A Tale of Two Schools: Preparing Teacher Candidates to Support All Students in Literacy

Lisa Laurier and Lori Johnson


To strengthen the abilities of pre-service teachers to meet student needs in classrooms with high levels of cultural and socio-economic diversity, the authors adapted their university's residence model practicum experiences with two pilot programs.  Pilot A trained traditional undergraduate teacher candidates in highly diverse classrooms with university instruction on site and application guided by the university instructor.  Pilot B involved teacher certification/master's degree students participating in low socioeconomic urban classrooms, with on-campus instruction supported by professional learning communities at the school.  Benefits and some weaknesses of both programs are described.

"I didn't know how to figure out why my student was failing."

"I wasn't prepared for so many unmotivated kids or kids below grade level."

"None of my team members were using the same methods I was, and I felt pressure to go ‘old school.'"

"I had these great plans for literature circles and a class of kids who could barely read, no trade books, and a scripted curriculum that I was required to follow. What am I supposed to do?"

These are representative of just some of the comments that used to be offered by graduates from a small teacher education program at a liberal arts university.

Our university has three paths to certification: a traditional undergraduate day program, a Master's in Initial Teaching (MIT) Program that typically takes 13 months to complete, and an evening teacher degree program for working adults seeking teacher certification in conjunction with a BA or MEd. All three of our programs have substantial field experience components. However, those experiences have candidates placed in a variety of sites, usually alone, often supervised by adjuncts, and with assignments designed by a university instructor who may have had minimal exposure to the actual classroom where the candidate is located. Graduates reported difficulty transferring their training to their practice. It is these factors that we believed we could address through piloting two different designs for modified "residency" models in our traditional day and MIT programs.

Relevant Literature and Program Goals

Classroom experience. As conversations regarding teacher performance turn their focus to the quality of teacher training, schools of teacher education (SOEs) are reviewing their practices as they prepare to defend their programs and their graduates. New models emphasizing increased field experience time have caused SOEs to revisit the notions of apprenticeship learning, "residency" models, and situated learning that were popular during the professional development school movement of the early 1990s.

A report from the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) issued in 2010 calls for all SOEs to make supervised structured time in classrooms the main component of their teacher preparation programs, with coursework as supplemental or complementary training. Candidates are expected to document evidence that they have made a positive impact on student learning as part of their program requirements. This report stresses the teacher-residency model and is pushing SOEs to examine carefully how they can best adopt or modify existing successful residency models for their own programs, a position also adopted by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (Sawchuk, 2010).

Placements. Professional development schools (PDS) have been widely researched for their impact in preparing teachers who are able to address the needs of students in diverse settings (Darling-Hammond, 1994; Jagla, 2009; Haston & Russell, 2011; Murrell, 1998; Petrie, 1995; Teitel, 2004). Not all teacher education programs are able to fully implement the PDS model, but the core principles and structures can be adapted to fit within and enhance any training program. In many PDS programs resident candidates are placed for a full year in a low-income setting, and their university coursework is often taught on site to facilitate direct transfer of training to practice. 

Peer teacher candidates, university instructor, mentor teacher, and children are all directly involved in candidate training.  Research shows these experiences increase the amount and quality of K-12 student-to-candidate interactions, peer conversations about teaching practices, and focused observations that transfer directly back to practice. Because the university instructor is at the school site, assignments and feedback tend to be more relevant and directed specifically to methods to increase learning of actual children. Research also shows symbiotic benefits in providing mentor teachers with new ideas and exposure to cutting edge practices. In turn, actual classroom needs inform the university instructor's inclusion of training components (Haston & Russell, 2011).

Apprenticeship. In a recent conference entitled Learning Without Leaving the Workplace, Dr. Gordon Caldwell of Worthing Hospital discussed his implementation of apprenticeship learning in training medical students.  The apprenticeship model, which originated in Ancient Greece and Rome, is based on the idea that by working alongside a master the apprentice can learn to think, act, evaluate and respond in complex situations (Caldwell, 2011). Caldwell criticized recent movements in medical training that echo educational trends in considering both kinds of practice as "standardized, reproducible and measurable" (p. 273). A lot of what effective teachers do is differentiated, individualized, or tailored to one child or small group. To learn these skills, candidates must be confronted with real-world complexities alongside mentors and supervisors who can explain and model the processes leading to the decisions that lead to the most effective instruction.

Beginning teachers often report in survey data that they feel unprepared for the many challenges they face in the classroom. This is especially true for beginning teachers in lower income or higher needs schools. Considering this data along with statistics that show that teachers in these schools generally score lower on tests of literacy content and pedagogical knowledge and tend to struggle more with classroom behaviors, we do not find it surprising that despite long-term national attention to shrinking the achievement gap, this gap persists (Ferguson, 1998; Joshi, Binks, Hougen, Dahlgren, Ocker-Dean, & Smith, 2009; McCombes-Tolis & Spear-Swerling, 2011; Moats & Foorman, 2003; Piasta, Connor, Fishman, & Morrison, 2009; Spear-Swerling, Bruker, & Alfano, 2005).

