

What hasn’t received as much attention is rethinking how new teachers gain the experience needed to do the job well in the first place.

But an ambitious new book from Dr. Leah Wasburn-Moses, a Miami University Professor of educational psychology, aims to change that by starting with one of the most powerful experiences that any aspiring teacher can have.

And that … is student teaching.


Student teaching is the single most impactful experience in teacher education, and new compelling evidence has shown us that if done correctly, student teaching can be even more powerful than we thought before.

James Loy:

However, like so much of education, and teacher preparation, student teaching has remained virtually unchanged, for nearly a century. But her book entitled, Student Teaching: Past, Present, and Future, Dr. Wasburn-Moses explores how reforming student teaching can profound implications – and not only for the way new teachers are trained.

It also has potential to improve teacher quality, and it may even provide solutions to another age-old problem in education, which is the ongoing challenge of teacher retention.


If everybody who got a degree in education actually became a teacher there would not be a teacher shortage. And so, it's pretty ambitious, but I'm hoping that if people like me, and people who administer teacher education programs, can see this data and realize how a relatively small investment in an important part of teacher education can really pay off.

[Music] – Break 1

James Loy:

Today, student teaching is an important of becoming a teacher, and it’s required for college and university-based teacher preparation programs.

Student teachers are typically college students, who work with a professional teacher-mentor to help develop lesson plans, assign homework, grade tests, and to learn about organizing a classroom.

It builds practical experience, and allows room for direct feedback, and it offers a look into what it’s really like to be a teacher. And research consistently shows it to be one of the most powerful experiences aspiring teachers can have.


We do know that the environment that a first year teacher gets in, that school environment, is so powerful that it has much, much more of an influence on how new teachers are teaching than the teacher preparation program. Now, several years down the road, some of what they learned starts to creep in. But the real powerful impact is that student teaching experience, and that induction experience.

James Loy:

It can also make beginning teachers feel more prepared, more confident, and more likely to stick with the job during those pivotal first few years – those that can often make or break new teachers. And, when done effectively, it can also be mutually beneficial to the school by providing another person to help organize a class and share teaching responsibilities.

But there are several problems – starting with stagnation – because what worked just fine decades ago might not be the best way to handle things today.


Unfortunately, in education we're continually frustrated by inertia of long-standing practices. And student teaching has remained virtually unchanged for a century. So we figured out how to do it, and we figured out how to do it in a simple way that works, that's efficient. And it's always easier to stick with the efficient way than to change our practices.

There is also lack of consistency. Student teaching practices can vary considerably between universities, between local school districts, and especially across states.

This contributes to an uneven quality of teachers on a national level. In addition, there is also usually a further emphasis on quantity over quality. In most cases, student teachers are almost randomly placed in k-12 schools, and without much regard for whether it’s actually a good fit for the student, or even beneficial to the school.


So the problem is that, as we know, all educators are overworked. And so, student teachers tend to go to the teachers who are willing to accept a student teacher in the classroom. Not necessarily the teacher who might make the best mentor to a teacher candidate. And on the university side, there's typically not much of an effort to match teacher candidates deliberately with schools. Studies have shown, for example, that it's highly effective to have schools, teachers, and administrators actually interview teacher candidates, and be able to select them.

So what we know from research, and a lot of it is pretty … fairly recent research, although we've had a hunch for a long time that deliberately placing certain teacher candidates with certain teachers can have really positive outcomes. But that really involves an extra step on both sides.

James Loy:

Another problem with student teaching today – and perhaps one of the most significant - is the research to practice gap that exists

This is the gap between the theory and research concepts that college students learn through their course work, and how that is often disconnected with day-to-day realities of what they actually experience while working in real classrooms with real kids.

[Question:] So is part of the problem that student teaching should start earlier? Should it be more immersive? Should we be trying to do a better job of using the research that professors like yourself conduct, should there be more ways to connect that with what actual teachers do in real classrooms? Is that part of the disconnect as well?


Everything is true. [laughter] So, ideally, the whole system of teacher education would be reformed so that K-12 and teacher preparation are on the same page, and they're both running teacher preparation together for mutual benefit of teachers and administrators and students in schools. The ideal is that teacher candidates are helping meet school goals while they're going through the program. And that instructors like me are heavily involved in the schools.

