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The Challenge of Scaling Up a Successful Teacher Training Program

21 March 2013 12:20 pm
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Shealah Craighead/White House

Teachable moment. White House science adviser John P. Holdren (center) talks with Sara Martinez Tucker (left), CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative, and Sean Carroll (right), vice president for science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, at a White House meeting on science, technology, engineering, and math teaching on 18 March.

Joanne Goodell has no intention of giving up. But the math educator at Cleveland State University (CSU) in Ohio knows firsthand about the obstacles to replicating an acclaimed national model for training math and science teachers. And what she's experienced as a member of the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) could serve as a cautionary tale for any university with similar ambitions.

On Monday, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute gave NMSI $22.5 million to join 34 other universities in expanding a teacher training program begun in 1997 at the University of Texas. The Texas-based NMSI is using the money for a competition to fund 10 research-intensive universities that want to replicate the program, called UTeach.

The UTeach program trains students who graduate with both a science degree and a teaching certificate. That approach is meant to give them deep content knowledge as well as pedagogical skills. Two key elements of the program are close classroom supervision by a master teacher and a hardcore undergraduate research experience. And once students graduate, one important goal is to place them in schools, often in low-income neighborhoods, that have a hard time attracting and retaining teachers with a strong background in science and math. UTeach officials say that more than 90% of their graduates go directly into teaching and that 80% are still in the profession after 5 years.

NMSI was created because replication is the Achilles' heel of most efforts to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, says Tom Luce, chair of NMSI. "We have pilot disease in the United States," he told the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology last week in a presentation on NMSI. "There are 209 federal programs to improve K-12 STEM education, and none are going to national scale."

NMSI opened shop in 2007 after a $125 million gift from the ExxonMobil Foundation. And Goodell, a former high school mathematics teacher in Australia and the catalyst for CSUTeach, thought Cleveland State was well-positioned to join its ranks. CSU's teacher training program already required students to earn degrees in a scientific field, not in education, she notes. In addition, Cleveland public schools certainly fit the definition of a high-needs district. "We were primed," she says.

Even so, Cleveland State lost out in NMSI's first competition in 2007, Goodell says. "They said we were too small," she explains, noting that the university was training only six to 10 secondary school math and science teachers a year. By comparison, the first NMSI cohort included flagship state universities and research powerhouses such as the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Colorado, Boulder; and Florida State University.

That rejection didn't stop Goodell, however. She received a 2009 grant from a National Science Foundation program aimed at attracting more STEM students into teaching. The next year, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) gave NMSI $2.2 million for CSU to join the network.

The ED grant, from a teacher training program created with money from the massive federal stimulus package, allowed CSU to hire the master teachers needed to make sure that students and new teachers receive sufficient support. Together, the grants have also enabled the program to enroll more students.

At the same time, there have been some glitches in trying to follow the UTeach model. Goodell says that she's struggled to provide a required course on research methods because CSU has many fewer graduate students in the sciences on campus who are available to supervise students than do research-intensive universities. CSU also lacks the extensive research facilities available at those institutions. "We do the best we can," she says. "But the students don't get the same type of lab supervision, and the kind of research projects we can offer are much more limited." Many CSU graduate students "are working professionals with day jobs," she notes.

A poor economy has also taken its toll on the program's goal to help needy school districts. Last year, CSU graduated its first class of 14 CSUTeach students. "All of them got teaching jobs," Goodell says proudly before adding, "but nobody is working in the Cleveland public schools."

The problem, she explains, is that the school district wasn't hiring last year—not science and math teachers, not anybody. "They actually laid off 600 teachers," Goodell says. So while her students did their field placements in the city's schools, they are now all working elsewhere, including one in Tennessee and two in North Carolina.

That distance makes it impossible for CSU to provide the stipulated support and professional development for these new teachers. As it happens, she says, the Tennessee teacher is being mentored by the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, which also joined the NMSI network in 2010.

Does Goodell have any advice for universities thinking of joining the NMSI network and embracing the UTeach model? The closer a school's teaching training programs are aligned with the UTeach model, she says, the better the chance of success. But, she warns, "there are many factors that can get in the way" of a successful replication.

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