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EVANSVILLE, Ind. — On her last day of student teaching, Kirsten Smock was trying to guide her first-graders at West Terrace Elementary School through a lesson about fractions.

She put up a picture of a circle divided in thirds, with one piece shaded green, and prompted students to describe the image. She wanted students to say that “two of three equal parts” were still white, but many didn’t get it.

Robert White, the classroom teacher, interrupted from where he had been helping a student at the back of the room and asked a boy standing at the SmartBoard to label each piece with a “1/3.” He guided the students through the problem until they arrived at the correct way of describing the remaining white space as “two-thirds” of the circle.

Indiana University, Bloomington (Photo by Justin Kern)

“Boys and girls, this is really hard stuff,” White added, before wordlessly turning control of the classroom back over to Smock.

Smock studied to become a teacher at the University of Southern Indiana. As part of her training, she tried out an increasingly popular form of student teaching in Indiana called co-teaching, where teacher candidates spend their student teaching experience collaborating with classroom teachers.

It’s becoming a more appealing approach than traditional student teaching — in which a teacher candidate starts out as a passive observer and then takes over the teaching after a few weeks. That’s because classroom teachers are becoming increasingly reluctant to turn over their students to a novice for long stretches in an age when teacher pay and tenure are tied to student improvement and performance.

“Teachers are beginning to be reluctant to host a student teacher,” said Joyce Rietman, director of USI’s advanced clinical experience and co-teaching. “Their name is on (the) test scores. It’s scary and risky to take a student teacher.”

School districts around Indiana have already begun linking teacher ratings to how students perform on state standardized tests or other student growth measures. Starting in the 2013-2014 school year, doing so will be mandatory, and districts will make decisions about compensation, tenure and layoffs based on the results.

Some universities are having a harder time placing their students because teachers don’t want their evaluations affected by the potential mistakes of a rookie.

At least 32 states have instituted policies linking teacher evaluations to student achievement. As a result, universities across the country are looking to co-teaching as a means of making student teaching more palatable to classroom teachers. In the co-teaching model, they no longer have to give up control to a novice.

Movement toward co-teaching

The co-teaching movement started more than a decade ago at Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University, but has flourished in the last three years, said Nancy Bacharach, co-director of the Academy for Co-Teaching and Collaboration at St. Cloud.

Kentucky has made co-teaching a mandatory part of teacher license requirements. Oklahoma is considering a similar measure, and the California State University system is piloting a co-teaching program. In Indiana, in addition to USI, staff members at five other universities have traveled to St. Cloud for co-teaching training.

Modeled after co-teaching for special education and general education teachers, this brand of student teaching uses seven different strategies to split up leadership in the classroom. A student teacher might plan a lesson and the cooperating teacher will teach it. Or the student teacher may set up stations where small groups of students will work on different activities and direct the classroom teacher to help with one.

The student teacher does get experience solo teaching, but won’t necessarily take over the classroom for days or weeks at a time. At its core, co-teaching hinges on setting up a partnership between the teaching candidate and the classroom teacher, so that the candidate will not only gain hands-on experience teaching in the classroom, but also have a mentor to draw on as a resource.

“The student teaching model that we were engaging in (before developing co-teaching) really had not changed much in almost 100 years,” Bacharach said. “We knew that it really didn’t make sense to have that (teacher) with all that expertise to leave the classroom.”

In 2010, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education published a report arguing that field experiences in most education schools were weak and only loosely tied to coursework. St. Cloud’s co-teaching initiative was cited in the report as a positive solution based on limited research that shows students in a co-teaching classroom perform better academically than their peers. The school has not been able to track the performance of its graduates once they go into their own classrooms, however.

White, who has hosted a student teacher for three years in a row, said that it can be difficult to give up control and appreciates how he is able to debrief with Smock after lessons. “I’m always there,” he said. “It’s organic.”

For her part, Smock praised the co-teaching model for making her comfortable when taking charge of lessons. “I just feel more confident trying new things because I know he’s there,” she said.

Critics of co-teaching

Arthur McKee, managing director of teacher preparation studies at the National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group that has been a vocal critic of teacher preparation programs, said that the difficulties universities were having placing student teachers were “a bump in the road as people get used to these new evaluation systems.”

He also questioned whether co-teaching gave teacher candidates enough time at the helm of the classroom. “Student teaching really does need to have a substantial phase where the student teacher does have substantial control,” he said.

Other teachers-to-be in Indiana who went through the traditional model of student teaching said they appreciated being thrown into a situation that forced them to take control of classroom. They said they were still able to get feedback and advice from their cooperating teachers.

After a few weeks of observing from the back of the classroom, Megan Welk, a recent graduate of Indiana University’s school of education, spent most of her student teaching in charge of a class of 37 second-graders at Unionville Elementary School in February. The class was co-taught by two regular teachers, but both stepped back to leave Welk in charge. They often pulled small groups of students out of the classroom or made themselves available to offer guidance after school but many times Welk was left alone.

Once the initial shock of the situation wore off, though, Welk said she preferred her experience to a more collaborative option. “It’s crazy how much classroom management you can learn on your own,” she said.

IU tries it

But future Indiana University graduates may have a much different experience; the school is piloting a co-teaching program this fall partly because nearby school districts urged them to overhaul the field experience.

Administrators at IU, as well as directors of other co-teaching programs, stressed that teacher candidates will still be given enough control of the class to gain necessary skills. And co-teaching has many added benefits, said Robert Kunzman, an associate dean for teacher education at Indiana University. It prepares teacher candidates to collaborate professionally and allows any mistakes to be corrected early on.

He was aware of the skeptics who considered co-teaching a less rigorous version of student teaching, but dismissed their concerns. “There’s still an embedded (thought) that to learn how to be a teacher you have to have your own classroom and sink or swim,” Kunzman said. “Conventional wisdom dies hard in education.”

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