When it comes to making sure education students get top-notch training to take on the challenge of providing the best teaching for K-12 students, the three members of the University Research Corridor (URC) are recognized nationally for their innovations in teacher education.

Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University are teaching tomorrow’s teachers and improving the skills of those already in the classroom through demanding coursework that includes hands-on sessions where education interns and teachers gain more tools to help students in urban schools, special education classes and a variety of classrooms in Michigan and worldwide.

At a time when innovation and new approaches to education are in demand as never before, the three URC universities are taking the lead. Here are examples at each university of the special work being done to make their graduates stand out and their impact on education felt nationally.

Michigan State: Energizing Urban Classrooms, One Teacher at a Time

By Nicole Geary

Last year, Christopher Waston competed against hundreds of aspiring teachers statewide to be named Michigan Student Teacher/Intern of the Year. What makes his story particularly noteworthy is that the Michigan State University graduate is an “urban” teacher.

Education and policy experts have long lamented the fact that the best teachers don’t usually seek out urban teaching assignments and that urban classrooms are not hotbeds of teaching innovation. But, if Waston’s experience is any guide, Michigan State University’s three-pronged approach to bringing high quality teachers into urban classrooms – with specialized programs in urban education for pre-college students, undergraduates, and graduate students – may be the model that turns that trend around.

The statistics about the urban teaching environment are daunting:

  • There are more than 17,000 public school districts in the United States and just 100 of them – the nation’s largest – educate nearly a quarter of all children, including 35 percent of all minorities.
  • According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 56 percent of students in those 100 districts – mostly in urban settings – come from low-income families based on eligibility for free or reduced lunch.
  • On average, only about two-thirds of ninth graders in those districts graduate from high school on time.

MSU’s College of Education, whose programs in elementary and secondary education have been ranked No. 1 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report for 19 consecutive years, began to focus on the pipeline of potential urban teachers more than a decade ago. The Summer High School Scholars Program, which Waston attended, brings pre-college students from urban areas for a four-week retreat on MSU’s campus. The focus is on preparing the students for success in college, with an emphasis on careers in education.

Waston, a graduate of Detroit Public Schools himself, says he realized his potential to become an “agent of change” while participating in the program. Offered every summer for up to 70 teens, it has become the gateway for a growing number of urban teachers. The number of Detroit residents pursuing teacher certification at MSU has more than doubled since fall 2003, with about 50 students now in the process.

“The Summer Scholars program was the first time I was able to look critically at education as a whole, or see the faults,” says Waston, who has since been one of the program’s instructors. “I was fortunate enough to attend a (high) school in which 95 percent of the students went on to college, but I was also frustrated how these experiences weren’t being translated to everyone, especially in urban areas. I knew I needed to do something.”

Waston then decided to apply to MSU and the close-knit Urban Educators Cohort Program, which admits a geographically and racially diverse group of 75 students each year. Members get a jumpstart on their preparation through special courses and field experiences as freshmen and sophomores, and then complete their remaining field requirements – including the internship – in urban locations.

By observing real classrooms and taking tailored courses together, students begin to understand early on how issues such as power, privilege and poverty affect urban schools. Most importantly, says Assistant Dean Sonya Gunnings-Moton, they learn how they can help transform communities as educators. More than 500 students have enrolled in the program since 2006, including three groups of graduates now working full-time in big cities.

“Urban education is a front and center college-wide priority,” Gunnings-Moton says. “It is about providing high-quality professional preparation, keeping our college relevant within the landscape of what’s happening in public education and – ultimately – creating equitable opportunities for the children who are students in urban K-12 school districts.”

Many education students at MSU also experience urban teaching during an optional summer program in Detroit. Open to all teacher candidates (not just those in the Urban Educators Cohort Program), the Urban Immersion Fellowship places about 50 students in summer school classrooms and community-based youth programs over six weeks. (View the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJrN-r5HRx0&feature=youtu.be)

They teach, tour the city, interact with local leaders and attend weekly seminars on topics such as youth development and classroom management. Survey data show the fellowship, which started in 2004, builds students’ interest in urban education careers and challenges preconceived notions.

As Michigan State University faculty’s focus on urban education has increased over the last several years, so have the opportunities for graduate students to study issues of urban education in depth. The Urban Education Graduate Certificate program involves an interdepartmental sequence of courses for PhD students and a related speaker series that has brought national experts such as Pedro Noguera and Ronald Ferguson to packed audiences on campus.

MSU professor of educational administration Christopher Dunbar, director of the certificate program, says, “We want school districts – and the general public – to know that MSU is a place where educators can gain the knowledge and insight to successfully teach, lead and conduct research in urban school environments.”

Wayne State University: Professors Help DPS Teachers Learn Better Ways to Teach Math to Special Education Students

By Kathy Barks Hoffman

Twenty-five special education teachers in the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) are getting extra training to beef up their knowledge of math so they can improve their students’ learning.

