INDIANAPOLIS — Armed with clipboard and pencil, John Somers, an associate professor of teacher education, watches over a group of sixth-graders and two teachers-in-training at an Indianapolis elementary school.
“A small concert hall has 98 seats and seven rows,” one aspiring teacher from the University of Indianapolis tells the children. “How many seats are there per row?”
After a few moments, answers are shared. “I divided seven by 98,” says one student, reversing the order of the equation. The teachers remain silent.
Somers jots down several notes and steps outside into the hallway, mulling over the moment.
“I wish … that one of them would have said, ‘That’s interesting, tell me more,’ ” he says of the student-teachers.
The Hechinger Report and Indianapolis Star have teamed up to produce a series on new teacher effectiveness measures in Indiana.
Somers debriefs lessons with all of his university trainees. He points out how they might have responded, or describes examples of poor preparation and ill-conceived questions. Once a week, his class of 32 undergraduates teams up with the Decatur Elementary Learning Center and teaches lessons to sixth-graders in need of extra math help.
The program is an example of how UIndy’s education school—home to 304 students seeking bachelor’s and master’s degrees—has redoubled its efforts to incorporate classroom experience early and often into its teacher-training program.
It is part of a larger effort to keep up with the latest trends in teacher preparation, in response to rising federal pressure to improve the training and quality of U.S. teachers.
Starting next year, Indiana will join a growing number of states assigning letter grades to teacher-preparation programs. Those grades—meant to reflect how well trainees fare in the classroom—will be based in part on students’ performance on standardized tests.
UIndy, along with colleges of education across the state, has concerns about the process and especially whether letter grades will lead to improvement. In the meantime, the education school’s leaders are doing their best to head off the critics.
For example, UIndy is actively recruiting those interested in switching to teaching careers. But the school is also part of a consortium trying to develop a performance assessment—one that would-be teachers would have to pass to be licensed—where trainees would be rated on actual lessons they teach.
It’s now generally accepted wisdom that, when it comes to influencing student achievement, teachers are the most important in-school factor. In response, politicians, researchers and teachers unions have all called for revamping teacher-training programs.
Such programs have faced harsh critiques in recent years, including criticism from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. In October 2009, Duncan said “many if not most of the nation’s 1,450 schools, colleges, and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st century classroom.”
Detractors argue the curriculum isn’t robust enough and, ultimately, the education schools don’t produce effective teachers.
“We’ve created a system of schools where you just have to basically go and buy your credential in the form of tuition dollars,” said Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute. “We’ve conflated that with you’re effective. You get hired and you get a job for life. I think that does a great deal to undermine the profession.”
‘Attracting the best’
Many education schools in Indiana say they’ve made improvements in recent years. Some note they have increased their focus on teaching diverse students and English language learners. Others say they’ve incorporated more classroom experiences into the curriculum so trainees have opportunities to observe, tutor and student-teach.
These pockets of change, however, haven’t quieted the critics calling for massive overhauls.
Indiana’s education schools “need to get much, much better,” said David Harris, president of The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit group that tries to bring national reform efforts to the city. “They need to have more rigor … They need to have higher admission standards.”
According to the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), only 4 percent of teacher-education schools are housed in highly selective institutions, and often the college of education is the least selective program on a given campus.
Critics maintain that low admission standards discourage high-quality students from entering the field.
“One of the biggest challenges we have,” he said, “is breaking through the noise—the perception that teacher-preparation quality is low.”
Across Indiana and nationally, applications to teacher-education programs are down, in large part due to recent teacher layoffs that indicate the profession no longer has a reputation for job security.
In response, the University of Indiana has started a scholarship program that sends students abroad for a teaching experience of eight to 10 weeks. It’s open only to those who earned a 3.7 GPA or better in high school. Next year, the school will also offer more general scholarships to students who maintain good grades.
“We’re taking cost off the table,” González said. “You can graduate without debt. That’s important in terms of attracting the best students.”
Countries such as Finland and Singapore, which are often cited as having the best student results in the world, make a point of providing teacher training for free.
The movement toward ratings
As states work on developing systems to measure teacher-training programs, the NCTQ is devising its own ratings. It has met resistance from many teacher-preparation programs that dislike the organization’s methodology.
The group plans to use information such as the syllabus for each course and descriptions of student-teaching procedures to develop a letter grade for each education school in the country. Indiana Superintendent of Education Tony Bennett sits on the project’s technical advisory panel.
“We have a set of 17 standards that really get at what programs are designed to do,” said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of NCTQ. “We’re very much trying to tell them what you can improve on.”
Moran, along with many other deans of education schools across Indiana, has been asking for years that the state department of education supply her with data on how her graduates are performing in the classroom. But she’s opposed to the criteria the NCTQ is using. For example, she doesn’t believe that looking at each course’s syllabus accurately reveals how well her program works.
“A global grade doesn’t give you feedback,” she said. “How can [information] come back in a way that helps?”
Most of the state’s training programs now conduct surveys with their alumni and local principals, using the feedback to tweak programs. Some schools do more. Butler University, for instance, conducts focus groups with graduates and invites current students to participate in faculty meetings.
The University of Chicago’s Knowles, however, thinks such efforts still fall short.
“How do you know other than your anecdote that your graduates are good?” he said. “Show me data about how many people are actually still teaching, where they’re teaching.”
Although Indiana’s Department of Education is unsure exactly which data it will collect to devise its ratings, it does have a starting point: students’ standardized test-scores, available in many core subjects in grades 3 to 8.
“We know that’s not going to paint the whole picture,” said Marg Mast, director of educator effectiveness and leadership in the state education department. “It’s one step, and it’s the right step.”
Ena Shelley, dean of Butler University’s College of Education, said she wants to see teacher portfolios, peer reviews and parent surveys, among other things, included in the final ratings of education schools. Most importantly, though, she wants the state department of education to include her and her peers in the process.
“It would be a real travesty if they don’t, because we have so much to offer to one another,” she said. “This isn’t about power and control.”
But grading the state’s teacher-education programs isn’t enough, the NCTQ’s Jacobs said.
“That’s not an accountability system,” she said. “An accountability system is, ‘Here’s the standard you have to meet. If you don’t meet it, there’s a consequence.’ ”
A version of this story appeared in The Indianapolis Star on March 15, 2012.