Standards Boards Touted for Elevating Teaching Profession

By Ann Bradley — March 26, 1997 8 min read
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Philip Metcalf, a mathematics teacher at Wawasee High School in Syracuse, Ind., believes the moment is ripe for his occupation to finally take its place as a true profession.

The vehicle for this transformation is the Indiana Professional Standards Board, created by the state legislature in 1992. As its chairman, Mr. Metcalf is helping to craft policies that promise to turn teaching from what he calls “an almost-profession” into a field guided by rigorous standards.

In its short life, Indiana’s standards board has emerged as a leader in thinking through how teachers should be educated, mentored, licensed, and nurtured over their careers.

Most states make those decisions through legislatures, agencies, and state school boards. Such arrangements, however, leave teaching policy “vulnerable to constantly changing politics and priorities,” according to “What Matters Most: Teaching for America’s Future,” the long awaited report released last fall by the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future. (“Teaching Focus Called the Key in Reform Push,” Sept. 18, 1996.)

The commission recommended that every state follow the example set by Indiana--and 11 other states--and set up an autonomous professional-standards board.

Standards boards, the commission argues, “create a fire wall between the political system and the standard-setting process, allowing higher standards that are more connected to the professional knowledge base to be set and maintained.”

In Indiana, the 19-member board has brought together classroom teachers like Philip Metcalf, representatives of higher education, principals and superintendents, school board members, and business people.

“Everybody has this idea that Indiana is conservative and backward,” Mr. Metcalf said in a recent interview. “But here’s a place that’s just growing by leaps and bounds.”

Arthur E. Wise, the president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, agrees with the teacher’s characterization.

“They’re off to a thoughtful beginning,” said Mr. Wise, who testified before the Indiana legislature in behalf of creating the standards board.

“They are at the forefront of figuring out the proper relationship between accreditation and licensing and what colleges of education need to provide to teacher candidates,” Mr. Wise said.

To make most of its plans, the board won’t need the approval of its state legislature. But it will need increased funding to phase in the new system by its target date of 2004.

‘A Lot of Converts’

When the standards board was created five years ago, some administrator groups opposed the idea of a teacher-majority board deciding on administrators’ licenses--along with teachers’. In response to their concerns, state lawmakers added three more mem-bers to the board, nine of whose 19 members are now teachers.

But board officials and others say that fears about a teacher takeover have subsided as members of the board have learned to work well together.

“We’ve won a lot of converts,” Mr. Metcalf said. “I’ve heard a lot of people say that when you come to meetings, you can’t tell who [the members] are representing.”

The Indiana State Teachers Association lobbied forcefully for the creation of the standards board. When teaching issues were the province of the state education department, said David Young, the president of the union, they tended to be “sort of a sideshow.”

“It was not something that was given a lot of attention,” Mr. Young said. “By making the board independent, they’ve been able to forge important reforms.”

The standards board’s goal is conceptually simple: Move toward a system for preparing and licensing teachers that is based on demonstrated performance. Now, licensing decisions are made by looking at what coursework a prospective teacher took in college and at scores on tests that don’t measure teaching ability.

But getting to that goal is more complicated: Such a change will shake up virtually everything about becoming a teacher in Indiana--especially teacher education.

“It will be a huge change,” said Saundra Tracy, the dean of the college of education at Butler University in Indianapolis. “Unless you have a clear understanding of what knowledge, skills, and dispositions you want educators to have, I don’t think you can do this.”

Fortunately, the Indiana standards board isn’t entirely on its own. It has adopted a set of national standards for beginning teachers that was crafted by a consortium of 30 states under the auspices of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The state is also participating in NCATE’s New Professional Teacher Project, designed to align state standards for students, teacher education programs, and licensure with national standards for accreditation, licensure, and certification.

Finally, Indiana is one of the partner states seeking to implement the entire set of recommendations made in “What Matters Most.” Making that work will require conducting a detailed audit of state policies and devising recommendations for change.

These broader national efforts form a stimulating backdrop for the standards board’s work, said Marilyn Scannell, its executive director.

“There is all kinds of agreement on standards, not only for kids, but for teachers,” she observed. “When you come down to it, everyone is saying the same thing. That’s never happened before. It’s a very exciting time.”

Internships and Assessments

Advisory groups named by the standards board have created 17 sets of standards, including a set designed by a committee of principals that describes what beginning principals should know and be able to do. The standards board is expected to begin adopting these in the fall.

The standards then will be used as the basis for approving teacher education programs, for granting licenses, and for making decisions about teachers’ continuing professional education.

Working closely with NCATE, the standards board is piloting a system that will require institutions of higher education to provide evidence that they are preparing education students to meet Indiana’s beginning-teacher stan- dards. This evidence of performance will eventually be substituted for reports on the education school curriculum that the accrediting body usually requires, Ms. Scannell said.

Once teacher candidates have graduated, the standards board is considering issuing them an initial license only. Individuals then would have to undertake an internship of a year or two.

During that time, beginning teachers would work closely with mentor teachers who would help them hone their classroom practice and prepare to pass a battery of assessments. Successful completion of the tests--geared to the state’s standards for new teachers--would earn a candidate a regular license.

Then, as teachers progressed through their careers, they would have to undergo experiences that demonstrate their attainment of the knowledge and skills contained in Indiana’s standards. The knowledge and skills, in turn, would be linked to the standards for expert teachers formulated by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Teachers likely would compile portfolios showing what they were doing to improve their knowledge and skills, Ms. Scannell said. One possibility would be to become nationally certified. Others might include serving as mentors and assessors for new teachers entering the profession.

The only way to enforce these standards, Ms. Scannell said, is through assessments. “That’s the biggie,” she said. “That’s what gives them teeth.”

Again, the state has some help in coming up with these tests. The 30-state consortium has designed assessments for math and English-language-arts teachers at the middle and secondary level. These performance-oriented exercises are closely modeled on the tasks that the national teaching-standards board asks accomplished teachers to do.

“The way we’ve been assessing teachers until now has not really had anything to do with whether they would be effective teachers or not,” Ms. Scannell said.

In the meantime, the Indiana standards board is asking state legislators to approve a change to a national basic-skills test for new teachers. Lawmakers also must approve the proposed changes to the state’s existing internship program, which is underfunded.

Teresa S. Lubbers, a state senator who serves on the education committee, praised the board for “working very hard to build consensus” on central issues.

“All of this is window dressing for what one hopes really matters,” she said, “and that is that classroom teaching improves.”

Because the assessments will be expensive and time-consuming to create, the standards board expects to phase in its new system by 2004. It is asking for $500,000 this year and $1 million next year, in addition to its $3.5 million annual budget, to accomplish this work.

Ms. Scannell estimates that some 3,000 new teachers would find jobs and enter the internship program each year.

Thousands Untouched

Despite the sense of possibility that now surrounds the standards board, it won’t touch the lives of most Indiana teachers.

Most of the state’s approximately 60,000 teachers have lifetime licenses, which means they won’t be subject to the board’s new rules.

Only those teachers who came aboard since 1985 have had to earn extra credits to keep their licenses. As the number of teachers required to meet stiffer requirements for relicensure grows, Mr. Young said, they could balk at the higher standards.

Getting the state’s teachers to pay attention to what’s happening in their profession won’t be easy, he added. “They are not necessarily as interested in participating in the process of setting those standards as they should be.”

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