Mari Koerner, PhD, dean of the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, started teaching second grade in 1967, while taking education courses at night.
She was smart, but inexperienced. And she was young. She graduated from college at 19, after being “double promoted” a couple of times along the way.
Still, she says, “I had not been in second grade since I was in second grade, so I didn’t know what I was doing. It took me a long time to learn how to teach. I learned through hit and miss practice.”
Koerner taught in Chicago for almost eight years, then spent 10 years at home raising children. She went back to school to earn a master’s degree in early childhood education and eventually a PhD in curriculum and instruction.
Now, perhaps inspired by those early years as an inexperienced teacher, she works to elevate the status of other teachers and ensure that they are prepared and competent.
How has teacher preparation changed in the last 20 years?
In some ways it has not changed. That is one of the reasons we are seen as innovators, because we have implemented common sense as well as research-based practices into teacher preparation.
We have increasingly tried to raise the status of teaching through a more rigorous program, which means you have to know how to do math, you have to know how to do science and you have to know pedagogy [the method and practice of teaching]. You have to know how to teach.
We have infused practice in theory. We take our clinical experiences very seriously. Our students are in classrooms to learn how to teach but not just learn how to teach on their own. It’s teaching under supervision with a theoretical base.
The clinical experiences are through iTeachAZ, ASU’s teacher education program?
Yes, in semesters seven and eight they do student teaching while they are taking classes at the same time, on site. So they also are taking methods classes from one of our full-time faculty members who goes out there to teach as well. Education students may be taking “methods of teaching math” on site at a school in the Kyrene district and then the coordinator comes to see what they’re doing in the classroom, to see if they’re actually using what they’re learning.
Has iTeachAZ been successful?
Our principals are telling us that our education students are like first-year teachers by March, that they are ready to be second-year teachers by the end of the year because they’ve been in the classroom so long.
They’ve taught so many lessons, they understand so much about the culture of the school, they understand the kids and they’ve talked to parents. We’re betting on our own supervision and our own performance assessment as well as working with trained mentor teachers to produce the best learning experience for our students here at ASU.
You talk about raising the status of teaching through more rigor. Does that mean you admit students with higher GPAs and SAT scores?
No. We haven’t raised the admissions standard so that our GPA is higher than other colleges. What we’ve done is make the program more difficult to get through, so people are selecting themselves out or they’re not coming to our program.
We’ve created tracks for math majors and science majors so they can [concurrently] become teachers. We have decreased the amount of education courses and increased content courses for undergrads to make it a more serious program.
There’s no study I know of, no research that’s been done, that says what is predictive of a good teacher. Better SAT scores, better GRE scores or a better grade point average do not predict a good teacher.
We’re putting our money on the preparation. That’s our intervention. We will select out people who can’t do it or they will select themselves out.
You are on the advisory board for Teach For America, which places college graduates in teaching positions in low-income communities for a period of two years. Is there something about the way they train teachers that you are using?
One of our strong values is partnerships with arts and science, with schools, with businesses and donors. One of our donors, T. Denny Sanford, was very interested in the success of Teach For America, so he invested $18,850,000 in our college to create a five-year partnership with Teach For America.
It’s called the Sanford Inspire Program, and he thought we could take the best of what Teach For America is doing, translate it into a college of education, then replicate that model. But we’re not Teach For America. We’re a college of education, and yet we’ve learned a lot [from Teach For America] like [the importance of] raising the status of the teaching profession.
They spend a lot of money to recruit. We don’t have that money but we are using a lot of their practices to recruit. Our students tell us their stories and we screen for certain characteristics through an interactive digital game that is a virtual classroom. You can make a mistake in the digital classroom, such as you don’t come prepared and the kids go berserk, as they might in real life. That was an investment from the Sanford project.
And we looked at their curriculum. Teach For America makes it very clear that they believe in “backward assessment.” In other words, look back at what you’ve done and see if it worked. We’ve incorporated and integrated some of those practices into our teacher education program.
Audio exclusive: ASU’s Mari Koerner talks about new technologies, the benefit of getting a brand new teacher and why parents should step out of the way and let kids have a crack at solving problems on their own. Listen to the podcast.