Our pilot program. In designing our pilot programs, we addressed the above needs with the following goals:

  • Build teacher candidates' competency, self-efficacy, and effectiveness in delivering differentiated instruction and intervention to meet the needs of every child in the classroom
  • Place teacher candidates in collaborative learning situations with peers, mentor teachers, and strong principal leaders who are open to sharing ideas and innovative practices
  • Provide direct linkage between university classroom instruction and practice opportunities with children with real learning needs; collect, analyze and utilize assessment data to evaluate instructional effectiveness and adapt in real time
  • Prepare candidates to close the educational opportunity gap and improve student learning for at-risk and low-achieving students (Collaborative Schools for Innovation and Success Grant, 2012)

Pilot A

Pilot A was designed for the traditional day students who normally complete a three-semester extended field experience, most often in one classroom. The benefits of this model included greater knowledge of school culture, familiarity with daily routines and procedures favored by the teacher, and greater acknowledgement and integration into the faculty.

Setting. A weakness of the chosen model was that candidates would gain exposure to one classroom in one building and see only one approach to literacy instruction. To address this need, a partnership site was chosen in the local school district. The school is a Title 1 suburban school, with 10 languages represented among 63 English language learners. It is the only elementary school in the district with a dedicated instructor for English language learners. It is also one of two schools piloting full-day kindergarten in an effort to increase school readiness for these youngest students. The school has three full-time Title 1 teachers who focus on support for two grade levels each. Each grade level has between two and three classes.

The school adheres to district and state assessment policies and administers the DIBELS, using the data to establish quadrants for student intervention. The quadrants are high fluency, high accuracy; high fluency, low accuracy; low fluency, high accuracy; and low fluency, low accuracy. Typically, the Title 1 faculty tend to focus on the lowest quadrant of students, but with the high numbers of children qualifying for services, most Title 1 instruction is offered in small groups, and individual intervention is rare.

Procedures. The pilot began the spring before implementation with the assigned faculty member and the SOE's associate dean in charge of teacher preparation and school partnerships meeting with the principal, staff, and district representatives to collaboratively plan. The final model included a dedicated space for university instruction three hours a day, twice a week. During each visit to the site, the group met for 80 minutes of instruction to talk about the pilot and address concerns. The traditional content of the literacy block was taught, including (a) varied diagnostic assessment strategies, (b) data analysis and application, (c) instructional methods for balanced literacy across the five domains identified in the National Reading Panel Report, (d) evaluation and creation of learning materials, and (e) use of research-based strategies for effective teaching. The final 60-minute segment of each site visit was used to work with children.

Candidates were assigned in teams to a grade level. Initial work included assessing the children. Data analyses were done by the candidates under the guidance and modeling of the university instructor; their recommendations for areas to focus intervention were shared with school faculty, who either agreed or offered additional information and guidance. Candidates began working with individual children twice a week in a regular schedule of 15-30 minutes per child per day. Each child had a specific goal that was used to monitor progress and determine when a new goal was needed.

Results. After six weeks, teachers and candidates were surveyed for impressions. Results showed that candidates' experiences varied greatly, particularly by grade level. Those assigned to a grade level that was new to them reported learning at a faster rate than those assigned to a familiar grade level. Those who met with and received feedback from the mentor teacher twice a week felt their children were progressing faster and their time was being used more intentionally than those who did not.

Teacher comments were similar. Those who spoke with their candidates before and after each intervention session felt the pilot was going well and their students were benefitting. They reported learning from their candidates' ideas and, in some cases, were using the materials designed by their candidates and the progress monitoring tools and diagnostic assessments their candidates had shared.

As a result of the surveys, two changes were made: (1) Candidates were re-assigned to an unfamiliar grade level, and (2) all teachers and candidates agreed to weekly feedback either in person or via email. All parties were again surveyed at the end of the semester, and the comments were almost unanimously positive, as shown in these specific responses. 


"I could see how to use the data we collected to plan for what a student needed."

"I understand how to profile my class at the beginning of the year to create groups and plan for differentiated instruction."

"I liked it when we would learn something in class, like how to use multi-sensory instruction, and then I could practice it with a real kid right away. I also liked being able to share what I was learning with my teacher and see some of the methods from our class in the first grade classroom that I was assigned to."


"I definitely want this to continue."

"One-on-one time practicing with another adult is priceless."

"I didn't realize that the reason ____'s fluency was so low was because of hidden phonics issues until my candidate showed me the tests."

Teachers unanimously voted in favor of continuing the experiment, and the principal and district also approved an extended pilot.

Pilot B

Pilot B was designed for Masters in Initial Teaching (MIT) candidates, who had completed bachelor's degrees and were working towards their teaching certificate and master's degree in a full-time 13-month program.  They began in June and were matched with a mentor and classroom for the school year.  They spent two days a week at their school site and three days a week in course work at the university. The benefits of this model were that the candidates knew the culture of their buildings, knew the daily routines and procedures favored by their mentor teacher, and were more fully acknowledged and integrated into the faculty. However, not all candidates were being prepared with adequate instructional experiences in culturally responsive teaching practices and equity pedagogy to meet the needs of learners from diverse cultures and low socio-economic areas, where they were most likely to begin their teaching careers. 

