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GUEST COLUMN

State superintendent's educator licensing reform plan is not radical

Thursday, August 20, 2009 - 10:47 am

School Superintendent Tony Bennett's plan to reform the educator licensing system has ignited more controversy than it merits. Although the proposal would make the licensing process more flexible for teachers and the principals who hire them, it certainly wouldn't make it less rigorous, as some critics have charged.

“This is raising standards,” Bennett says of his plan, now under review by the Professional Standards Advisory Board, which oversees teacher licensing in Indiana. When it comes to teacher quality, four elements of the plan stand out.

Most significant, the plan shifts the focus of teacher training from pedagogy or strategies of instruction to content knowledge. This is important because, as one recent study explained, “Teachers with more content knowledge are more likely to teach in ways that help students construct knowledge.” Currently, most prospective teachers in Indiana pursue a bachelor's degree in education and take a specified number of course hours in their developmental area, such as elementary education, or in their content area, such as math or English. Bennett's plan would require elementary teachers to minor in an academic subject. Middle and high school teachers would major in their subject and minor in education.

Second, Bennett's plan would use a basic skills test called Praxis I to weed out the weakest teaching candidates. Passage of the test is now a first step in the licensing process. Bennett wants to make it a first step before admission to any education program. (Some schools, including Indiana University at Bloomington, already do this). The hope is to raise the academic proficiency of education students. According to the Center for Education Reform, “New teachers come disproportionately from the bottom third of American college students.”

Third, teachers could fulfill license-renewal requirements with professional development programs offered at their own schools as long as those programs focus on student achievement. This means teachers won't have to enroll in university-sponsored continuing-education classes that cost tuition.

Fourth, the plan encourages alternate paths into the teaching profession. Midcareer professionals with a bachelor's degree could obtain certification through an online preparation and testing program — the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence. Founded eight years ago with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, ABCTE is accepted in nine states and is responsible for 1,700 teachers employed in public schools.

It's obvious why schools of education are resisting Bennett's plan, which also would loosen bureaucratic rules governing the licensing of principals and superintendents. “This will change the way schools of education deliver their product,” Bennett says. And they'll lose some of the gravy train that has come with continuing education mandates.

The most frequently touted argument against Bennett's plan boils down to this: If we overemphasize content at the expense of pedagogy, we'll end up with teachers who know their subject but can't engage children. That won't boost achievement.

Teachers who know their subjects but can't engage children shouldn't be hired in the first place. Bennett's plan wouldn't change that. But it does liberate the folks doing the hiring to choose candidates from a variety of backgrounds based on their ability to help students achieve.

Nor does Bennett's plan do away with “methods” classes. “The question is not whether you should abandon pedagogy. The question is how much do you need,” Bennett says. Education majors would still take 30 credit hours in pedagogy, and education minors would need 15. This ensures future teachers would learn about classroom management, data interpretation, developmental differences and designing lesson plans and assessments, important topics for classroom teachers.

If Bennett were a radical reformer, he could have suggested abolishing the licensing system altogether. After all, there's scant evidence to connect licensing to teacher effectiveness. So why a firestorm over something so modest? Nobody likes change. Schools of education don't want to redesign their programs. Educators on the Professional Standards Board, although appointed by the Daniels administration, no doubt feel loyalty to the system through which they gained their own credentials. If they take a close look at the details, they will realize that, as reform goes, this is fairly restrained.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard's School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.