Improving Louisiana's schools, starting with teachers

University of Louisiana at Monroe Professor Beth Ricks (standing) gives junior Mindy Beach a lesson in teaching fifth graders.

Christella Dawson, Assistant Principal at Neville High School in Monroe, La. She says new teachers from ULM are better prepared than they used to be.

Teachers-in-training (from right) Marcus Dawson, Samantha Whitlock, Ashley Goods and Cheryl Basey. Whitlock says it was a€œoverwhelminga€ to go from university lecture hall to public school classroom.


Kai Ryssdal: For all the conversations we have in this country about education -- how to pay for it, how to raise kids' test scores, how to make the U.S. more competitive -- there's one big chunk of the education ecosystem that doesn't get a whole lot of attention: How teachers are taught.

This week, a panel set up by the group that accredits teacher training programs in this country said we ought to chuck the whole thing and start over again. They said teachers should be trained more like doctors, with more time spent learning on the job with actual kids. Louisiana's already signed on to those recommendations.

Marketplace's Amy Scott reports from the Education Desk at WYPR, that Louisiana has already had a head start at education reinvention.

Amy Scott: There was something wrong in Louisiana. In the late 1990s, on pretty much every national measure, the state's public school students lagged behind most of the country. And students weren't the only ones paying the price.

Brigitte Nieland: It has impacted every quality of life indicator -- our ability to recruit business, high-paying jobs, health care. All the lists that get published every year, Louisiana tends to be on the bottom.

Brigitte Nieland was part of a state commission set up to get at the roots of the problem. She surveyed hundreds of teachers. Nearly all of those who had graduated from one of the state's colleges of education said the same thing: They felt unprepared to teach. Nieland says a third of new teachers didn't last beyond three years.

Nieland: This pipeline was leaking at every level. The standards to get into colleges of education were low. Scores on national certification exams were low. The student teaching experience was generally not realistic. It was broken. There was no doubt. It was broken.

The state finally told its colleges and universities to fix their teacher training programs or shut them down. One of the schools that got that message is the University of Louisiana at Monroe.

Sounds of football players and coaches shouting

It was Homecoming week when I visited' those are the Warhawks you hear practicing for the big game. ULM is a small university in the northeastern part of the state. It turned out nearly 150 new teachers last year.

Luke Thomas was dean of the College of Education when the order came down to shape up or shut down. ULM had just finished its own redesign.

Luke Thomas: So we basically, starting around 2002-2003, had to redesign the redesign. There weren't too many happy people in our college at that time.

But Thomas and his colleagues went along with it. They raised admissions standards; made students take more courses in the subjects they'd be teaching, like science; and tripled the amount of time they spent in the classroom -- not the university classroom, with its lectures and theory, but in the schools.

Sound of children talking

At Cypress Point Elementary School, fifth graders sit at their desks in clusters of three or four. Each cluster also includes a college student from ULM, dressed in black hospital scrubs. A word about the scrubs: All the teachers wear them; education can get messy.

Today, these future teachers are helping kids learn about word choice. Junior Mindy Beach tries to get her group talking about other choices they make.

Mindy Beach: What kind of good choices affect your future?

Students: Eating right, and getting and staying in school...

Beach isn't cutting it. The professor, Beth Ricks, swoops in to give her a lesson in how to grab a fifth graders' attention -- Enthusiasm.

Beth Ricks: What's another way to say it's a good choice, it's a what kind of choice?

Student: Excellent choice.

Ricks: Excellent! Ooh, I love that word. Nice word.

Right after class, Beach and 30 or so other teachers-in-training debrief with Professor Ricks in the elementary school's library.

Ricks: It's been five to six weeks that we've been working with the traits, right? So I want you to think about...

The aim is to bring the university classroom into the field, so students can put what they learn right into practice. Senior Samantha Whitlock says the transition from lecture hall to public school classroom wasn't easy.

Samantha Whitlock: It's very overwhelming to go from just sittin' in a classroom all day long, takin' notes and then expected just to take a test, to goin' into the classrooms and workin' with the kids. It was something totally different than I ever expected.

By the time Whitlock becomes an official student teacher next year, she will have spent almost 200 hours working directly with children in the schools. That's 200 hours before she begins student teaching. Some states require as few as 15 classroom hours.

