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Tisch's dissertation gives clues into teacher training overhaul

Not long before Merryl Tisch became head of the state’s public schools, she was a student herself, at Teachers College. There she wrote a doctoral dissertation on what would become her pet issue, teacher training.

The dissertation offers a window into Tisch’s oft-cited critique of teacher preparation — one that is far more robust and detailed than the stock line she uses in speeches.

Publicly, Tisch and education commissioner David Steiner have offered a barebones roadmap for changing how teachers are prepared. Last month, the Board of Regents approved an expansion of the number of alternative teacher certification programs in the state, opening the door for non-university programs to certify teachers.

Steiner has often spoken of increasing classroom-based training, and Tisch told me in an interview that the Board would seek programs “with a track record of success.” But the Board hasn’t been more specific about what they will look for in these programs, or how many they seek to approve, or what exactly a training program completed without the aid of a college or university will look like.

Tisch’s paper, published in 2005, provides a case study of one model of an alternative certification program: the partnership between the city, the New York City Teaching Fellows and Mercy College.

In an interview, Tisch downplayed the importance of her study, though she noted that it marked an early stage of her concern with how to bring more science and math teachers, trained in real-world fields, into classrooms.

But Tisch’s analysis of the the pros and cons — mostly the cons — of having outside organizations partner with universities to certify teachers may give clues to what elements of alternative certification Tisch could replicate, and which elements she may want to jettison altogether.

Currently, alternatively certified teachers enter the classroom immediately while simultaneously studying in a more traditional academic setting. The cohort Tisch followed would teach all day and then travel to Mercy College’s Bronx campus on Saturdays and at night.

In Tisch’s study, tensions grew between the fellows and the teachers college. Fellows told Tisch that when they arrived on Mercy College’s campus for the first time, they didn’t know where to go and went to the main office of the education graduate school for help. There, they were told that they were not students in the Graduate School of Education and were sent away.

The fellows also said they were not well integrated into the staffs of the schools where they taught. And teachers told Tisch that what they learned in class didn’t match with what they were doing in classroom.

Likewise, the program seemed to be a mixed blessing for Mercy College. The college welcomed the program as a way to boost the struggling quality and reputation of their teacher education program, Tisch reports, and it saw an influx of students.

But the Department of Education assigned students to Mercy without the college’s input, and Mercy was told little about each student beyond their names before they arrived on campus. Mercy administrators also decided to set up the Teaching Fellows program separately from the School of Education, and education faculty members told Tisch they resented being excluded from the process of developing curriculum. The college also resented that their contract with the DOE was not as lucrative as the department originally promised.

Despite the problems, Tisch argues the program was largely successful because of the staff’s ability to rebound from their stumbles. Ironically, Tisch says Mercy’s status as a small and struggling teachers college helped the Teaching Fellows program succeed there. Mercy had less leverage with the DOE and the school district than more well-established teachers colleges and so accommodated the department’s vision for what teacher training should look like.

“Mercy became the place where the Department of Ed could take charge of the Fellows program,” one former DOE official told Tisch. At Mercy, the official said, “the department could just about re-establish their right to certify teachers which they have not had since the Board of Examiners was disbanded.”

Partly for that reason, the DOE quadrupled the number of fellows enrolled in the Mercy College arm of the Teaching Fellows program after its first year.

In recent years, the number of fellows sent to Mercy has dwindled, as the Teaching Fellows program has sent more new teachers to programs at Pace University, Hunter College and the City University of New York, said DOE spokeswoman Ann Forte. This school year, Mercy College did not begin training any fellows, though Forte noted that the overall Teaching Fellows cohort is significantly smaller now than it was when Tisch published her dissertation in 2005.

Tisch completed her dissertation working with Arthur Levine, the former dean of Teachers College and a well-known critic of traditional teacher education. She concludes her study with a list of recommendations for policy-makers, including, presumably, herself (she was on the Board of Regents at the time of the study, although she had not yet been elected Vice Chancellor or Chancellor).

Some of her recommendations now sound familiar in the context of the Regents’ current proposals — for example, promoting competition among certification programs and increasing the number of certification programs that are targeted to bring in teachers from the science, math and engineering programs. Other proposals, like rethinking the practice of immediately placing alternatively trained teachers in the most challenging school districts, sound more radical.

Steiner said last month that a request for proposals outlining the specific qualities the state wants in training programs will be released before the end of the year.

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