Zeroing In on Teachers
by Ann Bradley
hen nearly 60 percent of the would-be teachers who took Massachusetts' first-ever licensure exam flunked last year, the shock waves reverberated throughout the state and beyond. Teacher testing quickly became an issue in the gubernatorial race. Acting Gov. Paul Cellucci, the Republican candidate who went on to win the election, called during the campaign for all Massachusetts teachers to take competency tests--and lose their jobs if they failed.
Commentators nationwide pointed fingers: Columnist Robert J. Samuelson, for one, concluded that the results "suggest that some of the nation's 3.1 million teachers belong elsewhere."
But as the dust settled, Massachusetts policymakers charted a less punitive course that reflects a growing awareness among states of their own responsibility in helping to produce a pool of high-caliber teachers.
"An accountability system can only be as good as those people it's measuring," Betty Preston, the president of the Missouri state school board, says. "We talk a lot about student performance and standards. Now we're talking about bringing teachers to the point where they really have the tools they need."
Some states, to be sure, hold principals and teachers accountable for results, particularly if they work in low-performing schools. Principals can and do lose their jobs. Ten states have laws giving them the authority to remove principals or teachers from low-performing schools. Seven states have the power to "reconstitute" a school, requiring all or most of its faculty to reapply for their jobs. Only a handful of states have actually used such powers.
Singling out teachers for poor performance is a tricky proposition for which few states have much stomach. Two that have vast databases of student test scores--Tennessee and
Texas--come closest to linking teachers' performance with that of their students. In Tennessee, the Value-Added Assessment System generates information on the performance of each teacher's students that principals may use, if they choose, in recommending professional development. The results are kept confidential.
William L. Sanders, a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who designed the testing system, says it has been used "very lightly" to evaluate teachers. That's as it should be, he says: "None of this is to be about a punitive process, but to provide positive, diagnostic information."
At the same time, though, Sanders' research has underscored the dramatic effects skilled teachers have on student performance. "The evidence is just so overwhelming," he says. "When kids have very ineffective teachers--especially if they catch multiple [poor teachers]--they never recover."
In Texas, an appraisal system that went into effect in 1997-98 requires districts to take student performance into account when evaluating teachers. Under the Professional Development and Appraisal System, a portion of each teacher's evaluation is based on the school's performance.
Nolan Wood, a senior director with the Texas Education Agency, says the system is designed to encourage collaboration in schools and cut down on the infighting among teachers that individual ratings can inspire.
Lawmakers in North Carolina backed away last spring from going through with the nation's most stringent accountability plan involving teachers.
The state's 1996 ABCs of Public Education law required teachers in 15 of the state's 30 low-performing schools to take a test of general knowledge--a sharply debated proposition from the start. Employees who failed the test three times were to be dismissed.
As the testing date loomed, policymakers grew concerned that the measure would only make it harder to recruit teachers for troubled schools, while the North Carolina Association of Educators threatened a lawsuit. At the last minute, legislators scrapped the testing requirement. Instead, the state broadened its efforts to assist low-performing schools with NC HELPS, a project to provide money and professional-development activities to schools whose students are struggling. In low-performing schools, external-review teams can still recommend that teachers whose basic competency is in question take the test. Those who fail the exam twice can be barred from teaching.
In fact, the state board of education is now embroiled in a dispute with two Robeson County teachers who were recommended for dismissal last spring by an assistance team at Rex-Rennert Elementary School in Shannon. Both teachers received two poor performance evaluations.
Exercising its powers under the accountability law, the board fired the teachers last June. But the county school board immediately rehired the teachers, claiming that the state action infringed on local control over hiring and firing decisions.
Instead of dismissing teachers, a new provision of the accountability law allows the state to revoke their licenses, making it difficult for them to get another job in North Carolina.
Both teachers are petitioning to be reinstated, a process that may take a year.
In Massachusetts, the dismal results on the licensure exam produced similar efforts to look at the broader picture. Interim Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll called on policymakers to "use the results of the teacher tests to move aggressively in strengthening Massachusetts' future teaching force."
Last summer, the state enacted legislation aimed at recruiting the best and brightest into teaching. It calls for creating a corps of 1,000 master teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and stiffening the requirements that veteran teachers must meet to keep their licenses. Selected rookie teachers will receive $20,000 signing bonuses, to be paid over four years.