And, unfortunately, the way that our jobs and reward structures are made doesn't make it easy to bridge that gap between what's in the university, what's going on the university, and what's going on in school.

But a lot of times student teaching is supervised by people who aren't affiliated with the rest of the program. So, for example, retired teachers or graduate assistants -- all of whom have experience themselves. But that tie, that direct tie, into the rest of the three/three and a half years of teacher preparation isn't there.

So, ideally, teacher education would be a joint venture. Student teaching, as the most impactful experience, is where I believe reform should start.

James Loy:

And that’s not all.

Reforming student teaching also has the potential to address yet another problem in education -- something the field has also been dealing with for ages – something called the apprenticeship of observation.

[Music] – Break 2

James Loy:

Imagine, if you will, what it must be like to be a teacher. The things they say, the questions they ask, the way they organize a class.

Most of us probably think we have a pretty good idea. And that’s because we’ve all had teachers, we’ve all sat in many classrooms, through years and years of schooling, observing what teachers do and how they do it.   

This is the apprenticeship of observation, and it can create a false sense of understating of what being a successful teacher entails.


And this actually contributes to stagnation in the field. Because, by and large, without enormous effort, unfortunately, teacher candidates will come out and they will teach like they've been taught -- regardless of how hard we work in teacher education to show them different ways.

However, if our field experiences and our student teaching and their experiences in our faculty classrooms, all show them a different way for teaching and learning, and have this very strong sense of connection between theory and research, and connection with school partners - that's what makes the difference in teacher education.

James Loy:

All the behind the scenes work that teachers do, all the split second decisions they make, all the reasons behind those decisions, and more -- this is also all part of what comes out of student teaching, and it why -- if done more effectively -- student teaching has so much potential to improve the system.

So where do we go from here? How can universities and local schools come together to make change happen?

In her new book, Dr. Wasburn-Moses presents a guide by offering several core principles -- there are four in all -- which can each be used to not only reform student teaching, but also, more broadly, the larger field of teacher education as well.


So I tried to present a step-by-step way of: If you could only do one thing, like, if you can only do one thing -- get in there and do that targeted matchmaking between the teacher candidate and the mentor teacher. So deliberately choose those mentor or cooperating teachers, and have them interview the teacher candidates, and put the teacher candidates … talk to them about the districts that they're interested in. A lot of times, what we try to do is we want to give students  … we should give our teacher candidates a variety of experiences. Like, urban, rural, suburban settings, working with all different kinds of students. But, truthfully, what works is to really look at where do they want to go and why?

James Loy:

And alongside more thoughtful and targeted matchmaking, she also says universities and local k-12 school districts should identify a common philosophy. What, for example, does each side believe teaching and learning should look like? What can k-12 partners and universities agree on? And where can they meet in the middle?

Next, she argues for more clarity between the specific roles of mentor teacher, the student teacher, and the university supervisor.


So that’s the traditional triad. And a lot of times, those roles are not specifically identified so as to align with research in terms of how to support student teachers.

So what's focused on in student teaching might be completely different from what they learned about teaching in the rest of their program. Or it might be focused on whatever the cooperating teacher's philosophy is. So those roles vary a lot. And tightening those up, and aligning them with what we know works in supervision of student teaching, would be really impactful.

James Loy:

Finally, the last principle involves mutual professional development.

Instead of, for example, having teachers attend a one-time seminar that may or may not have anything to do with what they actually do in the classroom, Dr. Wasburn-Moses envisions a new system where professional teachers, school administrators, and college professors all work together, and use research, to understand what works and how to actually apply it.

These principles, when used together, can help create a powerful foundation upon which teaching and learning can start to move forward.


It's one of those things where everybody knows what's important to do. But the systems that we've set in place don't necessarily reward getting that done.

We're all in this to make better teachers, and to make better schools. But a lot of people don't realize the elements that are necessary to make reform happen, and a lot of school personnel don't realize how we can work together to meet schools’ needs. It's easy to see the whole enterprise of student teaching and field placement, from school's perspective, as a burden. Because it involves all this matching, and figuring out who wants to do it, it comes every semester, and it's easy to see that as a burden, instead of an asset that, if used correctly, could really benefit schools now, and in the future. 

James Loy:

Dr. Leah Wasburn-Moses is a Miami University professor of educational psychology, and her new book is called, Student Teaching: Past, Present, and Future.

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