Teaching the Teachers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Catching some observers by surprise with their passion, teachers and education officials wrestled in this legislative session over the proposed independence of a state teachers' board. It was a struggle over basic questions: Who is qualified to teach in Maryland's public schools? And who is qualified to make that decision?

At a time when Maryland educational reform demands of students a new way of thinking, it follows that the state's attention is turning to how the state's 45,000 teachers teach -- and to how they are prepared to teach.

"The more we concentrated on school improvement, we realized an absolutely critical part of that is the classroom teacher," said Rochelle Clemson, assistant state superintendent for certification. "What you really want is a system that attracts the best, retains the best and filters out the worst."

Before the hearings in Annapolis ended last week, legislators heard about the merits of apprenticeships vs. college classwork. Liberal-arts vs. "clinical" training. Teachers vs. others as policy-makers.

But the debate is not new. And Maryland is hardly alone.

In school circles nationally, the buzzwords for this debate are "professional standards." The issue is quality control. It is the topic of the times for teacher unions, universities, boards of education and legislatures.

"The entire state of what we refer to as 'teacher development' is in flux," said Susan Carmon, senior policy analyst for the National Education Association.

A NATIONAL MOVEMENT

Can good teacher training be boiled down to a recipe -- say, two parts technique, two parts academics, add dedication liberally? How much training is enough for career-changers seeking alternative routes to jobs in the classroom? Who decides?

In Maryland, teacher development decisions have been made by the state Board of Education, which is appointed by the governor and approved by the legislature. The education board is advised by a 25-member professional standards board; members are appointed by unions, education groups and politicians. Most states have a similar arrangement, but the powers of regulatory boards and the standards they set differ broadly.

For NEA members, the focus is not just on what policies are best for career development, but on who sets policies.

NEA members' goal is to nudge policy-makers toward putting greater control over standards in the hands of teachers. They are using political clout to wrest control over standards from state boards of education. State policy-makers who must share or lose those powers have proved to be formidable obstacles.

Teachers' attempts to win greater powers for Maryland's advisory board -- the Professional Standards and Teacher Education Board -- date back at least 20 years, according to the Maryland State Teachers Association, an NEA chapter.

Four years ago, a compromise was forged, with Maryland's standards board and state school board sharing decision-making. However, the school board retained -- and began using -- its veto power.

Since then, the school board has passed significant changes for licensing and training. For example, last year it required teachers to earn satisfactory work evaluations three out of every five years order to renew their licenses. The MSTA opposed that requirement, calling it a step backward. Previously, the only requirements for recertification were to pay a $10 fee and complete several hours of course work.

The state board heeded some of the standards boards' suggestions in this and other matters, but tussles continued. The old wound festered as the union again asked legislators for separate powers for the standards board.

What made 1995 different for the union was the narrow victory in November of Gov. Parris N. Glendening. The MSTA supported Mr. Glendening, a college professor who published his views in a widely distributed campaign pamphlet:

"Teachers agree that we must have standards of performance )) and responsibility. But it is education professionals -- not bureaucrats -- who can best develop these standards and demand excellence from their peers."

He backtracked for a time publicly, calling for a compromise between the union and his education department. Privately, school board and union members said, his support for the autonomous standards board never flagged.

In this year's heated debate, each board's supporters would claim that it was the more reform-minded.

Turning policy-making power over to a board influenced by the teachers' union "would seriously undermine five years of progress in school reform," Christopher T. Cross, state school board president wrote in a letter to state delegates. The power to regulate licenses and to mandate reform should be linked, not separated, he said.

"I do not consider the purpose of this board to roll back regulations," said Karl Pence, MSTA's president. He added, "The state Board of Education would do well to revisit many of the regulations it has passed."

Last week, Maryland became the 13th state to give licensing powers to a standards board. North Carolina and West Virginia joined the movement in the last year; California was the first in 1970.

TRAINING TEACHERS

Where these latest developments leave many of Maryland's reforms is unclear. What is certain is that the state's teachers, like those nationwide, are witnessing -- and influencing -- change.

"This area is long overdue for attention," said Arthur Wise, president of the National Council on Accreditation of Teacher Education. He is often referred to as "the father of professional standards," and has monitored the formation of standards boards and professional standards nationwide.

He said the pressures of supply and demand sometimes cause school districts to sacrifice quality, especially in urban and rural regions that are not considered desirable workplaces.

As a society, he said, "We have been rather casual about preparing teachers and licensing teachers. It is as if you declare a person is fit to drive from the moment you give them a learner's permit."

Much of the focus of late has been on making teacher training more rigorous -- and more relevant.

Maryland's goal has been to align teacher training with the reforms taking place in its schoolrooms, said Ms. Clemson, the assistant state superintendent for certification. And just as students should be, teacher candidates should be judged not just by time spent sitting in class and by tests of memorized facts, she said. Rather, she said, they should be evaluated more by performance and by growth chronicled in portfolios and journals.

In March, in step with education reformers nationwide, Maryland's school board and the state's Higher Education Commission called for the end of the status quo at Maryland teacher training colleges.

Their proposal recommends that college undergraduates earn a degree in an academic major rather than an education degree. Then, it calls for at least a year of graduate-level professional training that emphasizes practical experience overseen by instructors or mentors.

