Want to improve teaching? It'll take teamwork.
I was sitting in my office's reception area recently when Christina Kaiser, the president of the Student Government Association at Wheelock College, entered. In her usual breezy manner, she began to chat with me before she realized that she was actually looking for another office. Before she left, I asked how her student-teaching assignment
was progressing. Christina paused, and her breezy mood abruptly changed. She turned to me and said seriously, "Next week is takeover week." Takeover week is the critical moment in student teachers' lives. It is when their teaching is no longer practice but the real thing, as they undergo strict scrutiny of their classroom teaching and practices. I wished Christina well and told her I was sure she would succeed.
After she left my office, I continued to think about her. Not about whether she would have a successful takeover week, but rather: Has, or will, Christina pass the teacher-certification test? Massachusetts, like many other states across the United States, has taken from the colleges and universities final authority over whether someone can teach. As a result, the test is the real barrier to her becoming a teacher in Massachusetts.
Some conversations have taken place between the State Department of Education and Massachusetts colleges and universities. The state developed guidelines for each subject area in education some time ago, and Wheelock incorporated those frameworks into its curriculum. Wheelock students generally do quite well on the subject matter of the test.
But the dialogue was nearly nonexistent on another component of the teacher test: literacy and communication. There, prospective teachers, including those at Wheelock, do not do as well. In fact, there have been quite stunning failures, and the teacher-preparation colleges in Massachusetts became a matter of public embarrassment last summer and fall.
Although the headlines no longer scream about the failure of prospective teachers, the big question remains: Are teacher-preparation programs really preparing poor educators?
At Wheelock, we have eagerly prepared ways to help students pass the test and begun to prepare ways to address significant changes in the curriculum. With respect to test preparation, for example, a little-known aspect of the test is that even though it takes all day at the relatively isolated UMass-Boston site, no provision was made to have a cafeteria open for the lunch break.
As absurd as it may sound, we found we needed to make sure our students get box lunches so that their afternoon performance reflected something other than blood-sugar level. At the truly academic level, we are looking hard at whether our existing programs are providing adequate training in language and communications skills. We certainly do not dispute our responsibility to make sure that the teachers we train are literate.
I believe the faculty of every teacher-preparation program is prepared to do the same, given reasonable guidelines from the State Department of Education and the Board of Higher Education.
There is ample precedent for this. More than a decade ago, state education officials proposed that all teachers be required to have a liberal-arts and science degree. Wheelock College, which then had only an education major, embraced the requirement. We asked for and received guidance from the then Higher Education Coordinating Council and the Department of Education.
We want that kind of effort to emerge from today's state effort to elevate standards for teachers and teacher-preparation programs.
A recent report by the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts recommended, among other things, that educators should work with state agencies to strengthen teacher training, and that there should be reliable and valid teacher testing. It also suggests eliminating certification of teacher-training programs that don't meet appropriate standards.
I have some additional suggestions that I think can propel the discussion forward and give colleges and universities the impetus to undertake this effort.
First, small groups should be established across the state that will work with colleges and universities, school systems, and state officials to prepare a strong teaching force in the state.
Second, we should congratulate the students who pass the test, rather than pointing out the numbers who do not. Some students are passing with flying colors. Give them a "signing bonus" if, indeed, the state needs to give monetary teacher bonuses at all.
Third, continue to assess and improve the test by consulting with psychological and psychometric groups and other experts on testing methodologies.
At the same time, schools must embed the test-taking process into the fabric of teacher-preparation programs. This doesn't mean that faculty must teach to the test, but that the information from the test gives schools of education an opportunity to improve all aspects of the curriculum.
Above all, don't give up on today's college students who want to be teachers. They are neither the idiots they have been called nor are they like some of the ideologues on either side of this conversation. In the midst of an impending teacher shortage, these students -like Christina, who did well in her takeover week -are committed to becoming teachers. Let's help them do that.
*Marjorie Bakken is president of Wheelock College, a teachers college in Boston.