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Classroom Craft Before Classroom Keys: Changing Paradigms with Teacher Preparation

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By Dan Brown, Executive Director, Future Educators Association (part of the PDK International Family of Associations)

Fresh out of New York University film school in 2003 and with only a whirlwind summer of training, it was pretty clear to me that I wasn’t safe to practice as a new teacher. Still, the New York City Teaching Fellows gave me hiring papers. Fueled by excitement and inspiration, I took a job teaching 26 4th graders in the Bronx that fall. Although I knew virtually zero about effective teaching, I plunged ahead armed with wits and worksheets.

My rookie year in Class 4-217 at P.S. 85 was, of course, a fiasco – lost learning time that those students can’t get back. Visitors to our class would have seen student fights, unceasing chatter and a stressed-out teacher resorting to survival mode and lowered expectations.

I should have had to wait until I could demonstrate a baseline of competency. The practice of heaping everything on underprepared rookies – like my 22-year-old self – needs to stop. In this trial-by-fire culture, everyone loses: students and parents get stuck with low-skilled teachers, new teachers struggle and run for the door, and our education system remains locked in a state of churn.

The lack of a clear, high bar for what new teachers should know and be able to do on day one also has lowered expectations and respect for the teaching profession. I now lead the Future Educators Association, a national organization that supports high school students interested in the teaching profession. I can’t tell you how many times talented aspiring educators are condescendingly grilled about their career choice.

I am eagerly awaiting the details of the Obama Administration’s recently announced plans to strengthen teacher preparation programs. The U.S. Department of Education says 62 percent of new teachers report finishing education school unprepared for the classroom. The President should support the revelatory effort that could matter most in elevating teaching: institutionalizing a teacher “bar exam.”

Recommended in the important 2012 “Raising the Bar” report by the American Federation of Teachers, the teacher “bar exam” would be an authentic, teaching-profession-generated assessment to help determine whether incoming teachers are actually ready for the work.

The good news is that at least one such program exists: edTPA. The bad news is that some are attempting to quash edTPA before it has a chance to take root.

edTPA is modeled after the lauded National Board Certification, which is a rigorous, voluntary assessment process for experienced teachers that is considered the gold standard in the field. Following the National Board’s example, edTPA requires teacher candidates to compile portfolios of student-teaching materials, including videos, student work and reflective essays covering a week of teaching. To pass, you must demonstrate to accomplished educator scorers that you are “safe to practice,” as Deborah Ball, Dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan, puts it.

It’s bona fide. edTPA was jointly developed over the past several years by the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity, the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education and hundreds of teachers nationwide. Institutions from 34 states and Washington, D.C., are now participating. Field-testing involving more than 12,000 candidates wrapped up last fall.

Regrettably, some education schools are resisting edTPA and its attendant focus on performance, arguing it encroaches on academic freedom or represents corporate reform of higher education. For too long, though, America’s 1,400 schools of education have equated the completion of preparation programs with being ready for professional practice. It’s not working; 41 percent flee the profession within five years. A bright light needs to be shone.

Medical schools sounded similar grievances a century ago when the landmark Flexner Report of 1910 called changes the nature of medical preparation by  eviscerating the old “just trust us,” ivory-tower model. Pre-Flexner, each institution had its own home-cookin’ process for determining a doctor’s readiness. Quality varied profoundly. Openings for bad actors were everywhere. Flexner – supported by the Carnegie Foundation and American Medical Association – called foul and laid out a rigorous, standardized route to becoming a doctor. To our great benefit, that path to becoming a professional physician has become embedded in the fabric of our society.

Today, the simmering resistance to edTPA is epitomized by arguments claiming that since edTPA is standardized, it is too impersonal and must be inherently biased against minorities. Also, edTPA’s cost of $300 per taker has been called too burdensome for aspiring teaching professionals to bear. No one makes such claims about medical board or bar exams or other professional entry exams, which are standardized and cost around the same or more than edTPA.

Others argue edTPA considers too little of a teacher’s practice, although it focuses on five “critical dimensions” of teaching (planning, instruction, assessment, analysis of teaching, academic language) that are inspired by the five core propositions of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. You can’t find a more rigorous, profession-vetted framework for accomplished teaching than what the National Board offers.

Will edTPA expose some institutions that haven’t been preparing sufficiently skilled new teachers?  Painfully, yes – but that’s what happens when you put kids first.  Too many new teachers – like me at P.S. 85 – have been getting classroom keys before classroom craft, and that has come at a heavy price. It’s time for policymakers, teacher educators and everybody else to swallow hard and support the challenge and necessity of effective teacher training programs.

Follow Dan Brown on Twitter at @danbrownteacher.

This post was originally published on RealClearEducation.com.

Image from the U.S. National Archives, via Flickr