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Signs Abound Teaching Reforms Are Taking Hold

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Meet Samantha, who is beginning her teaching career in an urban, multiethnic elementary school. Unlike countless new teachers who have preceded her, Samantha is unlikely to quit her job in the next five years.

Instead, she enters the classroom fully armed with the knowledge and skills she needs. She is a graduate of a nationally accredited preparation program, where she received a rigorous liberal-arts education, studied research-based pedagogy, and worked with real students in real schools.

Samantha also has passed a battery of exams focusing not only on what she knows, but also on whether she can put that knowledge into action. She has completed a yearlong, supervised internship in a professional-development school--a requirement for licensure in her state.

This new teacher understands children and how they learn, can tailor lessons to meet their needs, and can explain, based on research and proven practices, how she makes decisions. In short, she is a professional.

Scrutiny Yields Action

This illustration, drawn from a portrait created by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, may sound too good to be true. It contrasts sharply with existing standards for licensure in most states, which still look primarily at whether a candidate has completed certain coursework and attended a state-approved teacher education program.

But a decade of sustained scrutiny of the occupation's shortcomings has generated a multitude of signs that teaching is on the road toward becoming a true profession. Consider:

  • The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, created in 1987 to elevate teaching by codifying what expert teachers should know and be able to do, this year awarded its first certificates.
  • Spurred by the national board's work, states are overhauling their licensing standards for beginning teachers.

A consortium of 38 states has drafted model standards for licensing teachers that describe the knowledge, skills, and dispositions beginning teachers should possess. Four states have adopted the standards outright, and 10 more have modified them.

In addition, 10 states involved in the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium, called INTASC, are creating assessments that examine how candidates for licensure fare in classrooms.

The assessments, through videotapes and portfolios, look at several weeks of teaching and include samples of students' work.

  • The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education continues to strengthen its standards and press the case for education schools to subject their programs to professional scrutiny.
  • A blue-ribbon National Commission on Teaching and America's Future is examining how policymakers can capitalize on the momentum by overhauling the preparation, recruitment, selection, induction, and continuing professional development of teachers.
  • With the active support of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison are studying new ways to pay teachers.

They seek to design and pilot-test a compensation structure that would pay teachers for showing they had developed specific skills and expertise.

Experts say the activity in teaching is reminiscent of the strides toward professionalism that doctors took some 80 years ago.

"If you think about how long it took to professionalize medicine, it was a generation," observed Albert Shanker, the president of the A.F.T. "This is the beginning of the generation that will professionalize teaching."

'Taking Major Steps'

James A. Kelly, the president of the teaching-standards board, agreed.

"The teaching profession is taking major steps to take responsibility for its own standards, for defining expertise and codifying it and measuring it," he said. "Having said that, though, I don't pretend that we're there yet. We have a long way to go."

The current reforms were spurred, in large measure, by an influential 1986 report from a task force of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy

The report, "A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century," called for the establishment of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and sought changes in schools that would make teaching a more attractive job. (See Education Week, 5/21/86.)

Since then, the drumbeat for increased student achievement has strengthened policymakers' attention to teaching. After all, high standards for students cannot be met without highly skilled teachers.

"This is the most important initiative to transform schooling going on in the country today," said Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the executive director of the national commission on teaching. "We cannot do any of the other reforms if we don't do this."

She acknowledged a heightened rhetorical commitment to the importance of good teaching, but noted that decades of emphasis on the routine and less skilled aspects of teaching still heavily influence how teachers and schools are managed.

Ms. Darling-Hammond observed that contemporary calls for teaching students to think critically, synthesize information, and create knowledge mirror the suggestions of progressive educators for transforming schools around 1900, and again in the 1930's and 1960's.

Every time, reforms were "killed by an underinvestment in teacher knowledge and school capacity," she wrote in a recent paper for the commission.

These failures led, in turn, to a backlash in favor of standardizing teaching and learning.

Linking Standards

NCATE has taken a leading role in pulling together and making coherent much of the effort to professionalize teaching.

The council has launched a $2 million project to link the three quality-assurance mechanisms in the field--accreditation, licensing, and advanced-certification standards--and tie them to emerging benchmarks for student learning.

