New requirements make it tougher to become a teacher in Illinois

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Just as Illinois overhauls principal training, similar changes are on the horizon for teachers.

Just as Illinois overhauls principal training, similar changes are on the horizon for teachers.

Both areas are key priorities in the federal Race to the Top program, and winning a grant in the upcoming round would speed up the process, says state spokeswoman Mary Fergus. “Nationally, we are paying attention to how we can assess teacher candidate performance and teacher quality, in [other ways than their students’] achievement test scores,” says Vicki Chou, the dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

The latest step in the process, which began two-and-a-half years ago, will be discussions held this summer among groups of elementary and middle-grades teachers. One area of focus: increasing teachers’ content knowledge, especially among 6th-, 7th-, and 8th-grade teachers. Following these discussions, the state will gather stakeholders to talk about high school math and science teacher training.

Illinois is also one of 20 states participating in a federal pilot project called the Teacher Performance Assessment Consortium. Student teachers at UIC, Illinois State University and Illinois College (a small college in downstate Jacksonville) will undergo a portfolio-based evaluation that Chou says could eventually become a statewide requirement for teacher candidates here.

The portfolio will examine every step of teaching – from lesson plans to a video of instruction delivery – and requires teachers to explain their choices.

“Every single Illinois school of education is using some kind of teacher performance assessment, but each one is idiosyncratic to the institution,” Chou says. “The beauty of trying to have a common assessment is that then you can compare across institutions.”

The evaluation is based on the Performance Assessment for California Teachers, which is used by 30 universities in that state.

Meanwhile, changes to teacher training that have been approved so far include:

*Increasing cut scores on the basic skills test. Starting in September, the threshold will rise to 65 to 80 percent in each subject area, a significant increase over the current cut scores of 35 percent in math, 50 percent in reading and language arts, and 42 percent in writing. Currently, 80 to 85 percent of students pass on their first try, but those percentages are likely to decrease. Universities will have to spend more time preparing prospective teachers whose skills are behind.

As state standards toughen, the University of Illinois at Chicago, National-Louis University, Loyola University, and Northeastern Illinois University – recipients of a $3 million federal Teacher Quality Partnership Grant – are putting prospective teachers through an extra battery of evaluations, surveys and tests.

Starting this fall, freshmen at those schools will take both the state basic skills test (although students are not required to pass it until they are juniors) and the PRAXIS-1, a skills test used in some other states. The assessments will help professors identify the students who need help with basic skills earlier on.

“Given the new cut scores that are coming this fall, we are trying to understand where we are going to have to provide additional help,” Chou says.

* Requiring schools of education to turn in data each year on program performance. The change starts this spring, and universities must also note any changes to their curricula and weaknesses they are trying to address.

“This is a way to make sure they are on top of things on a regular basis,” says Patrick Murphy, an ISBE administrator for educator and school development. Data will be reviewed at State Teacher Certification Board meetings.

*Limiting the number of times candidates can take any certification or endorsement test. As of February, it was capped at five. The cap was instituted because some candidates apparently were not taking the tests seriously, says Linda Tomlinson, assistant superintendent at ISBE. “They would sign up for multiple tests, almost with the idea of ‘I’ll keep taking it and I’ll pass it,’ ” Tomlinson says.

*Toughening the content knowledge requirements for high school teachers. Currently, prospective teachers can earn most endorsements either by taking 32 hours of coursework at any level, or by taking 24 credit hours and passing an endorsement test. But starting in February 2012, all candidates will have to pass a content area test, and of the 24 required credit hours, half must be upper-division classes. 

Previously, candidates could take multiple freshman-level courses and “maybe they couldn’t meet the standards and have the depth of content knowledge we’d been asking for,” Tomlinson says. “There’s been research showing more content knowledge leads to more effective teaching.”

High school science and social studies teachers, who have always had to take 32 credit hours and pass a subject test, will now be subject to even stricter requirements if they want to teach more than one subject in their field. For instance, a high school biology teacher who wants to begin teaching physics would simply have to pass a test to do so; now, they will have to earn at least 12 credit hours in physics as well as pass a test.