Breaking New Ground in Teacher Education. A Conversation with Teacher Educator Nancy Bacharach

By vonzastrowc

The word “innovation” is getting stretched awfully thin these days. But I have a hard time coming up with a better word to describe what's happening at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota.

One of the nation’s largest producers of teachers, St. Cloud State is reinventing teacher education. The University’s “co-teaching” model of student teaching prepares new teachers for the challenges of the job while keeping master teachers in the classroom. The best part? The model also benefits children right away. Four years of research show that students in co-taught classrooms outperform students in classrooms using other models of student teaching. They even outperform students taught by a single experienced teacher.

St. Cloud State University Professor Nancy Bacharach recently told us more.

A New Direction in Student Teaching

Public School Insights: We’ve all heard about student teaching. I gather that the work that you are doing right now at St. Cloud State University in co-teaching is not your grandfather’s student teaching.

Bacharach: Exactly. As we were looking at the student teaching experience here at St. Cloud State and reading the literature that was out there, we found that very little has changed in the last 75, 80 years of student teaching. We were looking at our own experiences from a number of years ago, and

we were still doing the same thing.


So we asked, what are some alternatives? Certainly institutions across the country have begun to change the way they do student teaching. But we didn’t find any systematic change—there wasn’t any one model that people had started moving towards.

We started looking at co-teaching because we didn’t adhere to the sink or swim model that prevailed in student teaching for many years. You know, you look at the literature on mentoring new teachers and how strongly that literature talks about our need to support our teachers in their first three to five years. Yet if we backtrack that one year into the student teaching experience, we hear some people talk about student teaching as a time that they either make it or break it on their own.


We really wanted to move that mentoring piece into the student teaching experience, so that our student teachers didn’t feel that they had to face the world alone. They really have the support of their cooperating teacher and university supervisor as they move into the student teaching experience.


Results for Students


Public School Insights: Many critics of teacher education programs see them as irrelevant to real classroom challenges, especially in the lowest performing schools. Does the co-teaching model that you promote address some of these particular challenges in low performing schools?

Bacharach: We certainly have schools here that have not met AYP standards, and we are very excited about how the data coming out of our work [could influence that]. We have collected four years of data and were actually able to disaggregate the information. In our classrooms where there was a student teacher co-teaching with a cooperating teacher, students who were eligible for free or reduced price lunch statistically outperformed [similar] students in classrooms with one licensed teacher. 65% of [free and reduced price lunch] students in co-taught classrooms were proficient on our state test, versus 53.1% of [free and reduced price lunch] students with one licensed teacher.


We had the same kind of results with students who are identified as special education eligible. 74.4% of those students [in co-taught classrooms] were proficient on our state test, compared to 52.9% of those students who were proficient when they were with one licensed teacher alone.


I think a lot of that really has to do with the ability to give more individual attention. When you’ve got two teachers in the room, two qualified people to work with kids, you are meeting more children’s needs.


Public School Insights: Did you have similar results for the entire cohort of students involved in this?


Bacharach: Absolutely. We have done testing in reading and math in grades 1-6. We have used two different measures to look at the differences in proficiency. One is our state test, as I mentioned—the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, which is given once a year to our students in the spring. When we compare our students in co-taught classrooms to [students in classrooms with] one licensed teacher there is a statistically significant difference in both reading achievement and math achievement favoring students in co-taught classrooms.

We also used the Woodcock-Johnson III Research Edition, an individually administered pre- and post-test. With that assessment, we found that in reading we have statistically significant differences in all years favoring students in co-taught classroom. In math, differences two out of the four years were statistically significant, with the other two very close [to significance], also favoring students in co-taught classrooms.

Public School Insights: You mention statistical significance, which doesn’t have to represent a huge difference in absolute terms. Is this a large difference in absolute terms?

Bacharach: When you look at percentages, 65% versus 53% or 74% versus 52%...That’s a huge number of students that we are talking about. So while education always looks at statistical measures, in terms of real kids there is a huge impact on our population from these co-taught classrooms.


The Co-teaching Model

Public School Insights: How do you define co-teaching as opposed to the traditional student teaching model?


