Accreditation focuses more on ability to teach

National council looks beyond college grades to graduates' fieldwork


KENT, Ohio - Many states hand out a teacher's license to any graduate of an education college approved by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education - a consortium of education colleges, teachers unions and other established public education groups.

This has not ensured that beginning teachers would be effective. For example, the council checked whether colleges offered courses in pedagogy, the science of teaching, but did not ask if students learned anything useful in them.

The council revamped its standards this year. It now accredits education colleges only if graduates get good scores on tests of subject matter and teaching skills. It also demands evidence that teacher-candidates can teach.

This month, a team of six council examiners visited Kent State University to investigate whether the new standards are being met.

Education majors typically do a full semester of practice teaching just before graduation. But Kent State students now must also engage in fieldwork for many courses to observe classes and make diagnoses and occasionally offer lessons at nearby schools.

Such experiences generate portfolios that include lesson plans and pupil work samples from classes the college students taught, analyses of pupils' learning difficulties written by the teacher-candidates, journals in which Kent State students evaluate teacher lessons and pupil behaviors, critiques of lessons found on the Internet, and assessments by experienced teachers of the college students' instructional skills. Some videotapes of these candidates making their first stabs at teaching were included.

Kay Hegler, a professor of education at Doane College in Nebraska, was one of the council examiners who pored through the portfolios. Hegler says she concluded that the apprentice teachers' work led to significant learning by the pupils they taught.

The new accreditation rules also require extensive cooperation from neighboring schools. When teacher-candidates used to get almost all their practice in one semester of practice teaching, host teachers often were not involved in evaluating them. But now, with standards demanding careful documentation of continuous fieldwork, Kent State and other universities require the help of school principals and experienced teachers to design the training and rate the future teachers.

The standards also aim to end the isolation of education schools from their university arts and sciences departments. At Kent State, there are joint projects between education and regular academic departments. In one case, professors of math and of math education co-taught classes to ensure that students (both future teachers and future mathematicians) experienced techniques that student teachers would later be expected to use.

Scheduling of regular academic courses and those in teaching methods is better coordinated so candidates can take them in proper sequence. This didn't always happen when professors of education worked independently from those in arts and sciences.

The accreditation council is not solely responsible for such reforms. Some were under way at Kent State before the new standards were adopted.

The council could further strengthen its impact by broadening its teams, now made up almost entirely of educators. The Kent State group was chaired by the retired dean of the University of Nevada's education school, and one member was said to represent the public as an officer of the National School Boards Association.

Team members could recognize good teaching, but their report might still lead critics to see the process as stacked in favor of an "education establishment." Why not include business leaders or state legislators on such teams? Public members like these may not discern technical flaws in lesson plans, but could enhance the credibility of the process.

Research indicates that brighter teachers (those who score higher on math and reading tests) get better results from their students. Some critics of teacher-hiring procedures conclude from this that states should simply end certification rules for teachers. Then, the critics say, principals could hire bright college graduates who never attended an education school.

But if accreditation visits like the one at Kent State become the norm, the critics' conclusion may be unwarranted. Research also shows that taking education courses leads to improved student achievement. Rather than bypass teacher certification, it makes more sense to improve graduation standards at colleges of education, ensuring that certified teachers have the skills to be effective.

Enforcement of the new accreditation rules could then render obsolete the kinds of national debates we have about teacher quality.

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