A special grant from the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) is enabling Wayne State University faculty to reach out to the teachers in grades 6-12 through special courses offered on Saturdays. Wayne uses its math education faculty and other subject experts to design the content of the course which helps the teachers, as well as liberal arts math experts. DPS sends its special education supervisors and others working with the math curriculum.

The grant allows Wayne State to provide coaches to meet with small groups of special education teachers twice a month. The coaches assess the teachers’ skill level and help them improve their teaching skills in math. Many of the teachers were trained in college to teach special education classes but received little in-depth training in core subjects such as English or math.

“We work with people where they are on a continuum,” said Jo-Ann Snyder, Ed.D., assistant professor of teacher education at Wayne State, who’s starting her sixth year working with this particular MDE professional development grant. “Everybody’s at a different spot. They may have had only a couple of courses in math.”

The Wayne State faculty members hold training sessions for the teachers on more than 20 Saturdays. One retired teacher who still tutors students was eager to show up for the classes, and Snyder said all of those eligible for the extra training are eager to participate.

“These are dedicated people,” she said. Teachers also receive instruction in how poverty affects student learning, among other topics.

As part of their instruction, the teachers are given iPads on which they are expected to create electronic portfolios demonstrating their increased ability to teach math skills to special ed students. They’re expected to find applications the students can use to learn math and create a case study on a student.

“To be able to put the iPads in teachers’ hands for them to experiment in their classrooms really helped,” said Snyder, the project for Collaborative Opportunities for Reaching Excellence, or CORE. “This has made a difference.”

MDE has awarded 10 projects to universities around the state that are working with school teachers to improve instruction.

University of Michigan: Graduate Students, Scarlett Middle School Students Join Together for Hands-On Instruction

By Deanna Birdyshaw

Ivory turned to his partner and said, “You better turn your brain on” before beginning to construct an index card tower in competition with his classmates from Scarlett Middle School.

Thirty minutes later, the Ford Auditorium in the University of Michigan College of Engineering’s Industrial Operations Building was filled with a variety of structures in response to the engineering challenge of designing a way to support a stuffed animal over 20 centimeters in the air. Jenalyn Lawrence, a graduate student working on her secondary master of art’s degree with certification (secondary MAC) commented, “Seeing the excitement and pride on my group of students’ faces when they won the index card challenge was a moment I will carry with me for the rest of my teaching career.”

Scarlett Middle School students and teachers, along with U-M staff, faculty and secondary MAC interns, worked together this summer in the Scarlett Summer School program. The first week started with a tour of the wave field, Lurie Nanofabrication Facility and U-M solar car garage. Hans Sowder of U-M’s Center for Engineering Diversity and Outreach led the index card challenge to help middle school students and graduate student interns learn about the engineering design process. In the afternoon everyone had a chance to work with converging technologies consultant Tom Bray and the talented staff of the Digital Media Commons to learn the basics of video special effects and electronic music production. The day also included a visit to the U-M video game library.

The goal of the visit was to inspire the Scarlett Middle School students to visualize themselves one day doing this kind of work. Kathryn Young, Clinical Experiences Coordinator for Teacher Education, noted that in one of the video studios when the students were asked if there were any questions, one young man asked, “Does it get any more amazing than this?”

During Scarlett’s summer school program, middle school students and U-M teaching interns learn from each other as part of the Mitchell Scarlett Teaching and Learning Collaborative, the School of Education’s partnership with Ann Arbor Public Schools, which this summer was beginning its third year. The summer school program serves approximately 50 students in grades 6 through 8, and is focused on strengthening the students’ reading and math skills in preparation for their next school year.

From July 8 through August 9, U-M secondary education graduate interns spent four days a week supporting the language arts and math classrooms by working with Scarlett teachers to learn teaching practices that help support learning with individuals and small groups of students. Liv Racine, a Scarlett math teacher notes, “It’s so great to look around the room and see all of my students completely engaged and having fun! They’re all getting the attention and help that they need (from the interns) to learn and grow — it’s so awesome!!”

These clinical experiences were integrated into the interns’ education classes by U-M faculty Charles Dershimer and Deanna Birdyshaw as part of the Education 511 Records of Practice class on site at Scarlett Middle School. This signature class in the secondary MAC program combines course work on learning theory and student motivation with the classroom teaching practices associated with reading apprenticeship and facilitating student conversations. Interns integrate the different worlds of the U-M and Scarlett classrooms through discussions of video records of the interns’ practice and reflective writing tasks where interns review and comment on their competency with the teaching practices they are enacting.

Morgan Hooks, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow in the MAC program said of the experience, “It was amazing to watch the students get so excited about the different activities during the field trip, especially because they were having so much fun that they didn’t even realize they were learning! It inspired me to create these types of experiences for my own students when I’m teaching math next year.”


Deanna Birdyshaw is co-leader of the Master of Arts in Educational Studies with Secondary Teacher Certification Program at U-M’s School of Education.