Illinois Panel on Teacher Quality Split Over Use of Testing

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Illinois is poised to change the way it licenses teachers, setting up a clash between teachers' unions and business groups.

At issue is how teachers earn standard certification, which will be a license earned after their third or fourth year on the job, and which allows them to teach indefinitely.

A panel tapped to answer that question is split between a business-backed proposal that would require teachers to pass tests, and a union-supported plan that calls for ongoing training and no tests.

Richard B. Laine

"The unions don't believe in what they call high-stakes tests, but some business and education groups feel that's the way it should be," said Richard B. Laine, the director of education for the Illinois Business Roundtable.

The conflict stems from a law passed in 1998 that gave state officials until July 2003 to adopt a two-tiered licensing system.

State officials implemented the first tier in July of last year. Those regulations require an aspiring teacher to pass two state tests and complete a professional-development plan in order to get an initial teaching certificate. The development of the second tier, however, continues to be riddled with controversy.

'Really Entrenched'

Drafting that plan is the job of the state's standard-examination committee, a 29-member panel that consists of several teachers, school administrators, and business leaders, including Mr. Laine. After several months of debate, the panel failed to reach a consensus, and submitted separate business- and union-backed plans to the state board of education in mid-October.

But the board, hoping for more direction, rejected the plans, citing the lack of consensus.

"Both sides were just really entrenched," said Marilyn McConachie, who serves on the seven-member state board.

She joined the board in voting unanimously to kick the issue back to the advisory committee. The panel was ordered to reach a compromise plan before the state board's next monthly meeting, scheduled for Nov. 17 and 18.

The business- backed proposal would require new teachers to assess their skills with a mentor, write an improvement plan, and take a performance-based test during their third year of teaching to show they know Illinois' professional-teaching standards.

The plan also called for portfolio-based tests, which Mr. Laine said could include videotaped classroom teaching, lessons plans, and student work.

By contrast, the union-supported plan called for ongoing professional development, which could include a master's program for novice teachers, assembling a portfolio, or being mentored.

Local professional-development panels would monitor the plan.

Gail L. Purkey, the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said her state union does not object to teacher tests as such, but to what are deemed high-stakes tests.

"Our concern is having a fair assessment. We don't want to leave any teachers behind," she said. "We need to support teachers and then assess. Otherwise, it's sort of putting the chicken before the egg."

Despite the sparring between union and business groups, some state officials were optimistic that a compromise could be reached this month.

Bob F. Gerry, the co-chairman of the advisory panel, said he believes a test will be phased in over seven or eight years.

Ms. McConachie echoed the thought: "My guess is we'll take the good parts of both plans and say, 'OK, let's do this as far as professional development, and then come back with a more rigorous program.' "

Common Concern

Among the issues the panel must study are the costs of a second tier of licensing, and who would evaluate novice teachers.

Ms. McConachie said she believes the state board is likely to adopt a version of the union plan that includes mentors and peer coaches for novice teachers. The board would add a performance-based test of some sort.

Paper-and-pencil tests and the Praxis III exam, developed by the Educational Testing Service and piloted in Arkansas and Ohio, have not been part of the discussions, however, she said.

Illinois is not alone in trying to figure out how to get the most out of its teaching force.

"The issue is starting to heat up, big time," said Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Washington-based Education Trust. "Originally, it was just the right wing taking potshots at the unions, but now there's more and more people interested in it."

Vol. 21, Issue 10, Page 28

Published in Print: November 7, 2001, as Illinois Panel on Teacher Quality Split Over Use of Testing
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