Getting Teachers Ready to Teach

 
Student teacher Allison Brown high-fives Rakiya Thomas, 8, in a third-grade class in Valley Park, Mo. Some say states should require a would-be teacher to work in a classroom before getting a license. (AP)

A growing number of states are trying to improve the quality of teachers by transforming the programs that are supposed to prepare them for the classroom.

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell last month signed a bill requiring his state’s teacher preparation programs to include at least 10 weeks of full-time student teaching and to collect and report data on the performance and effectiveness of their graduates. In the last two years, Connecticut, Indiana, Colorado Ohio and North Carolina have approved similar measures aimed at improving teacher preparation. Massachusetts and Minnesota have also had long reputations for making sure teachers are well-prepared to teach.

According to many researchers, teacher quality is the single most important factor inside a school in student achievement. “In Delaware, our new law raises the bar for admissions to teacher preparation programs and improves training through high-quality student teaching experiences and specific math and literacy instruction for prospective elementary school teachers,” said Markell, a Democrat.

States have long possessed powerful tools to ensure that teachers are adequately trained: They are responsible for licensing teachers, and they must approve any teacher preparation program that operates within their borders. Many also have the power to decide admission standards and regulate program requirements for schools of teacher education.

But until recently, most states did not leverage those tools consistently to maximize teacher quality. Many are starting to do so now, in part because students are being held to higher standards, according to Janice Poda, who directs the Education Workforce initiative for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

“Once we made that decision to raise the bar for what we expected students to be able to know and do, that raised the bar for what teachers would be able to do,” Poda said, referring to the Common Core standards that have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. The standards are intended to ensure that students graduate from high school ready for college or to enter the workforce. 

States interested in evaluating the effectiveness of teachers graduating from teacher education programs are also gaining new tools unavailable to previous generations, in the form of data showing how much, for example, a particular school’s graduates are able to increase student achievement.  Improving the quality of beginning teachers is also crucial now because of the large number of first-year teachers entering the workforce: In 1987-88, the nation had about 65,000 first-year teachers; by 2007-08, the number had reached over 200,000, according to a University of Pennsylvania study.

There is great variability among the states in terms of how well they ensure that beginning teachers are well-prepared to teach, according to Linda Darling-Hammond, an expert on teacher education at Stanford University. Massachusetts and Minnesota have focused strong efforts on improving teacher education, she said, while Texas and Florida have allowed some low-quality programs to proliferate. 

Darling-Hammond said that to improve teacher preparation, states should identify which programs are doing the best job and push other programs to adopt the same strategies or face elimination.  She also recommended that states adopt common standards for all teacher preparation programs, and that they evaluate what prospective teachers can actually do when they complete their programs.

Many states are starting to take such steps. Connecticut’s State Board of Education in April adopted principles to improve teacher preparation programs in the state. They include higher admissions standards, mandatory classroom experience and requiring prospective teachers to demonstrate their ability to teach in a classroom setting.

At the Delaware Center for Teacher Education at the University of Delaware, where students already complete between 14 and 18 weeks of student-teaching, Associate Director Linda Zankowsky said the classroom experience is a critical part of teacher education.

“In general, they finally see what it is that they have been talking about in classrooms coming to life and actually having to apply it,” Zankowsky said. “They finally realize the whole picture of what teaching is all about....They really start to appreciate that it’s very much a 24-7 job.”

In Indiana, the General Assembly this spring approved Senate Bill 409, which requires the state department of education to develop rules, standards and benchmarks of performance for teacher education programs and those who complete the programs. Under the legislation, the state will develop a rating system for teacher preparation programs. State Sen. Dennis Kruse, an author of the bill, said that after the legislature adopted tougher standards for teachers in 2011, lawmakers realized they had to hold the schools who train teachers accountable as well.

“We felt it was not really being fair to the teachers if they aren’t being trained correctly, so we felt we ought go to back to the schools to see which schools of education in Indiana are turning out teachers” who are effective, said Kruse, a Republican. “The ultimate goal is for students to succeed in the classroom and one of the best ways is to have an effective or highly effective teacher teaching them.”

In Colorado, House Bill 1219, which was signed into law in April, calls on state education officials to review the content of teacher preparation programs and prepare an annual report on the effectiveness of the programs. North Carolina last year adopted legislation to ensure that teacher preparation programs “remain current and reflect a rigorous course of study that is aligned to State and national standards” while Ohio approved legislation requiring the chancellor of the state board of regents to track the performance of each program’s graduates in aggregate, as a way to measure teacher education programs.

The issue also has attracted attention from national groups. The State Higher Education Executive Officers Association and the National Association of System Heads announced July 11 that they will work together to improve the preparation and professional development of teachers and school leaders. The groups said their “initial focus will be on leveraging state and system approaches to change, with a focus on sharing effective practices and developing mechanisms for states and systems to advance positive changes.”

And last month, the National Council on Teacher Quality published a controversial report on teacher preparation programs at more than 1,130 colleges and universities around the country. The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group concluded that teacher preparation education has “become an industry of mediocrity, churning out first-year teachers with classroom management skills and content knowledge inadequate to thrive in classrooms with ever-increasing ethnic and socioeconomic student diversity.”

The council also published a state teacher policy yearbook in January, calling on the states to apply leverage to improve the quality of teachers. It gave the 50 states and the District of Columbia and average grade of D+ on teacher preparation policies in 2012, up slightly from D in 2011.

 
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