Background. The pilot began the year before its actual implementation with the Collaborative Schools for Innovation and Success (CSIS) partnership project that had been undertaken with three entities: (a) the second largest public school district in the state, (b) one elementary school identified as an emerging priority school based on student achievement indicators, and (c) two universities. The project had two goals:

  1. Developing and implementing research-based models of instruction that have proven to be successful in closing the educational opportunity gap and improving student learning in low-performing schools
  2. Developing and implementing research-based models of educator preparation and professional development programs that have proven to be successful in building an educator workforce with the knowledge, skills, and background that align with the characteristics and needs of students in low-performing schools. OSPI/PESB, 2012

Pilot program candidates were matched to mentor teachers and received extra coursework for co-teaching, opportunities for professional learning community (PLC) involvement, and classes to help them obtain their English language learner endorsement. Monthly questionnaires were completed to check progress towards the aforementioned goals. The teachers were interviewed individually at the beginning and end of the fall.  

Setting. The elementary school is a Title 1 urban school with levels of ethnic/cultural diversity and socio-economic diversity that exceed the district average. It has both a special education pre-school program and full-day kindergartens as efforts to increase school readiness for these youngest students. The school has from two to four classrooms in kindergarten through sixth grade.  The school's support team includes a reading interventionist Title 1 teacher, two Reading Recovery teachers, and a full-time literacy coach. The school adheres to district and state assessment policies and administers the DRA2, MSP, and MAP, using the data to establish intervention support.

Procedures. The university faculty member offered instruction for a total of two and one half hours a day, twice a week at the university. This time was used to teach the traditional content of the literacy block, as outlined earlier in the article. The candidates shared real student literacy work, learning to deliver and analyze a variety of assessments. Data analyses were completed under the direction and modeling of the faculty member, and recommendations for intervention areas of focus were generated.

Results. There were many benefits of having MITs use authentic student work to learn about best practices in literacy.  These included exposure to a multitude of literacy curricula, resources, assessments, and support.  Drawbacks included the variance in collaboration with mentor teachers, including whether or not the candidate was seen in the fall as a co-teacher able to assist in this work, as well as the location of the literacy methods course without direct access to elementary students. 

At the end of Pilot B the teacher candidates were asked the following questions, which had also been asked at the beginning of the study.

  1. What are the opportunities/experiences that have helped to move you/us closer to actualizing these goals? 
  2. What are the barriers that you are experiencing? 
  3. What professional behaviors do you feel you need to learn and practice to be successful in this current setting and in future work settings?
  4. What are ways with which your schedule, at your university and here, has been helpful toward your coursework and fieldwork and ways that it hasn't been helpful?

Representative feedback included the following:

"This process has required a great deal of introspection."

"It is a good way to collaborate."

"We can get to more kids, not faster, just better and more effectively."

Discussion of Pilots A and B

The university instructors, co-authors of this article, saw several benefits of the pilots. Candidates were better able to see connections in the assessment data they collected and learn to match it to strategies specific to the needs of a child and to use progress monitoring to adjust teaching to maximize impact. Many now feel more comfortable teaching the entire K-6 range and are excited to do so in the future. They advocate for themselves when they are confused and recognize the importance of ongoing communication to a successful collaboration. They appreciate the role of peers and specialists in creating a support network for a struggling student and are better able to utilize the strengths of their colleagues. They take more responsibility for their learning. Every candidate worked with at least one ELL child, and candidates no longer fear they will not know how to meet that child's needs. They feel more competent and more capable as a result of the residency experience.

Overall, highlights of the first semester of the pilot programs include the following:

  • Improved understanding of how to collect and apply data from a variety of diagnostic instruments to increase the learning of all children (both pilots)
  • Assessment of 120 children with intervention areas for each child (Pilot A)
  • Intervention work for 60 children in six grade levels on the five elements of literacy, including progress monitoring and feedback to classroom teachers (both pilots)
  • Development of intervention materials and master sets of assessment instruments that can be used in candidates' first classrooms (Pilot A)
  • Better articulation of the causes of reading difficulty and ways to intervene using research-based practices (both pilots)

Both pilot programs found symbiotic benefits in the conversations among candidates, teachers, specialists, and the university instructor. Ideas and materials were shared, professional conversations occurred throughout the building, and everyone involved learned. Candidates got to see what lifelong learning and meaningful professional development can look like so that when they graduate and become members of faculties across the country, they will bring that expectation for dynamic, meaningful professional development with them.

Lisa Laurier is an associate professor of education at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate literacy courses.  She also teaches classes in the English Department and graduate courses in school counseling and in social and emotional learning.  She has personal experience in all of these areas, having been a classroom teacher, literacy specialist, and school counselor.

Lori Johnson coordinates the elementary Master's in Initial Teaching Program, at Whitworth University described in this article. She is a National Board Certified Teacher in Early and Middle School Reading, Literacy, and Language Arts, currently pursuing her doctorate at the University of Washington.


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