Teacher Preparation

Panel Urges New Testing for Teachers

By Bess Keller — May 24, 2005 6 min read
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Congress should pay for the development of a national teacher test, using performance to judge accomplishment, and the test results should be incorporated into state licensing requirements, a report set for release May 24 argues.

Prepared by a panel of the National Academy of Education, the 112-page guide calls on federal and state policymakers to embrace regulations aimed at raising teacher education standards while finding money to help expand the number of people training for and succeeding in teaching as a career.

“In every occupation that has become a profession, there’s been a moment in history that professional associations and others have said, ‘We have to develop a common core of knowledge for professional preparation to ensure that people who come into the profession have what they need,’ ” said Linda Darling-Hammond, one of the report’s two editors and an education professor at Stanford University.

The report, “A Good Teacher in Every Classroom,” can be purchased from publisher Jossey-Bass.

“It’s time,” she added, “to get serious about the teaching side of the teaching-learning equation.”

The report, “A Good Teacher in Every Classroom,” follows a book published earlier this year by the academy’s panel that lays out the research basis for the group’s conclusions. A third volume in the series, which addresses what research says about teaching reading, is due out in the fall. (“Teacher Education Popular Topic for Panels, Commissions,” April 28, 2004.)

The panel stresses that teacher education must combine understanding of subject matter and teaching practices with knowledge of learners, so that teachers can tailor lessons to the needs of students of different backgrounds and strengths. It also insists that lengthy clinical practice and relevant coursework should be intertwined in the preparation of teachers.

The picture it paints outlines such broad goals for what teachers should know and have experienced before stepping into a classroom that many existing teacher-preparation programs are bound to fall short of its standard.

The academy, an invitation-only group made up of many of the most distinguished researchers in education, is not the only high-profile organization that has turned its attention to teacher preparation in the past few years.

The American Educational Research Association is expected to release the final report of its own panel on research and teacher education later this year, while the National Research Council could soon undertake an assessment of the quality of teacher-preparation programs mandated last year by Congress.

In addition, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is studying preparation for a wide variety of professions, including education, the clergy, nursing, and law.

With schools striving to meet student-achievement standards set under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, recognition that teachers are at the center of learning gains has probably never been higher. Yet traditional teacher-preparation programs have long been criticized as fragmented, shallow, and ineffective.

And some observers have doubted that teaching has a solid body of professional knowledge on which to base training.

The National Academy of Education report highlights differences in programs—both those within universities, geared largely to people at the beginning of a work life, and those, often run by districts and states, that aim to prepare career-switchers.

While some variation makes sense, given the differences among the prospective teachers being served, too many programs fail in rigor and breadth, according to the report. Every program should make sure students know their specific subject matter as well as the basics of learning, child development, and curriculum and teaching, it says.

The course of study in teacher education should be rich in opportunities to apply classroom learning to real-life situations and reflect on the outcomes, with time for students to outgrow the notion that good teaching is primarily a matter of personality and enthusiasm, the report says.

Students should spend no fewer than 30 weeks engaged in clinical practice—ideally in a school set up to foster professional development—under the eyes of skilled veterans, it recommends.

By the end of their course of study, the report says, prospective teachers should have basic knowledge of how to design learning activities that make subjects accessible to all students, including those with disabilities and limited knowledge of English; assess what students know and be able to revise plans given the findings; create “a respectful, purposeful learning environment”; and work with parents and colleagues to make schools better places for learning.

The panel acknowledges that the sweep of change required to meet its goals for the professional education of teachers depends not only on the will of the institutions and programs involved, but also on new funding and government policies.

Specifically, the report says:

  • Accreditation of programs should be required and tightened, with states ready to close down programs that don’t meet standards.
  • States and institutions should provide funding for teacher education “comparable to other clinically based professional programs, such as nursing and engineering.”
  • The federal government should ante up money to bring high-quality teacher education to urban and poor communities, as well as expand scholarships and loans to students who commit to teaching where they are needed most.
  • Congress should pay for the development of a national teacher test using performance to judge accomplishment, and the test results should be incorporated into state licensing requirements.
  • ‘A New Bar for Us’

    Without a doubt, the report depicts a program that bears at best partial resemblance to existing ones.

    “Some folks might say it’s wildly ambitious, romantically so,” said Sharon Porter Robinson, the president of the Washington-based American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, which represents more than half the teacher education programs in U.S. colleges and universities. “And it does represent a new bar for us.”

    Still, she said last week, given the convincing evidence for what is needed, “I think the right questions are: What steps can we make in the direction of that vision, and how can we gain support from members of the policy community who can create the programs to help?”

    A representative of Teach for America, a prominent “alternative route” into teaching that does not involve graduation from a teacher education program, praised the effort to define what teachers need to know, while cautioning that the realities of the teacher market should be taken into account.

    Teach for America puts rigorously screened graduates of selective colleges in hard-to-staff public schools after a summer of coursework and supervised teaching.

    “There are a lot of indicators that we would be losing excellent people if the only route we allow involves significant time and cost,” said Abigail Smith, the New York City-based group’s vice president for research and public policy.

    To demand, for instance, 30 weeks of apprentice teaching, “would limit our ability to bring in some people who could be significant assets to school districts,” she said.

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