One strand of this New Professional Teacher Project involves revamping ncate's standards for preparing teachers in mathematics, English, and other subject areas.

The new standards, to be created in partnership with subject-area groups, will express the knowledge and skills teacher candidates should have, rather than the content of courses that education schools should offer.

They also will be compatible with INTASC's standards for state licensure, which already have been incorporated into the accrediting body's guidelines for education schools. Those guidelines are scheduled to take effect in the fall.

Arthur E. Wise, the president of NCATE, envisions a variety of uses for the performance-based standards for preparing teachers: as a beacon for education schools as they redesign their programs, as guidelines for ncate to use in accrediting education programs, and as directions for states as they design new licensing systems.

As part of the New Professional Teacher Project, the accrediting group plans a series of forums in several states that will gather a wide range of stakeholders to discuss plans for improving teacher education and licensure.

"There has not been an educational process to help people see the benefits of a serious quality-assurance system," Mr. Wise said.

Teacher education and teaching have suffered from "a pale imitation" of such a system, he said, and it is up to the states to fix the problem.

"The state is where the action is," he said.

Critics have charged that low state standards have allowed too many poor teacher education programs to produce graduates who then receive licenses to teach. Low standards also have given the public the damaging idea, Ms. Darling-Hammond said, that teaching does not involve any particular knowledge and skills.

One key to making teaching a profession, proponents believe, is establishing autonomous state boards to set standards for teacher education and licensing. Similar bodies, for example, regulate who can practice medicine and law.

Eleven states now have such standards boards for teaching, according to the N.E.A. The union has lobbied that teachers should make up a majority of the members of these boards.

In a new book, A License to Teach: Building a Profession for 21st Century Schools, Mr. Wise and Ms. Darling-Hammond argue that state legislatures and agencies, which traditionally have controlled standards in teaching, have "a conflict of interest in enforcing rigorous standards for entry to teaching, since they must insure a warm body in every classroom--and prefer to do so without boosting wages."

Growing Knowledge Base

One reason teaching has made progress toward becoming a profession is a shift in the focus of research, experts say.

Instead of just doing surveys and crunching numbers, Ms. Darling-Hammond said, more researchers are visiting schools and talking to teachers. The change has helped build the knowledge base about practices that increase learning.

Until recently, teaching has lacked a professional consensus about good standards of practice, which is why standards have been lax, Ms. Darling-Hammond said.

"We're taking what we know about teaching that supports kids' learning and saying, 'My goodness, you ought to master that knowledge in teacher education, demonstrate you have it before you're licensed, and continue to develop it throughout your career,'" she explained. The capstone for teachers would be receiving national-board certification in their field.

At the same time, education schools--often criticized as a weak link in preparing better teachers--have launched dozens of professional-development schools. In these schools, often likened to teaching hospitals, professors and classroom teachers work side by side to train new teachers and conduct research.

They have come to symbolize the closer connections between education schools and K-12 schooling that many experts believe are essential.

NCATE has received a grant to write standards for professional-development schools, which will be used in its accreditation process.

The national commission on teaching has found that some education schools are changing rapidly to focus on classroom practice, Ms. Darling-Hammond said. Many are using new assessments, including portfolios, to see whether their students can meet new standards for beginning teachers.

Demographic changes also favor continued movement toward professionalizing teaching. During the next decade, Ms. Darling-Hammond projects, more than 200,000 teachers will be hired each year.

Faculty members in education schools also are expected to retire in large numbers, making way for people who are themselves master teachers to prepare the next generation of teachers.

In the meantime, observers say, there is tremendous work to be done, particularly in devising new ways to determine how well teachers are doing their jobs.

New Ways of Testing

The national board's system, which involves portfolios, videotaped lessons, journals, and assessment-center exercises, has demonstrated several new ways of finding out what teachers know and can do.

Teachers find these methods more palatable than the competency tests that many states have imposed on them, and the methods are more likely to insure that new teachers are ready for the challenges ahead, said Keith B. Geiger, the president of the N.E.A.

"People who are going to teach 7th graders better know something about adolescence, or they'll die real quick in the classroom no matter how smart they are in math," he warned. "We've got to raise standards in pedagogy and the academic areas."

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