On Teacher Quality: A Hard-Won System Begins To Pay Off

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Teacher quality is on the national agenda as never before. Finally, there is widespread recognition of the fact that the teacher is the single most important school-based determinant of student learning. That fact accords not only with every parent's common sense, but also with research.

For the past decade, the teaching profession has been hard at work building a system of quality assurance that will increase the likelihood that every child will be taught by a caring, competent, and qualified teacher. The results are only now beginning to be noticed.

There are seven elements of this system, none of which existed until the mid- to late 1980s. It took the medical profession 30 years--between 1890 and 1920--to develop and implement an analogous quality-assurance system. It will also take time to fully instantiate these seven features in the education system.

1. The first element is the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, begun in 1987. The board was created by the teaching profession, aided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, business, and the federal government. The board exists to provide advanced certification to accomplished teachers--a type of recognition never before available to teaching professionals. Put another way, teachers, once they began their careers, had no widely accepted mechanism for achieving professional and public recognition until 1995, when the national board began to operate. This certification is beginning to create new career options for teachers, encouraging excellent teachers to remain in the classroom. The board also generated a consensus definition of accomplished teaching and an accepted means for measuring it. That consensus gave the lie to those who used to maintain that accomplished teaching is too idiosyncratic to be measured. Board standards can be incorporated into advanced training of experienced teachers. Many institutions are beginning to revise master's programs to be consistent with the board's standards and assessments.

It took the medical profession 30 years-between 1890 and 1920-to develop and implement an analogous quality-assurance system.

2. Building on the experience of the NBPTS, California and Connecticut launched an initiative to develop model state licensing standards that could be used by states to reform the teacher-licensing process. Known as the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium, or INTASC, and now operated by the Council of Chief State School Officers, these standards are helping states develop systems that will assess the knowledge and skills of graduates as a condition of a license. Not so long ago, teachers were given a license merely on the basis of "seat time" and graduation, without having to demonstrate knowledge, skill, or the ability to teach.

3. Beginning in the mid-1980s, a number of national professional associations began to develop standards for preschool through 12th grade students. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, working with committees of school and university faculty members, created a national professional consensus about what students should know and be able to do at various ages and grade levels. Other associations followed suit. For the first time in history, professional associations have created a comprehensive set of expectations across the full range of the curriculum. So profound is this development that it has come to be called "the standards movement."

4. Until the late 1980s, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the states did not collaborate in the review of teacher-preparation programs. As of 1998, 43 states and the District of Columbia have integrated NCATE's professional review of colleges of education with their own, thereby strengthening review of teacher preparation in a growing number of institutions. While NCATE accreditation remains voluntary in most states, the outcome is a substantial increase in the number of new institutions seeking such accreditation. Seventeen states now require NCATE accreditation for their public institutions. Many states now use NCATE standards whether or not they require institutions to gain the imprimatur of NCATE accreditation. New York and Maryland have just passed legislation requiring accreditation.

5. There has emerged a growing consensus that the standards for accreditation, initial licensing, and advanced certification should be aligned. Prior to 1990, accreditation and licensing authorities did not coordinate their activities, and of course the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards did not exist. The result was a cacophony of standards and expectations--meaning, effectively, that there were no standards. In 1995, NCATE began to incorporate INTASC's model state licensing principles into its standards, and will continue to do so in next year's iteration of its standards. Thus NCATE and the states will hold colleges of education accountable for producing candidates with the same knowledge and skills for which the states will hold individual candidates accountable. This symmetrical relationship will strengthen accreditation and licensing. In addition, NCATE is aligning teacher-preparation standards with national standards for preschool through 12th grade students, and with national board standards for advanced certification. This alignment will revolutionize the quality-assurance system.

6. One of the promising ideas for strengthening teacher preparation was not even conceptualized in 1985. The idea for professional-development schools took shape in the late 1980s within the profession. The idea, based on the teaching hospital in the field of medicine, is to more fully integrate academic and clinical preparation for beginning teachers. Policymakers and educators alike recognize that beginning teachers and teacher candidates require more support than is afforded by the truncated clinical experience in a four-year undergraduate program. There may be as many as 1,000 professional-development schools operating now. To help support this new structure, NCATE is working with 20 of them to help guide the field in setting new expectations for clinical practice.

7. Until 1990, only three states had experimented with professional-standards boards--boards comprising mainly members of the profession charged with the responsibility to establish and implement standards for teacher licensing. As of 1998, 12 more legislatures had decided to create independent, professional state standards boards. Unlike state boards of education, which have myriad other responsibilities, professional state standards boards have as their overriding concern the implementation of standards and assessments that will result in high-quality teachers for their states.

These seven elements of the teaching profession's quality-assurance system are new this decade. They have been developed because the still-existing traditional systems have clearly not provided the level of quality assurance that the public and policymakers now demand. This new system needs support to be fully developed and implemented. Its development can move faster or more slowly depending on the degree to which university leaders, policymakers, and the profession foster the kind of trust that now exists between the state and the quality-assurance mechanisms in the established professions.

The teaching profession has been hard at work assembling the elements of the new systems of teacher development and quality assurance, most of which include NCATE involvement or leadership. Is there evidence of progress?

A new study by the Educational Testing Service shows that NCATE-accredited institutions are producing proportionally more qualified teachers than nonaccredited institutions. The testing service examined 160,000 candidates between 1995 and 1997 who took the licensing exam PRAXIS in the content areas they planned to teach, and who had also taken the SAT. The study divided the candidates into two groups for a part of the analysis: graduates of NCATE-accredited institutions and non-NCATE institutions.

Of all candidates who took the PRAXIS II licensing exam, designed by the testing service and administered in 37 states and the District of Columbia, 91 percent of those graduating from NCATE-accredited institutions passed the licensing exam, while only 83 percent of those graduating from non-NCATE institutions passed it. Thus, passing scores on the licensing exam are higher for graduates of NCATE-accredited institutions than for those from non-NCATE institutions.

The study provides some quantitative evidence that this reform is beginning to make a difference. As the reform continues to be implemented, we can anticipate that the quality of the teaching force will rise.

Arthur E. Wise is the president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education in Washington.

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