By Claire Steinbeck
When I completed pre-service training to become a teacher through the DC Teaching Fellows program, I performed well on rubrics evaluating written work products, like lesson plans or classroom management outlines. I was observed approximately once a week and provided with verbal and written feedback on the way I led my lessons. But I was never required to demonstrate that the students in my summer school classroom were learning. I knew how and when to administer assessments of various types, but there were huge gaps in my ability to use the information gathered from these assessments to improve my instruction and respond to student misunderstandings. As a result, end-of-summer assessments showed that my summer school students were really no better off than they had been when summer school started. I passed the program anyway. This is unacceptable.
With the new federal guidelines being released for teacher prep programs there is now a fresh opportunity to overhaul the way we evaluate candidates for the profession. We need to align program completion and licensure requirements so that pre-service teachers are required to do more than simply check boxes on the number of practice teaching hours or complete coursework that mainly focuses on theoretical knowledge. Teaching candidates must also demonstrate data analysis skills and prove their ability to impact student achievement positively over time.
In my first year of teaching, my students made less than average growth in reading and math. Last year, students I taught in reading interventions made, on average, over a year's worth of growth in reading. The difference? I now know how to effectively respond to data about my students' mastery of individual skills. As a first year teacher, I remember giving Damonte, a fourth grader reading at a Kindergarten level, multiple reading assessments each month. I had tried to find ways of helping him but, without my ability to accurately analyze the information from his assessments, the data did little to propel Damonte forward. Knowing that he could read a "Level C" book with 89% accuracy didn't help much. On the other hand, carefully looking at each incorrect word to figure out exactly where Damonte was getting confused would have told me that he needed to match the beginning sounds of words with the pictures on the page. This concrete area for growth could have easily been targeted in lessons and activities.
Damonte didn't have a year to spare while I figured out how to accurately respond to his reading assessments. Already three grade levels behind, he desperately needed me to be ready to teach him effectively from the first day of that first year in his classroom. To prevent this from happening to other students with new teachers, I have two recommendations for revising teacher preparation requirements and supports.
First, teacher prep programs must require a holistic portfolio as part of graduation requirements. Teachers should possess both the skills required to create effective assessments and to accurately analyze the resulting data. Evaluators should look for evidence of a teacher's ability to effectively respond to information from assessments by reviewing lessons created in response to the data and student growth on subsequent assessments. Similarly, we must raise the rigor of licensure exams to include scenarios where teachers are required to effectively analyze and respond to sample student data.
Second, to ensure that teachers are developing these critical skills, we must support novice teachers in analyzing and responding to student data. Mentor teachers should be required to demonstrate their mastery of the practice. Districts must develop opportunities for new teachers to meet with mentors and/or administrators who can support them in reflecting on students' performance and develop concrete plans to revise instructional techniques or content.
Luckily, there are teacher preparation programs that are already implementing some of these practices. I've spent the past two years working to support new teachers during DC Teaching Fellows' Pre-Service Training program and leading professional development throughout Fellows' first year of teaching. The program's training now includes frequent, active in-lesson coaching from master teachers and requires Fellows to reach basic proficiency on a revised observation rubric which emphasizes students' demonstration of learning during a given lesson. Fellows who do not reach a base level of proficiency on this rubric do not pass Pre-Service Training. Fellows are also required to submit a portfolio at the end of their first year of teaching demonstrating student growth, and those who do not positively impact student achievement are not recommended for licensure.
Our students cannot wait six months, a year, or more, for their teachers to learn critical skills to help them learn. It's time to raise our expectations across the board and require that all teachers are prepared to move students forward beginning with the first bell, in their first year.
Claire Steinbeck teaches special education at Garfield Elementary in Washington, D.C. She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alumna.