Critics Question Federal Funding of Teacher Test

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Some members of the education community are questioning the U.S. Department of Education's recently announced $35 million, multiyear allocation to an alternative teacher-credentialing test that so far has enlisted only a single state.

Already unpopular in some circles, the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence is also likely to encounter further heat for its announcement last week that it will broaden its scope by offering a "virtual" mentoring program for novice educators.

"Schools are having such a difficult time finding and releasing mentors [from class] to work with new teachers," said Kathleen Madigan, the president of the ABCTE. "So this is a wonderful marriage of technology and providing high-quality assistance."

The program will permit newly certified rookies to partner with ABCTE- credentialed veteran teachers to discuss classroom practice online, Ms. Madigan said. At this point, there are no such veterans. Other elements of the plan include asking newcomers to mail videos, essays, and student data to their mentors.

"I think it's a great idea," said Joanne A. Caldwell, the associate dean of education at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee. "For example, it is grade-level and subject specific. Very often, the people willing to mentor may not teach the same grade level or subject as the mentee."

She added that the virtual component would enable rural communities to offer mentors.

Others, however, are less impressed. The mentoring program, they point out, cannot make up for the fact that many ABCTE-certified newcomers will not have had any pedagogical or preservice training before their entry into the classroom.

Under the ABCTE system, the academic-content knowledge and pedagogical skills of prospective educators will be measured mostly through standardized tests. Veterans, meanwhile, need to pass only standardized content examinations to be certified.

"The virtual approach to mentoring may provide useful feedback to those learning how to teach, but does not seem well-suited to protecting children from the harm that an unprepared and unsupervised novice might inflict on children," Arthur E. Wise, the president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, wrote in an e-mail to Education Week. "Some children will be left behind as they miss crucial learning opportunities while these novices learn— or fail to learn—how to teach."

Education Department officials, however, are confident the system will gain momentum and open the door to highly qualified teachers. "People from education schools feel threatened—we're not surprised," Michael J. Petrilli, an associate deputy undersecretary of education, said last week.

Pennsylvania Stands Alone

Since the Washington-based ABCTE was launched by the Education Leaders Council and the National Council on Teacher Quality in 2001, only one state has agreed to adopt the test that aspiring teachers would take in lieu of going through a traditional teacher-preparation program or alternative route.

And even in that state, Pennsylvania, some members of the state school board were doubtful that the test alone was sufficient to gauge whether someone could be a competent teacher.

To temper their concerns, members of that body urged the ABCTE to establish what will be a yearlong induction program, said Mollie O'Connell Phillips, a board member.

"We needed to make sure there are some safeguards in place," added Karl R. Girton, the chairman of the state board. "We weren't compromising the standards in Pennsylvania."

The final resolution, passed last month, won the overwhelming support of the 17-member board, he added.

The newly announced ABCTE mentoring program fulfills a mandate spelled out in the federal No Child Left Behind Act requiring all alternative teacher- training "programs" to include such components. It was essential, then, for the ABCTE to make such an offering as it pitches its system to states. Those that choose the ABCTE as an alternative "route," however, do not need to worry about an induction component because the law does not require it for that category.

The organization is responding to the federal law, Ms. Madigan said, but, she added, the mentoring component "has always been on our books."

State Skepticism

Many educators wonder how the Education Department could invest so heavily in an unproven program that has drawn widespread criticism about its rigor.

"I think you can make an argument that maybe we should try this," said Barbara Beatty, an associate professor of education at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, "but should we put $35 million into it? You could run a pilot for a whole lot less."

The $35 million grant will go toward the development of the mentoring program, master- teacher certification, and 15 subject-area exams. The organization was started with $5 million in seed money from the Education Department three years ago.

The American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence began testing teachers this fall in some subjects, only months after losing its first test- maker last spring. Vantage Learning, of Newtown, Pa., was hired in August to take over that role. ("Essays on New Teachers' Test to Be Graded by Computers," Sept. 3, 2003.)

"States ... are pretty skeptical of this whole thing working," said one administrator intimately involved with teacher credentialing, who requested anonymity.

The ABCTE'S system, Ms. Madigan countered, is challenging.

Vol. 23, Issue 6, Pages 1, 17

Published in Print: October 8, 2003, as Critics Question Federal Funding of Teacher Test
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