Teacher Preparation

Higher Ed. Assesses Training of Teachers for Common Core

By Stephen Sawchuk — June 11, 2012 6 min read
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Groups of teacher educators and other higher education officials met here last week in a gathering that essentially served as the first step in Illinois’ effort to ensure that education programs in the state produce young teachers capable of teaching to the common K-12 content standards adopted in all but four states.

Representatives from all 12 of the state’s public universities, from 35 independent colleges, and from 31 community colleges put tentative toes into the common-core pond at the meeting, beginning the difficult work of assessing how and where their current efforts to train teachers are stopping short of the standards’ goals.

Even after just one day, it was clear that the process involved some breakthroughs, occasional frustration, and a good degree of soul-searching. After all, preparing teachers to instruct in ways that help develop students’ ability to analyze and apply knowledge is a goal to which teacher preparation has long aspired, many of the attendees noted.

“It’s something we’ve talked about doing, and thought we were doing, but probably aren’t doing,” said Amee Adkins, the associate dean of the college of education at Illinois State University, in Normal. “This is another chance to work on it.”

The common-core standards envision a higher level of rigor based on the deeper understanding of a pared-down number of curricular aims. But effective implementation poses a particular challenge for teachers, who must not only be fluent in that content themselves but also attain the appropriate pedagogy and curricula to be able to convey it to their students. (“Many Teachers Not Ready for the Common Core,” April 23, 2012.)

Overhaul or Update?

As with their in-service efforts, states’ attempts to revamp teacher training in alignment with the English/language arts and mathematics standards appears to be widely divergent.

Legislation in Colorado requires teacher-preparation programs to align curricula to the standards this year. Kentucky has been hard at work encouraging its K-12 and higher education systems to work together on implementation, and has trained more than 2,000 higher education faculty on the standards. Maine hosted a statewide forum last month for teacher educators similar to Illinois’. Other states have barely begun the work.

In Illinois, as in most states, university-based programs still prepare the lion’s share of the nation’s teachers, and state officials explained that they view moving the higher education piece forward as a smart investment.

“These standards are here to stay,” said Christopher Koch, the state’s schools superintendent. “Why pay for it in professional development later, when it’s much more costly?”

The path forward is a long one. An informal survey conducted electronically at the beginning of the meeting showed that the faculty representatives had a range of familiarity with the standards, and differing opinions about what integrating them would mean for the shape of teacher education.

BRIC ARCHIVE

For example, 22 percent said they envisioned a “dramatic overhaul” of their programming, while slightly fewer than half the attendees indicated that their programs would require updating—but not a major overhaul.

At the same time, a majority of the attendees reported that their faculty members were not yet well versed in the standards and that they either had not begun or were only in preliminary phases of aligning their curricula to the standards.

Illinois’ size and large student population also create some additional hurdles, compared with efforts in smaller or less populated states, Mr. Koch acknowledged.

It counts more than 860 school districts, including one of the largest in the nation, Chicago. And its robust community college system plays an important part in postsecondary education and teacher preparation, adding another layer of complexity to the process.

Common Threads

In attempting to outline next steps, the programs’ faculty members identified several key areas of concern over the course of the meeting.

Take the quality of student-teacher or “clinical preparation.” Making sure that candidates work alongside a mentor teacher who is able to model the practices called for in the standards will be crucial, said MeShelda Jackson, the chairwoman of the school of education at Benedictine University, a Roman Catholic college in Lisle.

But it’s also going to be a major challenge given the range of districts’ familiarity with the standards and a challenge to oversee for the school, which places candidates in more than 15 districts, she said.

The need for better collaboration between education and arts and sciences faculties also emerged as a theme. Though that has been a long-standing goal of teacher education, some said that the common core could be the impetus to cement such a relationship.

That was the major breakthrough that Lanette Poteete-Young, the dean of the college of arts and sciences at Judson University, in Elgin, came to in discussions with her colleagues.

“My liberal arts faculty don’t have a clue about what you’re doing, or why you’re doing it,” she told the education faculty in the room. “We support you, but we don’t have a very good understanding at all about what’s really needed. There are a lot of things that we can do, and I have a lot of different ideas about content in particular, but I still need to understand these targets.”

Meanwhile, the state’s community colleges said they are waiting to take their cues from the needs of four-year institutions. They harbor concerns about how the standards’ lofty goals will mesh with the reality of the high school students who enroll in their programs.

Even in the College of DuPage, a community college located in the affluent suburbs west of Chicago, more than half of newly enrolled students test into remedial mathematics before they are permitted to take a credit-bearing course on elementary-math-content knowledge, said Tom Schrader, the college’s associate dean for math and physical sciences.

Finally, the common-core standards face some obstacles related to the unique politics of higher education. The process of adding and deleting courses, potentially a necessary step in revamping curricula, is a highly sensitive one in a time- and credit-hour-limited enterprise, faculty members said. And the new standards also could raise fears among faculty about academic freedom, they warned.

“Their first reaction is probably to argue with it,” said Ms. Adkins of her faculty at ISU. “My role, and the role of the rest of our team, is to present it to the faculty in a way that they’re able to embrace it and to say, ‘Let’s stop a minute and see if these are reasonable and appropriate.’ ”

State Responsibility

The meeting was also state officials’ first glimpse into colleges’ readiness to adopt and implement the standards.

“This is just the opening volley,” said Debbie Meisner-Bertauski, the associate director of academic affairs for the Illinois board of higher education. “It’s going to be the basis for us to plan additional supports.”

As part of the process, state officials sought feedback on what they could do to support the colleges—and got an earful from some faculty members, who are worried about how to mesh the standards with several other major policy changes on the forefront.

New regulations to flesh out a 2011 bill streamlining the state’s licensure system are being developed, and the states’ teacher colleges are also working to implement the Teacher Performance Assessment, a licensing test now being piloted in more than half the states.

“How do we make the common core fit with the new licensing requirements, the new testing requirements?” asked Bob Barwa, an assistant professor of education at the University of St. Francis, in Joliet. “We’re getting hit on all sides.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2012 edition of Education Week as Higher Ed. Gauges Training of Teachers for Standards

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