Licensure Pact Pays Dividends for Teaching

By Ann Bradley — May 21, 1997 8 min read

Here’s a reform riddle: Name one of the most important--but also one of the lowest-profile--efforts in the country to ensure that American students have fully qualified teachers.

The likeliest answer goes by the unwieldy name of INTASC, an alphabet-soup moniker that stands for the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium.

Founded by Connecticut and California in 1987 to pool state expertise on teacher-licensure issues, the project of the Council of Chief State School Officers has evolved into a big tent under which the many players with responsibility for teaching can share their work.

The consortium includes representatives of 30 state education departments and of the leading organizations in teaching, including both national teachers’ unions, teacher-preparation institutions, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

The cooperative effort is starting to pay dividends beyond those imagined by its founders a decade ago. What’s more, it has no parallel in the movement to set higher academic goals for students, even though much more attention has been devoted to content standards for student learning.

The consortium has created a well-regarded set of model standards for what every beginning teacher should know and be able to do, content-specific standards for licensure in a few core disciplines, and sample portfolio assessments that offer a new way of gauging teachers’ fitness to take responsibility for classrooms.

About half the states are using the model standards--which closely follow the standards for accomplished teaching created by the national board--to guide licensing policies.

“This has grown from the grassroots,” said Raymond L. Pecheone, Connecticut’s chief of research and assessment. “We’ve produced something that resonates with lots of universities and state education departments, which are making lots of changes as a result.

If we had planned it,” Mr. Pecheone said, “I’m not sure we would have gotten that.”

In the image drawn by the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, licensing is part of the “three-legged stool of teacher quality,” along with the accreditation of teacher education programs conducted by NCATE and the advanced certification offered by the national board.

“Although the work of these organizations may sound unglamorous,” the commission said in its report last fall, “they offer the most powerful tools we have for reaching and rejuvenating the soul of the profession.” (“Teaching Focus Called the Key in Reform Push,” Sept. 18, 1996.)

Pooling Knowledge

It’s no coincidence that INTASC was born the same year as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

States knew they would have to overhaul their licensing requirements to produce teachers able to do well on the board’s rigorous assessments.

Many states are now interested in creating “performance based” licensing systems, which focus on whether candidates can demonstrate the core knowledge and skills required to teach successfully.

In contrast, the present licensing system focuses heavily on college coursework and on paper-and-pencil tests that don’t capture the complexity of teaching. It also skimps on practical experience in classrooms.

The licensing system envisioned by INTASC calls for three types of tests: a subject-matter examination; a test of teaching knowledge that will probe a candidate’s understanding of child development, theories of teaching and learning, and other topics; and an assessment of classroom performance. The exams would be given at key points in a beginning teacher’s development.

Designing such a system from the ground up would be a complex task for any state. INTASC, however, allows states to pool their expertise and share part of the cost of new licensing systems, its supporters say.

“The state piece is really critical” to reform, said Mary Diez, a professor of education at Alverno College in Milwaukee who has been active in INTASC.

“To have the people who work with teacher education and deal with program approval get together and talk about standards is a very healthy thing,” Ms. Diez said.

In her state, Wisconsin officials defined what they wanted teachers to know and be able to do and then consulted INTASC’s model standards. What they found, Ms. Diez said, was the same ideas put into better language. So they adopted the project’s standards, but only after thinking through the issues themselves.

The project’s growing membership shows the level of interest in revamping teacher licensing. In addition to the 30 states now paying dues of $3,000 a year, another eight are using the project’s materials and model standards.

A rightward shift in the political climate in Florida and Pennsylvania, however, prompted officials from those states to stop participating.

But M. Jean Miller, the director of INTASC, says that the project has no intention of becoming a testing agency. States instead will pay licensing fees for the use of the tests.

‘A Quantum Leap’

Connecticut is the only state currently administering performance assessments for licensure, although other states plan to follow suit.

In the late 1980s, Connecticut was considered a pioneer because it required new teachers to have mentors and to be observed periodically in their classrooms.

But the observations were focused only on teachers’ general pedagogical techniques. In the past decade, research has shown that teaching isn’t a generic activity. Successful teachers possess specialized knowledge about how to teach their particular subjects.

Now, Connecticut is tapping that knowledge by requiring new teachers to go through a two-step process to keep their licenses.

In their first year in the classroom, teachers work with mentors to prepare a videotape of their best practice, which is evaluated.

In the second year, they put together portfolios of their work with students. These assessments are similar to those administered by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards--again, no coincidence, because Connecticut helped design one of the national board’s first assessment packages for English-language arts.

The portfolios enable the state to examine two to three weeks of a teacher’s lessons, including her planning, materials, evaluation of students’ work, and subsequent directions to students. Candidates also are asked to analyze their own performance.

New teachers also receive support during the time that they’re compiling their portfolios through seminars, workshops, and clinics. Those who don’t meet the standards can take another year to compile better portfolios.

“Using student work as a major strategy for evaluating teacher performance is a quantum leap ahead of just looking at pedagogy,” Mr. Pecheone said. “For years, we’ve been focusing on proxy measures of effective teaching. We’re finally focusing on the right stuff.”

This year, Connecticut is administering performance assessments to teachers of mathematics and science at the middle and high school levels.

By 2000, the state expects to have portfolios for every certificate.

Although the state created its own assessments, it shares them widely with INTASC members.

Moreover, Mr. Pecheone said that the project paid for studies of Connecticut’s scoring process for its new assessments that significantly reduced the state’s cost.

As Connecticut moves forward, he noted, officials will keep INTASC members up to date on the state’s experience and how it might be replicated, even in much larger states that license many more than the 2,000 teachers Connecticut does each year.

Test Prototypes

Using portfolios for high-stakes licensing decisions--which determine whether people can be hired as teachers--is a tricky process that requires caution.

But INTASC is poised to help states think through the issues.

The Council of Chief State School Officers and the University of Michigan have a $440,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation for a series of studies of the portfolios.

In addition, several other projects are under way:

  • Committees are translating the model core standards for beginning teachers into content-specific standards. Math is finished, and English-language-arts and science guidelines are expected by August.

Next up are content standards for elementary education, social studies, and special education.

These standards for teachers, in turn, are closely aligned with national standards outlining what students should know and be able to do.

  • Ten member states--Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Texas--have chipped in $150,000 each over three years to design prototype assessments based on the English-language-arts and math standards. The assessments are being field-tested and scrutinized for their validity and reliability.

  • Another core group of 15 states, has started work on the recommended test of teaching knowledge, which is being underwritten by a group of states and prepared by an outside contractor to their specifications.

The test is likely to include paper-and-pencil and oral or demonstration activities.

Although the project’s primary focus is licensure, participants know that changes in the requirements for new teachers will affect teacher education programs, states’ regulation of those programs, and professional development.

“We’re looking at the entire system,” Ms. Miller, intasc’s director, said, “and not just the piece of it that is tests.”

The project is supported by dues and by grants from the U.S. Department of Education’s office of educational research and improvement, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.