Tom Smith, left, dean of the College of Education and Health Professions, is pictured with Tom Kimbrell, Arkansas commissioner of education, at a reception announcing the first cohort of Arkansas Teacher Corps fellows. Photo by Kelly Quinn

Tom Smith, left, dean of the College of Education and Health Professions, is pictured with Tom Kimbrell, Arkansas commissioner of education, at a reception announcing the first cohort of Arkansas Teacher Corps fellows. Photo by Kelly Quinn

June 1, 2013

Faculty and leaders in our college know that teacher preparation is indeed one of the most important components of a good P-12 education system and, ultimately, a P-16 education system. Without well-trained teachers, students are at a disadvantage and less likely to reach their maximum potential. Numerous studies have found that the most important variable in a child’s education is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. This fact has been echoed numerous times by Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education. Therefore, our goal must be to prepare the very best teachers and school leaders we can while carefully considering any models that may help us meet this goal, albeit through different approaches.

There are obviously excellent teacher-preparation programs as well as programs that need significant improvement. Some of the excellent ones are traditional programs, found in colleges of education, and some are non-traditional programs, such as Teach for America and our own Arkansas Teacher Corps. There are also traditional programs and some alternative programs that need significant improvement.

We at the University of Arkansas are addressing some of the common criticisms of traditional teacher-preparation programs. We have increased our admission requirements to our programs resulting in our current students being very similar in their academic qualifications to students in other colleges on our campus. We also require a full-time, one year internship, which addresses a common criticism that internships or student teaching are too limited.

We certainly believe that teacher-preparation programs must continue to develop innovative and better ways of preparing teachers and school leaders. In an attempt to do so, the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas has embarked on two exciting, innovative initiatives. The first is the Arkansas Teacher Corps. This program, modeled after Teach for America, provides an opportunity for us to recruit highly capable individuals who did not plan on being a teacher but have determined, after receiving their degrees, that they would like to teach. We believe that many of these can become excellent teachers, especially after they complete our intensive summer teaching institute and have trained mentors throughout their time as a teaching fellow. These teaching fellows will be placed in districts that have difficulty attracting sufficient numbers of qualified teachers.

We are also working with the Fayetteville School District to develop a conversion charter school that the college and the school district would operate collaboratively at beginning in the fall of 2014. This conversion charter school will focus on several innovative ideas, including a non-graded curriculum, emphasis on STEM education, and a language-immersion program with the goal that students would have a mastery of conversational Spanish by the time they move to the next level. If Germany, Russia, and other European countries can teach their children to converse in English during the early grades, there is no reason we cannot do the same with a foreign language.

The conversion charter would also be used as a training ground for elementary teachers from the university to enable them to see how children can be educated in different ways. It is anticipated that a cohort of our elementary education students would earn their degrees and certification through a great deal of internship time at the school rather than in traditional college classrooms.

Programs to prepare teachers and school leaders must change. Traditional programs must look for new and better ways of preparing these professionals, while at the same time work with and develop alternative preparation programs to provide teachers and school leaders that all of our children and youth deserve.

This piece was originally published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette