Teacher training in Missouri facing stronger scrutiny

Written by Muleskinner Staff

(ST. LOUIS, AP) — College programs that train Missouri’s future teachers are facing an unprecedented level of scrutiny as the state overhauls how educators are certified.
The changes — which mirror a national push in the past decade for higher teacher education standards — have come under fire not only for the way they have been enacted, but for the premise behind them.
Many of the people who run teacher education programs caution that in the rush to fix struggling K-12 schools, data is often misinterpreted, teachers are blamed and teacher colleges become scapegoats, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported (http://bit.ly/1xXsJmk ).
But supporters say teacher programs have long suffered from a lack of rigor. In a recent report, for example, the National Council on Teacher Quality concluded that students in teaching programs were more likely to graduate with better grades than their peers in other majors.
Missouri’s plan to evaluate how well teachers colleges perform is still being rolled out, with parts already enacted and others in development. Its aim is twofold.
First, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is developing a yearly report card for each program in the state.
The second step includes replacing teacher assessment tests with new ones and increasing the number of tests required to graduate.
This means that teaching candidates will have more opportunities to fail under the state’s new rules. In the past, there were two high-stakes tests required for graduation. Now there are a minimum of four, with some programs requiring six.
Missouri has roughly 50 teachers colleges. In total, they offer 700 different programs. They prepare teaching candidates to teach the full-range of subjects offered in K-12 schools.
Carole Basile, dean of the College of Education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said she supports the concept of holding the programs accountable. But she said figuring out how to do that isn’t simple.
“There absolutely has to be a way for the state to define what quality teacher education looks like,” she said.
“But we are also just one piece of the system,” Basile said. “Once a teacher walks into a classroom, what’s the responsibility of the school district? Is there the kind of culture and climate that allows them to actually practice what they’ve learned?”
A centerpiece of the state’s plan involves developing report cards for each teacher college program in the state. Officially, they will be known as Annual Performance Reports for Education Preparation Programs. They aren’t expected to debut for another year or so.
Report cards will be compiled by looking at how well teaching candidates have mastered their chosen teaching subject, their grade-point average and responses to surveys sent to schools.
Missouri’s education department will send surveys to newly graduated teachers and their principals. They will cover how well the teachers were prepared to handle their first year in the classroom.
Nationally, there is a growing push to hold teaching colleges accountable if children educated by their graduates perform poorly on standardized exams. Missouri officials, however, say such changes could be years away.
The new Missouri tests and the report cards will replace an evaluation system that Gale Hairston, a director with the state’s education department, said evaluated teachers colleges only every seven years and mainly looked backward.
“This new system is a system where we are looking at continuous improvement,” Hairston said. “We can look at how they are doing on an annual basis and guide them to where they need to go.”
But with any government reform, there are concerns.
“This (overhaul) is part of the myth that these programs are not good enough because not enough of our students fail,” said Diana Rogers-Adkinson, dean of the Southeast Missouri State University’s College of Education.
Adkinson said she’s concerned that the new system hasn’t been honed enough to distinguish between programs. For instance, it takes different measures to evaluate a music teacher versus a special education teacher.
She added that small programs are at a greater risk of being seen as failures by the state compared to larger ones. A program with only four students would be characterized as having a 50-percent failure rate, should two students fail a test required to graduate.
“I just think we are moving away from a system where they actually came out and observed and talked to people,” Adkinson said. “Now they just want numbers.”
Another new wrinkle includes the Missouri Educator Profile that seeks to create a personality profile for each teacher candidate.
The idea is to find the candidates who have the temperament to work in different classroom settings, and to weed out those who don’t.
Four of the new tests have been phased in, with the remainder on schedule to go live this fall.
David Huff, the dean of the College of Education at Missouri State University said he sees a potential problem with candidates being tested in areas they haven’t yet studied.
He likened it to a candidate in their junior year planning to teach high school social studies. The student has already planned his or her path to graduation and completed the courses necessary to graduate.
The new rules, however, require the student to take new tests that might quiz the candidate on a subject like British history, which the student was not previously required to study, Huff said.
“So now they have to go back and take two or three new courses in order to graduate,” he said. “The state is doing it backward. We haven’t had the opportunity to redo our curriculum to fit the new standards.”
Paul Katnik, an assistant commissioner with Missouri’s education department, acknowledges that the new set of assessments are a work in progress.
But he said the end result will be a reliable way to determine what a successful teaching program looks like.
“We are right on the cusp of having data that will finally tell us something,” he said.