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From the Dean: Raising standards for teachers, schools of education

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was a Title I Resource teacher, meaning that I was working as part of a federal program to provide extra teaching assistance to support struggling students in a high-poverty school.

Bill McDiarmid
Bill McDiarmid

Most of my students came from homes in which the first language was not English, but they were typically hard workers who wanted to do well in school. My job was to help them catch up with their peers, in reading and math specifically. The standards for reading and math on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills – used to identify students for Title I services – were, to be honest, not really challenging. We were able to get most of the students up the level of their classmates within a year or two.

At the same time, however, I knew that my students were learning only the “mechanics” of reading and writing – computational and decoding skills. I could tell they dutifully worked at mastering these skills but saw little or no connection to their lives outside of school. This was brought home to me one day in a reading circle. After one of the 4th grade boys read a passage aloud, I asked him what he thought it meant. He bridled, raised his eyebrows in irritation and replied, “How should I know? I was busy reading!”

He did reasonably well on the Iowa Test that spring.

Such a skill level is no longer sufficient. The new Common Core State Standards grew out of concerns that too few of our students are getting beyond procedural and algorithmic knowledge of content to think analytically and conceptually and to apply their knowledge in solving real-world problems – skills prized by employers and essential for critical citizenship in a democratic society.

The Common Core standards have elicited negative and positive reactions. Whatever your stance, however, the new standards represent stringent and ambitious expectations for student learning – and, therefore, for teacher knowledge and skill. The more demanding expectations for teachers’ content knowledge and pedagogical skills, in turn, requires those of us who prepare teachers to reassess the opportunities we are providing teacher candidates to learn what they need to meet the new standards.

Tougher standards for schools of education

Those of us who prepare teachers must “up our game.” Take for instance this from the 4th grade “Reading Standards for Literature:”

Compare and contrast the treatment of similar themes and topics (e.g., opposition of good and evil) and patterns of events (e.g., the quest) in stories, myths, and traditional literature from different cultures.

This represents a dauntingly complex cognitive task. To help students meet these standards – who are increasingly linguistically, socially, and culturally diverse – teachers will not only need the content knowledge the standards require but they will also have to create multiple pathways to learning for their diverse students. As decades of research have taught us, merely “standing and delivering” doesn’t work for a majority of our children, especially for such ambitious learning goals. The ratcheting up of standards for students and their teachers are mirrored in the new standards for teacher preparation programs.

A merger of National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the upstart Teacher Education Accreditation Council resulted in the establishment of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation. CAEP has adopted a rigorous set of standards for teachers – called InTASC – and incorporated these standards into its accrediting processes.

These standards require teacher preparation programs to produce quantitative evidence of the impact their graduates are having on pupil learning. As a result, the CAEP standards pressure teacher preparation programs to establish data systems to generate evidence of graduates’ performance and to demonstrate that program faculty are using this evidence to improve their work. Programs that fail to produce evidence that their graduates are contributing to pupil learning growth will not be accredited.

Unlike some states, North Carolina has in place the data systems needed to connect program graduates to their pupils’ state assessment results. In fact, the state has created “report cards” for each of the preparation programs that include a range of data, including principals’ observational ratings of graduates from each program. Recently, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction has added to these report cards results from a “value-added” model of assessment called EVAAS, which was developed by SAS Institute. It will add additional data to evaluate the effectiveness of schools of education.

Putting new standards to work

Through the UNC General Administration’s Teacher Quality Project, North Carolina teacher preparation programs also receive annual reports on the impact their graduates have on their pupils’ end-of grade and end-of-course test scores.

I have previously written about our School of Education’s adoption of the edTPA – a teacher performance assessment instrument that enables faculty members to gauge their candidates’ readiness for working in classrooms. Candidates complete a portfolio on a 3-5 day lesson that includes video clips from the candidates’ classroom, analysis of pupil work samples, lesson plans, and post-unit analysis and reflection. The Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity – the organization that oversees the integrity of the process and conducts research on the instrument – orchestrated a dual process this past year to establish national minimum passing rates, or “cut scores.”

To set the cut score, SCALE conducted a study of more than 4,000 individual student portfolios and convened a panel of nearly 50 experts – school and university educators as well as representatives from state departments of education, state school boards, professional associations, unions, Teach for America, and the private sector. Remarkably, the score derived from the analysis of the large sample of portfolios and that of the expert panel was nearly identical – and stringent. Applying this cut score to the 4,000 candidates whose portfolios were used in the research, only 58 percent passed. That other 42 percent would be required to revise portions of the portfolio or, in some cases, submit a new portfolio based on an additional teaching episode.

In short, at no other time in history has university-based teacher preparation faced such rigorous standards. Our public accountability is now on par with that of our public school P-12 teachers.

Not surprisingly, this is forcing us to reconsider everything we do in teacher preparation. The programs that we have offered in the past – highly successfully and widely praised – must be rethought. As resources continue to shrink, we are thinking carefully about where to invest to produce the best results for our students, the field, and the state. Whatever we do, we need to focus on the expectations for 21st century knowledge and skills.

This rethinking is likely to lead to some changes that will undoubtedly make some people uncomfortable. That, however, is a predictable byproduct of change.

Or, as one of the poets of my generation put it, “You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone.”

Bill McDiarmid is dean of the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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By Bill McDiarmid