Teacher Preparation

Teachers’ Union Pushes Higher Bar for Educators

By Stephen Sawchuk — December 11, 2012 4 min read
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In a move signaling its entrance into a burgeoning conversation about teacher-preparation reform, the American Federation of Teachers has unveiled an ambitious initiative calling for higher standards for teacher education—and the creation of a “universal assessment” for teachers.

Such an exam would be analogous to the bar exam for lawyers, and states could choose to adopt it as part of teachers’ initial licensing as a measure of when candidates are ready to lead their own classrooms.

The 1.5 million-member union called on the Washington-based National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which runs a prestigious advanced-certification program, to oversee the initiative and to drum up support among the higher education community and state policymakers.

“It is very important that the profession buy into this, that it’s not just the AFT and the national board,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said.

Old Idea, New Context

The product of months of discussion by an AFT task force, the report, released last week, recommends that teacher-preparation programs raise their entry standards to attract academically capable students. The programs should require candidates at both the elementary and secondary levels to have a cumulative grade point average of 3.0 and get a minimum grade on college- or graduate-school-entrance exams, such as a 24 on the ACT out of 36.

All teacher-candidates should undergo a year’s worth of student-teaching, the report says, and candidates should be taught to diagnose learning problems, align curricular units to state standards, and use assessments to tailor instruction.

Finally, it calls on the NBPTS to devise a rigorous exam measuring content, pedagogy, and classroom practice, based on a cohesive set of teaching standards crafted by practitioners. States would voluntarily choose to use the exam for licensing. The union envisions the test to be similar to state bar exams, with a common body of knowledge assessed, but with possible state adaptations.

The union proposed similar ideas as early as the mid-1980s, without success. But teacher preparation has drawn renewed policy attention of late, with the U.S. Department of Education, national accreditors, the National Education Association, and advocacy groups all unveiling initiatives in recent months.

The report also reflects the AFT’s continued uneasiness with alternative-certification programs and with the Education Department’s pending overhaul of federal teacher-training rules. The union’s view of improving teacher preparation, the report says, “is neither to create an endless array of externally driven requirements by government and accrediting agencies, nor to create endless alternative-certification models designed to save the system."Ms. Weingarten added during a press conference: “If [the exam is] adopted for teachers who come out of [traditional teacher preparation], it has to be adopted for teachers who are alternatively certified as well. One has to level the playing field for all.”

The first step for the national board is to establish a commission to craft a cohesive set of standards for what beginning teachers should know. The president and chief executive officer of the NBPTS, Ronald Thorpe, said he would move to create that commission within 90 days.

“It’s an opportunity for the profession to step back and say these are our expectations, based on what the profession sees as important to have when you set foot in the classroom on the first day,” Mr. Thorpe said.

Multiple Challenges

Any new assessment also seems likely to dovetail with the EDTPA, a performance-based licensing assessment more than 20 states recently piloted.

Jane West, the vice president of government relations for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, a partner in the creation of that exam, said that it wasn’t entirely clear how the efforts would be coordinated, but that they seemed to be “moving in the same direction.”

“I don’t envision them creating from scratch one test everyone would have to take,” she said.

That said, the challenges of instituting the union’s agenda are many. Neither the AFT nor the NBPTS has any direct control over licensing or certification, a state responsibility. Even the process of crafting beginning-teacher standards could pose difficulties: Many such sets of standards already exist.

Longer-term issues include whether states that adopted a universal licensing exam would agree to use the same cutoff scores. Also, teacher-educators have been hotly debating the worth of raising their entry requirements. And alternative-route programs, which provide the bulk of their training while teachers are already on the job, might balk at the union’s call for a yearlong apprenticeship.

Still, Mr. Thorpe said he feels the profession is prepared to take a serious look at the union’s ideas. “I think we are more ready for this than ever before,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2012 edition of Education Week as Union Pushes Higher Standards for New Teachers

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