That's the kind of experience Christella Dawson is looking for. She's assistant principal at Neville High School, across town. She's seen her share of new teachers trained the old way.

Christella Dawson: They were gung-ho about teaching, but then they'd get into the classroom with the regular students on a day-to-day basis and would not know how to maintain control of the classroom.

Today, she says, candidates come in prepared, but are Louisiana's kids any better off? They've made progress, but the state still ranks close to the bottom on national scores.

Thomas: The problem with education is that you don't see the benefits immediately.

Luke Thomas, the former dean who led ULM's redesign says it'll be years before we know if it worked. And with this week's national report calling for teacher education to be turned upside down, it may not be long before the university has to rethink how it trains teachers all over again.

In Monroe, La., I'm Amy Scott for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: Tomorrow in part two of her story, Amy's going to tell us how other approaches to training new teachers might stack up.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

Christella Dawson, Assistant Principal at Neville High School in Monroe, La. She says new teachers from ULM are better prepared than they used to be.

Teachers-in-training (from right) Marcus Dawson, Samantha Whitlock, Ashley Goods and Cheryl Basey. Whitlock says it was a€œoverwhelminga€ to go from university lecture hall to public school classroom.

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what a broad bush you use! How about mentioning states where the minimum grade avg to enter the college of teaching is 3.5? Or, the requirement for student teachers and the co-operating teacher is maintained at a similarly high level? Your story makes it sounds like all new teachers are under-qualified and poorly trained.
Good teachers are not just thrown into the classroom to learn to teach.

I loved this story, Kai! What a positive spin...and a working solution for the awful woes to our lower achieving schools in America. I'm a 27 year veteran teacher with a passion for what I do! I love getting into that little nook and cranny inside my sixth graders' brains. But. It was not so easy way back in the beginning of my career. Coming out of school, I didn't want to admit to what I didn't know, but there was so much to learn! That learning curve has not changed one bit in American education today. Rookie teachers need time on the job to gain confidence and skill, and to learn the tricks of the trade, so kids will be inspired to learn. Our city schools are in crisis. I say set up the tents, bring in the rookies and let us all work together to make a meaningful difference here. College students should be in the classroom at least one semester for every year they're in school. In the medical field it's the difference between life and death...in education the prognosis, on the surface, might not be so dire. However, when our children are reduced to grim statistics, isn't the outcome the same? It gives me great hope, though, to finally know that at least one college in America is getting it. Thanks for spotlighting them here!

The systemic problem with teacher training programs is far worse than this story showed. The Center for College Affordability and Productivity (which partners with Forbes to produce college rankings) surveyed course grades in education programs across the country and found that the *average grade* was an A. Teachers' colleges are supposed to weed out most of the candidates who aren't a good fit for the job, but if most students pass with an A they aren't doing their job anymore.

I usually turn off "what's wrong with public education today" segments, but I actually listened to Amy Scott's report in its entirety this evening. No teacher bashing, just the facts. I'd like to add my own facts and experience to her reportage. After 20 years in public finance - you know, putting together, underwriting or analyzing municipal bond deals - I decided to do something more meaningful and began working with kids. Shortly thereafter, I found myself moving to New Hampshire which - to my pleasant surprise - has an alternative teaching certificate program for people like me who have no previous traditional teacher training. So, with a master's degree in music from the 1970's and 20 years in the corporate world, I joined the program and have been a middle school special ed and math teacher for three years. In June, I'll have my real certificate. On-the-job training, mentoring with master teachers and a loving wisdom and energy to pass on to my students has actually helped me become who I really am and - so I've been told - help my students get on their way to who they really are! No state is perfect however. Because I had two semesters of a foreign language in college, I could have taught world language...but my twenty years in public finance didn't qualify me to teach high school business classes. What are ya' gonna do? Seriously, let's hear it for states that aren't afraid to break from tradition...I'd hate to think that someone like Stephen Hawking isn't considered qualified to teach math or physics and that Bill Gates isn't considered qualified to teach computer tech simply because they didn't get a four year college teaching certificate. Your show is terrific, keep it up. Thanks, Tim Bobinsky

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