Tennessee tests more stringent teacher licensing standards

At TN colleges, educators-to-be must prove skills

by Julie Hubbard

About 500 Tennessee college students will have to prove they can teach before they earn their teacher licenses this spring.

For decades, earning that certification meant simply passing a multiple-choice exam.

Under a pilot program at eight Tennessee universities — and universities in 19 other states — teacher candidates will have to take the exam, plus prove they can teach students at different performance levels. They will write lessons, videotape their delivery and measure whether students absorbed the information.

“Starting out, new teachers have grand ideas, but then reality hits you that you’re not there yet,” said Nicole Barrick Renner, who graduated from Vanderbilt University in May. She was required to pass the harder Teacher Performance Assessments being piloted across the country.

If the pilot is successful, states could start adopting the new requirements as early as 2012, said Susan Petroff, senior director of programs and development for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

If new teachers aren’t effective, their students won’t be ready for college, she said. Diverse classrooms will continue to post wide achievement gaps.

“Just because you know the content does not automatically mean you will be an effective teacher,” Petroff said. “The profession, in all of education, is being called on to make changes, to make certain we have more kids who are performing at grade level, that the achievement gap needs to be closed and we are preparing our kids for the 21st Century.”

Nationally, 100 colleges and universities are testing the new Teacher Performance Assessments model, Petroff said.

Currently, teacher licensure in most states requires candidates to pass a multiple-choice exam, be observed student teaching and perform small projects — but not prove they can teach.

If a teacher candidate receives a low score on the assessments — which are reviewed by a panel of their college professors or other officials trained on the new model — the candidate has an opportunity to be evaluated one more time.

8 colleges participate

In Tennessee, Vanderbilt University, University of Memphis, East Tennessee State University, Middle Tennessee State University, Tennessee State University, Tennessee Tech University, Austin Peay State University and University of Tennessee-Knoxville are piloting the new assessments.

It could be 2014 before students in all of the state’s education degree programs are required to pass the new assessments.

About 30 MTSU students will take the new assessments this spring, said Phil Waldrop, associate dean for teacher education at Middle Tennessee State.

“For a number of years, our teacher candidates have used a similar process called the Teacher Work Sample, so this will not be a totally new experience for them,” he said. “We anticipate a fairly smooth transition.” Marcy Singer-Gabella, associate chairwoman for Vanderbilt’s Peabody College’s Department of Teaching and Learning, coordinates Tennessee’s effort.

This new model is fair and gives colleges better data on how they’re doing, she said.

“Some (institutions) had strong assessments all along and their candidates were well prepared, and I think some institutions have not managed to provide all the experiences that new teachers are going to need,” she said. “There is consistency now across the institutions because we are using the same assessments and we are collaborating a lot. It was not typical before.”

Vanderbilt started using the model for the majority of its teacher candidates in 2009, before the pilot.

Better preparation

Vanderbilt graduate Renner was among the first in the state required to pass the Teacher Performance Assessments while she student-taught at Ravenwood High School in Williamson County.

After studying the students in her English class and how they each learned, she had them rewrite a section of the novel The Great Gatsby from another character’s perspective and videotaped the lesson and documented how she expected the students to do.

She thinks the assessments better prepared her for her job at East Literature Magnet High this year.

“There were parts that were intimidating. Being asked to videotape yourself can be stressful,” she said. “(Colleges) don’t expect you to be perfect, just understand what you are doing. Teaching is not something that can be assessed on paper. You can have all the content knowledge in the world and not be an effective teacher.”

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