Bacharach: There is a whole continuum of ways that universities have their student teaching assignments set up. But when we look at traditional student teaching as we define it here, and what was happening at St. Cloud State prior to this work…We had a teacher candidate go out into the student teaching setting. They would be placed with a cooperating teacher, and they’d usually spend the first couple of weeks doing a lot of observing. Then they would gradually pick up a reading lesson, a spelling lesson, a social studies lesson or whatever, and they would continue to add more to their teaching schedule until they finally took over the classroom. The cooperating teacher then exited the classroom so that the student teacher would get the chance to do things on their own.

With the co-teaching model, we expect our teacher candidates to walk into the classroom and be actively engaged with kids on the very first day of their experience. We spend time talking with both the teacher candidates and the cooperating teachers about how to make that happen. We provide them with co-teaching strategies, adapted from Marilyn Friend and Lynn Cook’s work, that shows them different ways that two adults can be actively engaged with kids in a classroom.

Then the cooperating teacher and the teacher candidate work collaboratively throughout the experience. When the teacher candidate takes on full responsibility—when they are really teaching full-time and are in charge of everything—rather than the cooperating teacher leaving the classroom and taking away that expertise and support, they stay and become the assistant to the teacher candidate. The teacher candidate directs them.


There are a number of benefits there. The teacher candidate learns to manage adult resources in the classroom. They learn how to work with that paraprofessional or parent volunteer or other teachers or adults in the classroom. They don’t just have them doing bulletin boards, they have them with the kids, which is really our main goal.


Certainly keeping the cooperating teachers engaged in the classroom and helping kids is essential. To think about having a master teacher that leaves the classroom for significant periods of time, for weeks on end, while we have a novice teacher working with kids who need all the help they can get, really doesn’t make much sense.

Yes, absolutely, there are times when teacher candidates need to be in the classroom all by themselves to make sure that they can handle that classroom without another adult, and we want to make sure the teachers we produce are able to handle the diversity of needs and all the expectations that come with being a classroom teacher. But we don’t believe that for most of our teacher candidates it takes four, six, eight weeks for them to do this on their own. We believe they can do it in chunks of time. Some of them can take a day here and another day here, and a couple days put together here. But when we know they are able to handle the classroom, we want the cooperating teacher back because of the needs of the kids that are sitting in today’s classes. To have those two adults is just such a gift to the children in the classroom.


Public School Insights: How does this work of co-teaching relate back to the pre-service education at the university? Are you creating some kind of continuity with the coursework they are doing at St. Cloud State?

Bacharach: Our initial work was funded through the Teacher Quality Enhancement Partnership Grant program, and our initial thrust was really just in the student teaching experience—getting our teacher candidates and cooperating teacher prepared in how to coteach and coplan.


We have now started to infuse the co-teaching earlier and earlier into our curriculum. We have opportunities for students going out in our earlier field experiences to use some of the same strategies and tactics in co-teaching that are used in our student teaching model.


We’ve also been working with our university faculty to bring co-teaching into the teacher preparation program. Co-teaching may be the part of the students’ assignments. It could be that a faculty member coteaches with teachers in the field or even a student in the classroom that has some expertise.

[Through the grant] we had three methods classes each semester that were co-taught by either a university faculty member and a classroom teacher or two university faculty members from diverse departments that would bring different viewpoints to a course.


That has been very successful, as our students have seen co-teaching modeled in higher ed. It is difficult to continue without funding, but we being creative about that, and we are looking at doing even more co-teaching between content faculty in our other colleges and pedagogy faculty in the college of education.

So it is filtering down. We started with student teaching and are working backwards. But it is definitely starting to impact a number of the courses in our teacher prep program.

Building a Bond

Public School Insights: For students who have been co-teaching with master teachers, is there some way of keeping those relationships alive even after the student has graduated and actually moved into the teaching force?

Bacharach: What we’ve found is that a key to co-teaching success is building the relationship between the cooperating teacher and teacher candidate or between the two coteachers.

We don’t match our teacher candidate and cooperating teacher ahead of time. Instead they’re placed and then we get them together to figure out who they are, who their partner is, and how they can work together effectively. We have a workshop that builds communication skills, and we have them practice communication scenarios. We have them use a collaboration tool and do some self-assessment. We have them look at some personality indexes to have them find out how they react to stress, how they organize and those kinds of things.

Because we have done this, the relationships that have been built through the student teaching experience have really strengthened. We’ve finding that the bond between the cooperating teacher and the teacher candidate seems to be very strong, so that when that teacher candidate goes out and becomes a licensed teacher with their own classroom, they feel very comfortable going back to that cooperating teacher, even if they are thousands of miles away, to ask, “This is what happened, what do you think?”

