This summer in Oregon, education leaders brought together teaching professors and school officials to improve teacher training. The June institute followed a national report, critical of training programs. And new teachers will soon be asked to pass a new standardized test. Think of it as a Common Core for teachers in training.
The National Council on Teacher Quality recently blasted teacher preparation programs across the country - including those in Oregon.
The Council's Arthur McKee says the programs aren't selective enough. And, McKee says when aspiring teachers get to the education college - they're not learning what they should. Take reading, for instance.
McKee: "In Oregon, if anything the picture is more bleak - 70 percent of the programs are not covering any of the essential strategies of reading instruction."
Oregon's chief education officer, Nancy Golden, says in the past, reading instruction was something some teachers specialized in, but many teachers didn't have to learn. She says that's changing.
Nancy Golden: "Every teacher - particularly elementary teachers have to know how to teach reading, and really, every teacher, along the way, that's part of their job, because it's so critical to success."
Reading is just part of a bigger shift backed by groups like the National Council, and Oregon officials like Nancy Golden. Simply put, for new teachers to be better prepared, education colleges need to be more connected to classrooms.
Videos like this one filmed at Oregon's recent summer institute are designed to help with that. Teachers-in-training will soon have to submit a video of their student teaching as part of a new performance-based exit exam. The exam is called "ed-T-P-A" - that last part stands for "teacher performance assessment."
Saroja Barnes is with the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education. At Oregon's recent conference, Barnes said the videos are just part of what a teacher candidate submits for the edTPA. Oregon programs already tend to require the other pieces, like instruction plans and work samples, tied to specific lessons.
Saroja Barnes: "So it's really a deep dive slice into a candidate's practice - one piece, in a moment of time, of their practice - from beginning to end."
Barnes says edTPA was developed at Stanford University to focus on three aspects of teaching: planning lessons, instructing students, and assessing learning.
The tests cover more than two-dozen content areas. They won't necessarily replace other licensing requirements, but Barnes says they will bring big changes. She reminds education professors that teachers can be reluctant to change - but she says they're not the only ones.
Saroja Barnes: "We laugh about those classroom teachers that blow the dust off the worksheets in September, and then they xerox some for this year, but come on - a lot of us, and a lot of our colleagues have been getting away with that for a very long time in teacher ed, and this is the time that we have to be imaginative again."
But for teachers in training, the edTPA is spreading quickly. Just a year after becoming fully operational, it's in teaching programs in 34 states. Some places, it came too quickly.
Keith Menk: "States like Wisconsin or New York, that had a very short implementation - ran into some difficulties."
Keith Menk with Oregon's Teachers Standards and Practices Commission is supervising a four-year rollout of the test. In that time, Oregon will go from planning the tests for teacher candidates to actually requiring them to finish a teaching degree.
Katie Ledwell with Teachers College in New York City calls her state's two-year implementation "reckless." It's slowing down, now. Ledwell told Oregon's education professors not to waste any of that time, because there's a lot to figure out.
Katie Ledwell: "The edTPA is really new - and it took some dialogue to help faculty understand that this is something that is happening in our student teaching placements and has everything to do with what we're teaching, day-in and day-out, kind of whether we like it or not. And my pitch to you would be 'find a way to like it'."
Saroja Barnes with the teaching college association notes that ed professors should like it - because it was created by teaching faculty.
Saroja Barnes: "This is not something that was developed by some testing company and packaged and sold to states. This is something that was developed by a professional community of educators."
Outside companies didn't develop the edTPA, but textbook giant, Pearson, is helping distribute it. Pearson also had a hand in the national push for the new public school standards called "Common Core." Both edTPA and Common Core aim to standardize across state lines – one for current students, one for future teachers. I asked Saroja Barnes about these similarities.
Rob: "It reminds me of a Common Core for teachers."
Saroja Barnes: "Yeah. Essentially. That's a good comparison to make. It's an appropriate comparison to make, too, because - not all the states are on board the Common Core, same thing with edTPA. (laughing)
They're fighting it. So that's a good metaphor. It's about common standards."
There's not a federal push for edTPA the way there is for Common Core. Barnes says where teaching professors aren't fighting the new test - the test is changing how teaching schools operate.
Saroja Barnes: "There's not an institution using edTPA that hasn't experienced increased collaboration within programs and across programs, quite honestly, because it doesn't work if that's not there. So yeah, it's a culture changer."
It's up to states what to do with the teaching exam. They don't have to use edTPA. If they do use it, state officials can decide what constitutes a passing score. That flexibility is a concern for Arthur McKee at the National Council on Teacher Quality.
Arthur McKee: "If they set the cut score so low, that essentially anyone could pass it, regardless of the quality of the preparation, then it is a meaningless exercise."
Keith Menk at the Teachers Standards and Practices Commission doesn't know where Oregon will set that score. But he argues the passing rate may be quite high for a different reason.
Keith Menk: "Faculty and candidates will know, with pretty good certainty, before anyone sits to take that exam, or submits the information, who's going to be successful. This gives them an opportunity to bring other resources to support the person before they support the material."
Teaching professors are concerned that the test's 300-dollar cost could become the most expensive part of getting a license. State officials say they don't want the cost to keep good candidates from entering the teaching profession.
Copyright 2014 OPB