Teachers need a “road test” to ensure good teaching

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Amee Adkins

Amee Adkins

The preparation of new teachers is receiving a lot of attention these days. Recently, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released a review of educator preparation programs. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration recently announced its plan to renew efforts to develop a rating system for these programs.

As a nation, we need to be confident that new teachers are ready to take over a classroom, will have an impact on student learning and that their higher education programs prepared them well. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “We want to have a national conversation” about quality teacher preparation and teaching effectiveness.

Missing from both the NCTQ report and Duncan’s overture, however, is acknowledgement that teacher educators are already taking charge of improving teacher preparation. Illinois teacher educators and institutions, such as Illinois State University, the University of Illinois-Chicago, Illinois College, St. Francis University and National Louis University, among others, are leading the way. Illinois faculty and administrators have been essential contributors in designing and field testing a nationally available performance assessment that breaks new and essential ground: It requires aspiring teachers to demonstrate for independent review that have the skills that define effective beginning teaching.

This assessment, called the edTPA, is now producing telling data about how well our programs are performing. As a result, we are in a better position than ever to dispute this area of weakness cited by Secretary Duncan.

The focus on performance assessment represented by edTPA (which Illinois is phasing in statewide ) is significant and promising for teacher education here and nationally. Traditionally, our field used multiple-choice tests to measure a prospective teacher’s understanding of how to teach, subject matter, key legal requirements, etc. By contrast, a performance assessment uses materials from actual teaching practice, including lesson plans, student work and an unedited video of a teacher leading instruction. Think of it as the difference between a multiple-choice driver’s license test and the actual road test an aspiring driver must pass. Teaching needs this “road test.”

Defining effective classroom teaching

EdTPA helps determine if a candidate can perform at a professional level in 15 essential areas that contribute to effective instruction. Candidates demonstrate their skills in a portfolio they prepare for independent scoring. To pass, candidates must show they can plan classes, deliver instruction, assess student learning and analyze their own teaching effectiveness. It focuses on what is fundamentally necessary—competence in practices that will improve student learning.

With more states making edTPA a requirement for program completion or licensure, a growing network of teacher educators – led by the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity and the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education – is supporting educators and teacher candidates as they go through this challenging yet rewarding process of preparing to be classroom teachers.

The recent skepticism about teacher preparation will continue. The positive impact is that teacher education is focusing on the need to state clearly and precisely the essential features of effective instruction. Whether one completes a comprehensive teacher preparation program or an alternative route to licensure, we are converging on a common language that describes our expectations of beginning teachers. They must be able to demonstrate they can:

–        Teach toward a meaningful learning objective;

–        Plan instruction based on students’ strengths and needs;

–        Help students engage in and understand content; and

–        Assess if students are learning and include student feedback and results to plan further instruction.

The edTPA is one example of how the profession is defining effective classroom teaching. Educators from Illinois and nationwide are gaining unprecedented clarity on our expectations for professional practice. As in all professions, our aim is almost always truer when we have a clear sight of the target. Today, our aim is to make sure that beginning teachers are prepared to help all students learn from the first day they take over a classroom.

We extend an offer to the Department of Education and other skeptics to learn what we are learning about our candidates, their preparation, and our opportunities to improve.

Amee Adkins is associate dean of the College of Education at Illinois State University.