Setting the State Stage for Improved Teacher Preparation

By 03/18/2013

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If I could go back in time and begin my stint at an SEA all over again, I’d dedicate more energy to educator-preparation policy for three reasons.

First, obviously, educator effectiveness is hugely important to student learning, and we could accomplish a much by ensuring that those entering the profession are fully prepared for the tough work awaiting them.

The second reason is that SEAs have far greater power over this issue than most people—including lots of incoming state chiefs—understand.

(The third reason comes later…)

Under nearly every state constitution, the state government is given responsibility for public schooling. Lots of this power is then devolved, via statute, to districts.

But most state-level authority is vested in the state department of education. Though legislatures pass lots of laws related to schooling, they generally know where their expertise ends; and regardless of the issue or level of government, when legislators recognize the water’s edge of their understanding, they defer to executive branch (administrative) agencies.

What this translates to is SEAs’ (and/or state boards of educations’) having huge leeway when it comes to teacher preparation and credentialing.

State law may say that each teacher must have “appropriate certification for the position held,” but determining what a person needs to do in order to earn and maintain certification is in the hands of these departments and boards.

For the uninitiated—actually, for the initiated, as well—this field can feel like a tangle of professional associations and acronyms. There’s InTASCISLCCNCATECAEP, and on and on.

But if you’re looking to get your feet wet, you might want to take a stroll through two documents. The first is the 2012 report “Our Responsibility, Our Promise,” written by current and former state chiefs convened by CCSSO with input from NGA and NASBE (I know, I know, more acronyms!).

It begins with two new definitions—“learner-ready teacher” and “school-ready principal”—to emphasize the skills and knowledge those beginning these careers ought to possess.

The report argues that SEAs can accomplish a great deal in this area because of their control of licensure, program approval, and data. It then offers ten principles for states to follow.

Of particular interest are the report’s points about the variation in state cut scores for licensure tests (like Praxis), the need for smarter recruitment efforts for potential school leaders, and the teacher-prep path taken by Finland.

The other document worth a look is the new set of (draft) standards for preparation-program accreditation by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP).

The standards were put together by a vast group of stakeholders. They identify four “critical points of leverage” that would, in their estimation, improve teacher preparation, including providing stronger clinical experience and toughening the checkpoints along the preparation continuum.

The report offers three core standards that represent areas likeliest, they believe, to positively influence student learning (there are two other standards and two other broader recommendations, as well).

You’ll quickly see that this is a compromise document, with elements appealing to different factions in the educator-preparation world. There’s the focus on “positive learning environments” (1.1) and “collaborative problem solving” (1.4); the insistence that “candidates reflect on their personal biases” (!) (1.9); and the certainty that “effective partnerships and high-quality clinical practice are central to preparation” (2.1–2.3).

But the draft standards also encourage programs to set a high candidate-entry bar (“Candidate quality, recruitment, and selectivity,” 3.4) and require that program graduates improve student learning (4.1).

(You still have time to comment on the draft standards.)

All of this suggests a very straightforward process.: 1) We recognize that prep programs should be better; 2) establishment groups make recommendations for improvement; 3) states adopt new rules; 4) prep programs happily comply; and then 5) all future batches of freshly minted teachers are superb.

Unfortunately, the K–12 policy world is more tortuous. As many experienced reformers will tell you, things break down after step one. Establishment groups can make self-serving or self-protecting recommendations; state superintendents and/or state boards can choose not to adopt needed reforms; existing prep programs can drag their heels.

And this leads to the third reason I would’ve spent more of my SEA time on this issue.

Just as I reached the conclusion that urban districts can’t be fixed and, therefore, we need to create a new delivery system for public education in America’s cities, a large and growing number of reformers interested in teacher preparation believe that we can’t trust the old system to change adequately and that, instead, we need to create new pathways into the profession.

Indeed, many states have created “alternative-certification” routes, though many look a whole lot like (and are largely controlled by) traditional programs. There’s ABCTE (another acronym!!!), which has gotten traction. Of course, there’s also TFA (stop me already!).

Then there’s the highly compelling Relay Graduate School of Education, which grew out of Teacher U, a project of three of the nation’s highest performing charter management organizations (I didn’t write “CMO”! And you thought I was unfixable!).

These groups needed great teachers; once they realized traditional programs weren’t getting the job done, they decided to build a new system themselves.

I think this fresh-start approach has a lot to offer—though, certainly, not every new brick road into the profession will be paved in gold.

That’s why smart policy—namely, strong teacher professional standards, rigorous standards for and assessments of prep programs, and exacting rules on educator evaluations and certification—is a huge part of the answer here.

It can create an environment that will both nudge existing programs toward improvement and make room for promising new approaches.

At least, that’s how I’d think about these issues if I had to do it over again.

—Andy Smarick

This blog entry first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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