So the bond that is established in the student teaching experience seems to be carrying through much further than it was in our more traditional experience, where the relationship really wasn’t that strong in a lot of cases.

Professional Collaboration

Public School Insights: It sounds like the work that you are doing right now is a model of collaboration that can be used in lots of different settings. Is that a fair description?

Bacharach: That is very accurate. We found that teacher education programs have presumed that people know how to collaborate—that students coming through our preparation programs have been in cooperative learning groups for years and know how to work together. We know that’s not true.

We actually looked at the beginning of our work to find some sort of assessment that we could use on our candidates [to determine] how collaborative they are. We found lots of literature in business and in the healthcare and medical fields, and we found lots of people in education saying, “Yes, we need to collaborate.” But we didn’t really find much that said, “This is how we should prepare them” and “This is how we could find out whether they are collaborative.”

So through our project we developed a collaborative self-assessment tool which was published in the Journal of Early Childhood Education in March of 2009. We use [the tool], which has people do some introspection, like “What skills are needed to collaborate? What are the important components of being a good collaborator?” As Marilyn Friend said, simply putting two people in the same space doesn’t mean they are going to collaborate.

We really need to work on how we prepare our teacher candidates to be collaborators. The world of schools is not one of isolation any more. We have very few classrooms where you see one adult working all by himself. The ability to collaborate, the desire to collaborate, and the skills to collaborate are essential in preparing teachers that are going to be effective with our students in the 21st century.

What Does This Mean for School Staffing?

Public School Insights: This model has big implications for teacher education, as you’ve mentioned. But does it also have pretty big implications for how we staff any kind of classroom?

Bacharach: It is interesting to consider. In terms of student teaching staffing, our last superintendent actually said to his administrators “I don’t think we should take any teacher candidates unless they are co-teaching.” They also talked about putting all our teacher candidates at one school, which was probably the most poorly performing school in the district, to raise the test scores of those students.

But in addition to the work that we have been doing in student teaching, we’ve also begun to branch out and work with school districts implementing co-teaching models between general education teachers and special ed teachers, or general ed and English Language Learner teachers, and so on.

We are working pretty intensely with two local districts. That [work] is not the purpose of our grant, so we are not collecting the academic data there, but the districts we are working with are collecting data. I think we’re going to see some pretty amazing results with the co-teaching model applied to classrooms with two licensed teachers in the same classroom.

Certainly it would be great to think that we would always have two teachers in a classroom, but we know that is not going to be a reality. However, when you look at special education kids in our general ed classrooms, we are able to cluster those kids and get enough children with special needs in one classroom to justify a special ed teacher’s time in a general education classroom.

Public School Insights: Does this model have implications for mentoring partnerships, for students who have left the teacher preparation program and actually entered the teaching force?

Bacharach: Absolutely. We have not had a strong mentor program in central Minnesota, mainly because we have not had concerns about teacher retention—we have more teachers than we need here in most positions, which I know is not true across the country.

So mentoring has never been one of those things that schools have thought much about because there has always been such a big pool of teachers to choose from. However, we’re seeing a shift quite a bit now, and we did some work through our grant developing a mentor program and training the mentor teachers.

We really believe that the co-teaching piece could also be a strong piece of a mentor program. As we are looking at designing a residency program here with a new grant we are working with, we are looking at putting co-teaching into the first year of teaching so that that first year teacher is not, again, hung out to dry all by themselves. While we don’t have all those details worked out, I think it holds great potential for helping support our teachers in the first five years and really increasing the retention rate across the country.

Sharing the Wealth

Public School Insights: Are there any questions I should have asked you but didn’t?

Bacharach: One of the things I wanted to say is that we are working with colleges and universities across the country to help share our model. We have developed a train-the-trainer series, which is a two-day workshop in which we go to institutions and we share all the materials we have developed. They can modify and use our materials to implement their own co-teaching programs.

We felt so fortunate to have a federal grant to help support us in developing and creating this model, and in measuring its effect, and we’re ready to share it with any institution across the country. We have been working with the state of Washington—the entire state is moving in this direction. We’re working with the state of Montana, and we’ve worked in Ohio, Texas, and Illinois. We’ve trained the teacher preparation institutions in the state of Minnesota.

We are very eager to share our model with other people—we feel that it really is the way that we should be doing student teaching and preparing our teachers.