Concerns about teacher quality, while not new, are taking on a new urgency as schools face the need to hire some 2 million teachers over the next decade. In the face of soaring enrollment and pressure to reduce class sizes, some fear that states will take the low road to keep classrooms full, dooming efforts to improve learning in the process.
Already, districts are having trouble finding principals. The job has become a hot seat as schools are increasingly judged on the basis of their students' performance on tests.
A multistate partnership to devise a new test for states to use in licensing principals and superintendents is finding fewer takers than expected, says Joseph Murphy, the chairman of the department of leadership and organizations at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. He chairs the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium, a project of more than 30 states interested in improving the quality of school administration.
As of last fall, only four states had signed on to give the School Leaders Licensure Assessment, which is notable for its emphasis on teaching and learning as the core of a principal's job. Mississippi plans to use the results of the test to hold colleges and universities responsible for their graduates' passing rates.
In administration, "demand is beginning to take the upper hand against supply," Murphy says. "As soon as we don't have enough, there goes the standards."
Advocates for professional-accountability mechanisms for teachers--including rigorous preservice education at accredited institutions, licensing examinations, and national certification--argue that policymakers should seize the moment.
"A very effective strategy is to get it right the first time, to properly prepare teachers the first time around," argues Arthur E. Wise, the president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. "In the past, we have not necessarily done that."
Even with today's increasing awareness of the importance of good teaching to student learning, costly and time-consuming changes in arcane procedures such as licensure are a hard political sell.
Nancy Doorey, a member of the Delaware state school board, believes states should focus on professional development for teachers before focusing on accountability measures or other more popular reforms. But that argument "doesn't get on the radar screen of politicians," she complains.
"Can you get that consensus moved into the political arena for the proactive building of the profession?" she asks. "Or do you only do the put-out-the-fire method and headline grabbers like reduced class size?"
The two largest states, California and New York, took dramatic steps last year toward greater professional accountability. In California, Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation requiring beginning teachers to undergo a two-year induction program to earn permanent licenses. The state will spend $66 million a year to pay for the assistance.
Such programs--which pair novice teachers with expert mentors--are seen as a valuable strategy for states that wish to cut down on the high rates of attrition among new teachers.
The New York state board of regents' task force on teaching tackled the issue with numerous policy changes. New teachers are to be mentored in their first year on the job, although the state must still provide funds for such programs. And for the first time, teachers will have to meet professional-development requirements to keep their licenses.
The 175-hour requirement over five years, which takes effect for teachers receiving licenses after Sept. 1, 2000, is noteworthy because the activities must be related to the state's standards and assessments for students.
And by 2004, all of the state education schools must become accredited, either through a national accrediting organization or by a process devised by the regents.
Districts will be held accountable for evaluating teachers through the state's school report cards, which beginning in 2001 must include the results of teacher evaluations. The report cards will show how many teachers were rated unsatisfactory and how many were dismissed.
Antonia Cortese, the first vice president of New York State United Teachers, the 400,000-member state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, calls the requirements "humiliating to teachers."
"There are some things that are anti-teacher" in the report from the regents' task force, she says. "But the fact that they recognize that meaningful staff development has to really take place at the school district and building level and is the responsibility of the district is an important step."
Another 12 states are working in partnership with the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, a private, bipartisan panel that in 1996 made ambitious recommendations for ensuring that every classroom has a qualified teacher. The commission's recommendations amount to a blueprint for professional accountability. In the past five years, the number of states teaming up with NCATE to approve teacher education programs has doubled, to 44. The state partnerships suggest that the standards set by the profession for teaching and expectations devised by states are beginning to mesh.
A group of 30 states known as the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium also has made headway in devising common, rigorous standards for what beginning teachers should know and be able to do. Those standards, in turn, serve as the basis for new assessments now under development that will look at how candidates for licensure actually perform teaching tasks.
Finally, states are embracing the voluntary, advanced professional certification offered to outstanding teachers by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The privately organized group, based in Southfield, Mich., puts teachers through a rigorous battery of assessments and classroom exercises. Thirty states now offer teachers some type of incentive to seek board certification, such as paying the fee for the assessments or raising the pay of teachers who make the grade.
