Friday, August 12, 2005

Teacher education, part III

Nicked from a schoolyard blog, an article envisioning ideal teacher education, by Linda Darling-Hammond.

I like Darling-Hammond's ideas for using technology to allow teachers to "observe" students and classrooms over time without actually being in those classrooms or interacting with those students. This seems like a good way to get would-be teachers to apply what they are learning to real life teaching situations on a large scale and regular basis without overloading good schools and classrooms with observers.

I also like her ideas for follow-up study groups and mentorships during the first year of teaching and beyond. And note her comments about the culture of the school where her fictional beginning teacher works. My school is almost like that, except that we are always so busy and tired...

*****

Kevin suggests that would-be teachers should have to get a high score on a rigorous national exam before entering Ed School. He brings up the USMLE as a model, the United States Medical Licensing Exam. This is actually given after students complete med school (each step happens at a different point throughout med school and at the end of study) but let's take a look at it.

USMLE has three parts. The first is a multiple choice exam which tests "whether you understand and can apply important concepts of the sciences basic to the practice of medicine, with special emphasis on principles and mechanisms underlying health, disease, and modes of therapy." The second multiple choice section assesses "whether you can apply medical knowledge, skills, and understanding of clinical science essential for the provision of patient care under supervision and includes emphasis on health promotion and disease prevention." Finally, the third section is a combination of multiple choice questions and 9 cases presented by a computer. I'm not absolutely certain, but it looks like the test-taker is given some basics about a patient and then, using the computer, gathers a history, orders particular tests, and recommends a course of treatment based on test results.

I'm really impressed by the USMLE website; each section of the test is described clearly and succinctly - no surprises here - and sample test questions are provided along with lots of other materials. Each section of the test has a clear rationale, and the test was created by practitioners and professors of medicine. The multiple choice sections are scored by computer, and the cases are scored as follows: "The CCS scoring process compares your patient management strategy with policies obtained from experts. Actions resembling a range of optimal strategies will produce a higher score. You must balance thoroughness, efficiency, avoidance of risk, and timeliness in responding to the clinical situation. Dangerous and unnecessary actions will detract from your score."

Could something like this be designed for teachers? Would it be a good idea?

I wondered whether there was any controversy about the USMLE. Is it perceived as fair? Is it seen as targeting the appropriate knowledge and skills? I found this bulletin, which suggests that the medical profession is asking some of the same questions as the education community. Some are concerned about residents' apparent weakness in clinical skills, and a performance test (Clinical Skills Evaluation) has been created to test these skills. The CSE is a bunch of stations requiring the med students to apply their clinical knowledge, and supposedly simulates a physician's day (it's a LONG test). However, the CSE costs the student $950! You can imagine the outcry if teachers had to spend almost $1000 of their own money to take a test, and it's not so different for med students who may be $100,000 in debt. Furthermore, the AMA questions the fairness of the test and whether it is necessary and calls for its administration to be suspended pending "evidence demonstrating the validity and reliability of and necessity for the exam, additional scientific analysis published in peer-reviewed journals and more testing centers."

I really respect the AMA for questioning the test and calling for scientific study rather than making the process political and demanding the abolition of the test altogether.

What do teachers need to know? What do we need to be able to do? How could one design a rigorous assessment that would ensure this knowledge and these skills, not just on paper, but in practice? How could an assessment of this sort be created so that it would be perceived as valid and fair by teachers, administrators, policy-makers, the public?

I don't know anything about the Praxis. In NY, I had to take the LAST (Language Arts & Sciences Test) which tested basic knowledge in all fields. It's pretty basic, and personally, I would not want my own child learning from a teacher who had trouble passing the LAST. I think there should be a cut-off number of attempts to pass it, maybe 3 or 5. This is to accommodate those who might be incredibly knowledgeable about math but weak in writing skills, or for whom English is not the first language, etc. Given that the union provides free tutoring, study guides are available, etc., I think three to five tries should be enough. Furthermore, if you want to be a teacher, you ought to be able to teach yourself enough to pass this test! The more elitist part of me thinks two tries should be more than enough, but I've met teachers who work really well with the kids who took a few tries to pass this test. Anyway, I would ditch the LAST altogether if teachers were required to have an undergraduate degree in their field (not education).

We also have to take the CST, the content specialty test, in our subject area(s). These are significantly harder than the LAST, though with a little brush-up, should be no problem to pass. I've passed both Earth Science and Biology and am going for the Gifted Ed test pretty soon. Something like the CST makes sense as a prerequisite for entering a master's program in education, especially for middle and high school teachers. Maybe elementary teachers could take something like the LAST instead of a CST, since they would be teaching all subject areas.

Then there is the ATS (assessment of teaching skills), which comes in two parts. First, a multiple choice and essay test about teaching; second, a submission of a 20-minute video of oneself teaching. I believe the video is being phased out.

The ATS-W (written) is not, in my opinion, a good test. Here's the preparation guide, so you can take a look for yourself. I like the questions that ask the teacher to choose the best teaching strategy for a given situation. I dislike the questions that ask the teacher to recognize the thinking behind an assignment or strategy described in the test. I also find that many of the questions test subtleties in reading the question and answers and guessing the thinking of the test-writer. I don't know whether there have been any studies of how scores on the ATS-W correlate with success as a teacher, but I hypothesize that the correlation would be LOW. While knowing this stuff is a good place to start, it is no guarantee that one can practice it in the classroom.

The essay is a little more valuable, asking teachers to design a strategy for meeting an objective, and then justify it (sample is on p. 60 of the preparation guide). I think a lot of teachers' approach to the ATS-W is to give them what they want, regardless of what one would actually do. Now, I don't disagree with most of the strategies and philosophies favored by the creators of the ATS-W, so this didn't pose a conflict for me, but it doesn't make for a great test of real teaching ability if teachers feel they have to fit a mold.

I like what the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards requires, which is videos of oneself teaching along with critical reflection and justification of what one actually did in the classroom. I also like Darling-Hammond's idea, in the article described (far) above, about a performance exam at the end of graduate school; it's too bad she didn't describe how this would work in more detail.

I will also note that everyone, even those graduating top in their classes, studies intensely for weeks and weeks before taking the bar exam or the medical licensing exam. I don't see that happening with teacher exams.

This is a long post without much of a real conclusion. I have to read/skim 60 pages per day in the Gifted Ed textbook in order to complete my independent study in time to spend a few days processing all of it before the CST. Whoo-hoo.

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