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Do We Trust Teachers to Improve Education?


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Corinne Sarsketti wakes at 6 a.m. to a shower, quick breakfast, and final look at her lesson plans. After packing a lunch and dinner, she arrives at Rancho Verde Elementary School at 7:30 a.m. and confers with her mentor teacher before their fourth-graders arrive. Corinne then teaches, tutors, and observes for the next 4.5 hours, leaving her just 30 minutes to make it to UCSB for class. (She eats her lunch in the car.) She then attends two three-hour classes, one on special education and one on teaching reading and language arts. Upon arriving home at 8 p.m., she sits down to reflect on her teaching, and read over her supervisors’ observation notes. She spends two hours planning her next day’s teaching, and another hour and a half studying for her classes. At midnight she crawls into bed with a required reading, but like most nights, her exhaustion gives way to sleep. She has committed to twelve months of this rigorous study.

Corinne is a typical student in UCSB’s Teacher Education Program. Like all student teachers in California, she has accomplished much prior to entering her teacher education program, and she has many challenges ahead before she will finish. Most people do not know what it currently takes to become a teacher in the state of California. If more did, perhaps faith in our teachers would lead to more supportive environments that would allow them to do what they know needs to be done to improve education.

California’s new two-tiered credentialing system requires both a teacher preparation program and two years of an induction program prior to earning a full credential. This means that after Corinne finishes UCSB and begins teaching, she must enroll in a beginning teacher support program where she will have an experienced teacher as a mentor, and where she will complete assessments to ensure that she meets a level of teaching quality befitting a Professional Clear Credential.

Meanwhile, back in her teacher prep program Corinne must demonstrate that she meets thirteen standards for teaching excellence that ensure, for instance, that she can effectively manage her classroom, teach a variety of content areas, understand child development in relation to learning and teaching, use technology in her teaching, accommodate for students with special needs, teach English learners from a variety of language backgrounds, and provide equitable access to learning for all California’s children. Some standards are relatively new, which accounts for why only about half of our teaching force is trained to teach those learning English, yet almost all teachers in California have at least one in their classroom, according to annual report from the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning.

But let’s back up.

Even before Corinne made it into her student teaching classroom, she had to pass two state exams to demonstrate her knowledge of the subject matter she would be teaching. (One exam is five hours long and covers such a challenging breadth of knowledge that pass rates on parts of it are only 50 percent.) Before she earns her credential, Corrine must also pass the state Reading Instruction Competence Assessment. And if she wants to be authorized in bilingual classrooms, she must take additional classes and an additional test. Finally, Corinne must pass a Teaching Performance Assessment. Just as we hope that in medical school a cardiologist is evaluated on his ability to perform a triple bypass as opposed to passing a multiple-choice exam on bypass surgery, we should also hope that our teacher candidates have demonstrated their ability to teach.

The performance assessment requires them to submit lesson plans, a video of their teaching, analyses of their students’ work to explain student learning, and reflections on their teaching decisions. In the end, the assessment however complex, time consuming, and costly is one more mechanism for insuring the quality of teacher candidates.

Even after teachers have their own classrooms and have completed induction programs, they are expected to engage in professional development. How may of us can profess to such rigor in our own professions? And if we do, how much are we compensated for it? Corinne’s one-year, graduate credential program leaves no time for earning an income. If Corinne does not have outside financial support-there is little from the State-she will rack up a several thousand dollar debt. Some students graduate with upwards of $40,000 in total college debt. She can look forward to a starting salary in Santa Barbara of approximately $42,000.

A study by the Washington, DC-based National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) states that every school day, nearly 1,000 teachers leave the field of teaching-and this does not count retirees. Across the nation, we have close to a 50 percent attrition rate from the teaching profession during the first five years of teaching. The same report from NCES indicates that the best and the brightest teachers are often the first to leave. However, another study-by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education-shows that this attrition rate can be cut in half when teachers go through beginning teacher induction programs, an indicator that California’s credentialing system is having a positive impact.

The system is rigorous-some say too rigorous-but it’s working to retain teachers because they are more prepared for the host of challenges they face. This preparation-along with a little faith and a lot of support from the rest of us-can perhaps help them make the difference they intended to make when they entered this noble profession.

Tine Sloan, Ph.D., is the acting director of the Teacher Education Program at the Gevirtz School at UC Santa Barbara.