In effect, says Susan Fuhrman, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania's graduate school of education, states are beginning to embrace their role in teacher quality. Managing individual teachers is then a district responsibility.
"The state is saying, 'We are assuring that you have a quality pool from which to hire, and we will keep the pool of practicing teachers at a certain quality by recertification requirements,' " she observes.
The trouble now is that states haven't yet developed good assessments of teachers' knowledge and skills, Fuhrman says, and are still relying on tests that may have little relationship to classroom practice. And requirements for practicing teachers to gain a certain number of credit hours to keep their licenses are still "crude measures," she argues.
"By the same token," she adds, "if we know anything from research over a 30-year period about what affects student achievement, it's teacher quality. So concern is focused on the right issue."
Not everyone agrees, though, that making teaching a profession through accountability and gatekeeping measures similar to those in law and medicine is the right approach. The only thing that will change teachers' behavior is consequences, asserts Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, which promotes charter schools and other market-oriented initiatives.
"The will is not present to reward or punish building-level educators for whether the kids in their building learn or not," he says. "I don't think recommendations for fixing the teaching pool are likely to alter the behavior of individual teachers and principals in schools, and the name of this game has got to be altering behavior."
A nationally representative survey conducted by Public Agenda for Quality Counts shows that educators generally resist such high-stakes consequences, while parents and employers support them. ("Reality Check.") Although 77 percent of employers and 70 percent of parents said it's a "good idea" to eliminate tenure for principals and terminate their contracts if their schools fail to reach specific goals, 64 percent of teachers opposed the idea.
Education schools are an increasingly popular focus for state accountability efforts. Beginning this year, New York will hold teacher education programs accountable for their graduates' performance on state tests.
If fewer than 80 percent of a program's graduates pass one or more licensing exams, and if deficient programs don't show improvement toward meeting that target, they won't be permitted to produce teachers. Currently, the pass rates of institutions range from as low as 30 percent to as high as 100 percent of teacher candidates, the regents' task force found.
Beginning in 2000, under a bill pending in the Massachusetts legislature, education schools would be in danger of losing their right to prepare teachers if 20 percent or more of their graduates flunked state tests for two years in a row.
Texas and Florida now take passing rates into account in making decisions about allowing teacher-preparation programs to operate.
The federal Higher Education Act, reauthorized last year, also includes new reporting requirements that will force institutions to make public their students' scores on licensing tests.
In Texas, programs that don't show improvement with the help of technical-assistance teams can lose their approval to prepare teachers entirely or in a specific field.
Education schools in Florida, to remain approved by the state, must have 80 percent of their students pass state licensing tests. Last year, the state required them to track novice teachers and find out whether their employers were satisfied--information that the state also will consider in making judgments about the programs.
In Georgia, the board of regents of the state university system approved a plan last year for enhancing teacher quality that includes a guarantee of its graduates.
And Georgia is pledging to bring an end to out-of-field teaching, the practice of assigning teachers to courses for which they have no formal academic preparation. To hold districts accountable for how teachers are assigned, the board of regents called for a "truth in advertising" policy requiring districts to list the academic majors and minors of all of their teachers.
Nicholas Michelli, the dean of the college of education at Montclair State University in Upper Montclair, N.J., says education schools believe accountability is important, so long as consumers realize that the schools aren't responsible for teaching prospective teachers everything they are expected to know.
Most licensure tests, he contends, measure content taught in arts and sciences courses, not the pedagogical knowledge that is the province of education programs.
"If the tests that are used measure content knowledge, then we have to be certain that we hold everyone responsible for that," Michelli says. "Colleges of education have always depended on arts and sciences and the quality of experience in public schools. As long as accountability measures reflect that, that's appropriate."
More about the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium, from the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Read NCATE's draft standards and reports.
Read more about NBPTS' standards.
Read the executive summary of "What Matters Most: Teaching for America's Future," from the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future.
PHOTOS: "An accountability system can only be as good as those
people it's measuring," says Betty Preston, the president of the Missouri school
board. She says teachers need help in getting the tools they need to do the job.
Vol. 18, number 17, page 46