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Raising The Bar? N.H. Teacher Prep Colleges Face New Requirements

Sam Evans-Brown

  Many teachers and teachers-of-teachers will tell you that after passing your certification exams, graduating and getting your certificate, you’re still not ready to teach.

“You have the idea of what’s going to go on, but when you walk in the idea is usually just blown to heck and back,” says Joe Cilley a high-school art teacher at Belmont high school.

“The problem is that college is theory, it’s all theory! It’s not practice,” adds Kelly Hamilton, who teaches English in Belmont.

“They try to prep you for the management, but there’s no class in college you can take that will really do that,” explains Adrien Deshaies who teaches science.

Studies show that during the first three to five years, teachers do a lot of improving. That research suggests Cilley and Deshaies, who have been on the job for four years, are just now coming into their own as teachers. Hamilton has seven years under her belt.

These three teachers say that they spent plenty of time in lectures about the content they would need to teach and theories of pedagogy.

“I would say that one thing that I wish had happened was being in the classroom setting right from the start,” says Hamilton, “For me in my program it wasn’t until you were nearing the end of the program until you were physically in an actual classroom.”

This is the kind of thing you hear a lot from new teachers. Fifty percent of them quit in the first five years on the job, and forty percent of student teachers wind up never get a real teaching job.

Like Dan Katsekas, who now manages a poker room in Manchester. When he earned his degree in music education from UNH in 2006, he didn’t student teach until the last semester of a five year program.

“You had experiences to be out in the classroom before that, but it was you were coming into a classroom that was someone else’s and the kids knew it was a special occasion, and you weren’t in it,” says Katsekas.

A Bar Too Low?

This is just one reason many education reformers believe teacher prep programs need, at best, to be tweaked. Some call for a complete overhaul.

States across the country are asking if it’s too easy to get into education colleges, and too easy to get certified to teach. Such questions have been contentious nationally, but here in New Hampshire the state’s efforts have so far raised few hackles, and the push for reform has been pretty gentle.

Over the past few years the state has been re-writing the rules for how teacher prep programs are approved. The big change?

“It’s up to us to use our own data to turn out stronger, more effective teachers,” says Alana Mosley from Franklin Pierce University, the first school to pilot the new process the DOE is using to certify teacher prep programs.

Colleges are now supposed to choose the data they think shows how well they are doing, and show the data is helping to improve their programs.

Franklin Peirce chose more than a dozen data points: students’ GPAs, standardized test scores, evaluations done by the teachers supervising student-teachers, surveys of graduates, and the principals who hire them; the list goes on.

Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

  They’re casting a wide-net because they still haven’t found the indicator that predicts who goes on to be a good teacher.

“It would be nice if we could find that silver bullet,” says Mosely, “that aha, if we could find this, than we know they’ll be successful. We’re not there yet.”

But not everyone thinks it’s necessarily a good idea to let schools pick the data they use to measure their own performance.

“Well can I just say we’ll see,” says Dan Goldhaber with the Center for Education Data and Research. He thinks one danger is that given the opportunity to craft their own report cards all schools end up looking like they’re doing pretty well.

“I think that there will probably be a rubber-hits-the-road-moment, when there are questions about whether all programs get recertified,” he says.

“Really Good Policy Environment…”

Dropping the hammer on low-performing colleges is not really the New Hampshire DOE’s style. Instead, the new rules have prompted programs to make changes voluntarily.

Deborah Taylor, Vice President of Colby-Sawyer College, says her school has decided to end its early childhood education program.

She says the new state rules were part of the decision to do so.

“Teacher education programs are under more and more rigorous standards, there are more and more requirements for students to meet,” says Taylor, “And so many teacher education programs are becoming five year programs.”

When Franklin-Pierce looked at the new rules, it opted to merge its graduate with its undergraduate offerings.

So, some changes are happening.

And in contrast to the bitter tone that characterizes the teacher prep debate in Washington, in New Hampshire things have gone smoothly.

The state is basically saying, “Ok, here’s what we want teachers to be able to do,” according to Page Tompkins, executive director of the state’s newest teacher prep program, the Upper Valley Educator’s Institute. Then the state says “programs out there, figure out all different ways to get teachers there,” says Tompkins. “In my view that’s a really good policy environment, generally speaking.”

“Maybe More Teeth”

Where the programs decide to take that open-ended mandate is anybody’s guess, but DOE officials think gradually teacher prep will start to look more like med school.

“I think you’ll see much more immersion in the schools from the very beginning, with much more of what we call clinical time,” says Ginny Clifford, administrator of the bureau of credentialing at the Department of Education.

Right now, most New Hampshire schools require one semester of student teaching, with a few schools requiring a full year. Surveys find most teachers feel they could have benefited from more student teaching.

But Joe Cilley, the new-ish art teacher in Belmont, worries this might not get at the real goal of improving the field. He remembers seeing other students showing up late for class, turning in assignments late, and putting in minimal effort who still graduated.

“I think colleges need to be stricter when it comes to the fact that when you’re slacking, you should be kicked out of programs, I know it sounds blunt and rough, but…” Cilley pauses, “Maybe more teeth.”

Whether New Hampshire’s reforms will mean colleges wind up with more teeth remains to be seen.

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