In its early drafts, the report of the state's Teacher Education Task Force recommended abolishing undergraduate education degrees. This prompted protest from college teachers of education, and the proposal now stops short of abolition.

Maryland educators are reviewing the sweeping proposal this month. Several testified in January that a fifth year of school may prove too expensive for some college students; costs are being studied.

The MSTA "fully supports the revised proposal," said Mr. Pence. "I think they did a good job of listening on this one. We would take the side that pre-service training is valuable. Where we should not get into a quarrel is over ways to get that training."

ALTERNATIVE ROUTES

There is no better classroom than one full of children, teacher training reformers say. Some of Maryland's pioneers of apprenticeship-style training have been career-changers Kate Coulter and Pam Mannion.

Ms. Coulter was a U.S. Army linguist who studied Arabic and who used it during service in Desert Storm. Ms. Mannion earned a master's degree in interior design before moving to Maryland from Kansas. Both are in their first year as fully licensed Maryland teachers after completing Baltimore's Resident Teacher Program.

"There's no substitute for the time you spend in the classroom," said Ms. Coulter, whose disciplined demeanor is said to have a reassuring effect on her students at Canton Middle School. "Even if you don't have all of the management techniques down, if you are prepared for a rough year and a lot of learning then you won't be totally overwhelmed -- or as overwhelmed."

Course work taught her how to survive the first month of school: practical tips for managing kids, pencil sharpeners, trash cans. The students taught her more, she said.

"They need structure. They have to know what's expected of them. Whatever you do, be consistent," she said.

Four years ago, Maryland's board of education adopted licensing guidelines for teachers who do not have education degrees. The board was praised by some for opening the profession to candidates from other fields. Critics accused it of lowering standards and said the classroom time required in the program was too short. Some warned the career-changers would fail because they would be unschooled in child psychology and teaching techniques.

Resident teacher programs proposed by school districts must offer 90 classroom hours of training -- a little more than two weeks -- and a one- or two-year apprenticeship. Candidates must pass the National Teachers Exam. They must hold a degree or certificate in an academic field, and must have earned at least a B.

The traditional route to a teaching job is through a state-approved undergraduate program in education at a Maryland college. Aspiring teachers may also accumulate credits another major, then take classes in instructional methods and get experience by student teaching. These candidates for a teaching license must also pass the National Teacher Exam.

"There is no evidence that the traditionally trained teacher is better," Ms. Clemson said. "In the absence of empirical data, we should adopt policy that encourages and makes room for diversity."

The state also allowed programs such as the privately organized Teach for America, the Peace Corps' Fellows and the military's Troops to Teachers, to funnel talent into the pool of new teachers.

Baltimore was first in the state to create a residency program. Through it, 181 apprentice teachers were hired during the last three years. Ms. Coulter and Ms. Mannion were in the first group of 39. They are among 22 who remain employed in Baltimore schools.

Earning the teaching license was great for job security; it symbolizes proficiency but it is not proof of excellence, Ms. Mannion said.

"You know when you are doing something right when the children want to stick around in your classroom," she said.

The support of veteran teachers who serve as mentors makes the program work, Ms. Mannion said. Canton Middle School has eight resident teachers, said principal Craig Spilman, who generally prefers them to new college graduates. They are risk-takers and creative problem-solvers, he said: Ms. Mannion and her students redesigned the school cafeteria, now a neon-decorated Canton Cafe.

This school of hard knocks experienced some of its own. The Baltimore program has been retooled to provide more mentoring, stricter admission policies and better school placements than it did in its early years, said director Helen Atkinson.

Enrollment is now limited to about 40, after an overly ambitious second year. That year, 99 teachers were hired and many left, in part because there were not enough positions in schools ready to provide intensive support for a novice.

Linwood Roberts, the school system's personnel director, says about 20 percent of the estimated 500 teachers he'll need next year will come from alternative programs. He has used them to hire for hard-to-fill vacancies: career technology, math, science, foreign language.

Frederick County started the state's second resident teacher program. This year, the Eastern Shore of Maryland Educational Consortium is developing a program to serve six counties.

"Alternative certification" programs can produce excellent teachers, said Susan Carmon of the NEA. However, many programs are lax. "What we're opposed to is the 90-day wonder," programs that don't provide enough training time, she said.

CAREER ADVANCEMENT

Amid all the hubbub about novice teachers, veterans have not been forgotten.

Two weeks ago, the state school board voted its approval of efforts to bring to Maryland a national program that recognizes ,, great teachers.

The school board has asked the standards board to review a proposal that would help Maryland teachers apply for national certification, an honor bestowed by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

That Detroit-based nonprofit group hopes to create a demand for nationally certified teachers and, along the way, boost respect for the teaching profession. Participation is voluntary.

In January, the board awarded its first certificates to 81 teachers who completed a rigorous application process. The teachers submitted videotapes of their classroom work and portfolios with essays and lesson plans. Then they participated in two days of tests, many involving classroom problem-solving.

Several school districts nationwide paid their teachers' $975 application fee and offered time off or other support during the rigorous year-long process. Some gave successful applicants raises or bonuses.

National certification could be counted among the ways teachers meet their professional development requirement when they renew their Maryland licenses, the state board suggested. Each school district would have to decide what support it might offer.

Maryland school board members and education department staffers hailed the program as a retention tool, an incentive to offer experienced teachers.

Several Maryland teachers are already working toward the certification.

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