AppleYou see them in classrooms across the state--wide-eyed college students observing teaching and learning, working with small groups of students, and presenting lessons alongside master teachers during their clinical practice. These teacher candidates are learning how to apply pedagogy and methodology to practice in the hopes of some day having their own classrooms.

As challenging as student teaching can be the stress of recent education reforms on districts have added even more uncertainty to this important practice. Because the impact that a teacher candidate might have on SGPs or SGOs, many districts are refusing to host these college students. Since the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) has declined to make any provisions for teachers willing to work with a teacher candidate, it’s hard to know if and when this situation will improve. Without these placements, our teacher candidates cannot gain the valuable clinical experience they need and, therefore, cannot be certified.

Ed reform reaches the colleges

This is one of many of the policies generated by the education reform movement that is based on business practices with a one-size-fits-all approach rather than on sound educational research.  The 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which fueled the obsession with testing was based on the idea that if you can measure it, you can fix it. Given that the most draconian consequences of NCLB arrived long after Pres. George W. Bush had left office, the result was a system of waivers, which rid educators of the unfair designations of NCLB, and in exchange, required new observation systems with measures of student growth to be used as part of an educator’s evaluation.

Race To The Top funding, introduced by the Obama administration, also had federal strings attached to changes in curriculum and evaluation. While the federal government did not mandate that the states make changes, they did make the acceptance of federal funding and waivers contingent on meeting these conditions. It was only a matter of time before policymakers also looked at the foundations of teaching, the Educator Preparation Programs (EPPs) at our colleges and universities.

The 2012 Council of Chief State School Officers report, “Our Responsibility, Our Promise: Transforming Educator Preparation and Entry into the Profession,” escalated the conversation in many state education agencies, including New Jersey, and prompted task forces and committees to convene and discuss changes in teacher preparation. Simultaneously, the two federally-recognized teacher preparation accrediting agencies, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC), were unifying their complementary approaches into one umbrella organization now known as the Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP).

Dissatisfied with the pace of these conversations, the National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) clamored for national attention by developing its own highly sensationalized “Teacher Prep Review” released in 2013. Despite seriously flawed methodology and incomplete information, the review alleged that teacher prep had become an industry of mediocrity and its findings resulted in a rating system for EPPs across the country. NCTQ hoped the use of supply and demand market principles would direct consumers away from "poorly" performing programs until they have so few students they must fold. It’s interesting to note that a well-buried link from NCTQ leads to their wholly-owned subsidiary, the  American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE), which promises to "train teachers online" for "less money" and in "less time" now operating in 11 states nationwide.

With all this attention being paid to EPPs in colleges and universities, one might think that they had never been held accountable for what they do. In fact since 2007 New Jersey has mandated that its colleges and universities go through the rigorous and public process of accreditation by a national organization to improve and demonstrate the quality of their educator preparation programs.

Although every EPP in New Jersey has participated in this robust accreditation process,  there are several other changes coming to teacher preparation, prompted by the same reform movement that has been impacted our public schools. The changes, designed to raise the bar for entry into teacher preparation programs and attain certification, have already been submitted to the New Jersey State Board of Education for approval and state legislation has been drafted.

Tying student test scores to teacher prep programs

StudyingSome of these reforms will affect the teacher prep programs and others will affect teacher candidates. One of the most controversial proposals is the idea that K-12 student test scores can indicate the effectiveness of a particular teacher prep program.

 Each teacher in New Jersey has a Smart Member ID (NJSMID). While it is still a few years away, the NJDOE is creating a dashboard that will require the student achievement scores of a particular teacher to be tracked back to that teacher’s EPP. As yet, there is no proposed provision to track candidates back to any EPP other than where they completed their initial certification regardless of where they did the majority of their coursework or earned additional certifications or endorsements (middle school, special Ed, ESL).

The NJDOE is also creating a rating system that would require colleges and universities to report the attrition, retention and completion rates of teacher candidates. Colleges must also report the average score of candidates on the state test of subject matter required for teacher certification, the percentage of candidates who complete the teacher preparation program and obtain employment full-time or part-time in the state, and the name of the school district, nonpublic school or other entity where the candidate for teacher certification obtained employment. All these will be used to establish a rating system based on the collected data from the three most recent academic years.

Raising the bar for teacher candidates

Three changes are underway that make it more difficult—and more expensive--to enter teacher prep programs and eventually earn certification.

The NJDOE has called for an increase in GPA from 2.75 to a 3.0 for entry to and exit from both traditional and alternate route teacher preparation programs. While many agree that a higher GPA will produce higher quality candidates, there are some gray areas, including what happens when students take classes elsewhere and the credits transfer but the grades do not.

The second proposed change is a basic skills assessment. This assessment, administered by computer only, is the Praxis Core Academic Skills for Educators from ETS. It has been designed to reflect Common Core State Standards and prospective teacher education students must pass the test or may substitute a combined SAT score of 1660, an ACT score of 23, or a GRE score in the top third of an entering graduate class of all professions. The cost for the assessment is approximately $150. This is in addition to the Praxis II content assessment that teacher candidates must also pass in order to receive certification, which is also approximately $150 per assessment.

The third proposal is the requirement that teacher candidates pass a commissioner-approved performance-based assessment. This will require the teacher candidate to demonstrate proficiency of standards by applying what they have learned in an evidence-based process to facilitate learning. The exact assessment has yet to be determined by the NJDOE, but based on similar assessments such as the edTPA, the cost will be approximately $300 per assessment.

It is important to note that the fees for all of these assessments, as well as criminal background checks, data management tools for students to maintain a portfolio, travel costs to get to clinical placements and a professional wardrobe add up quickly. Conservative estimates are between $1,200-$1,500 and none of these costs are covered by student loans.

Educator Preparation Programs respond

Teacher & StudentAs EPPs move to meet these new accountability guidelines they are also finding ways to actually strengthen teacher preparation.

For example, the standards put forth by the newly formed CAEP are even more demanding than those of its predecessors. Of particular interest is Standard Two regarding clinical partnerships and practice. According to this standard, EPPs should be partner with districts to co-construct mutually beneficial arrangements for clinical preparation. These include ensuring that theory and practice are linked, maintaining coherence across clinical and academic components of preparation, and sharing mutual accountability for candidate outcomes. EPPs are doing some innovative things with teacher preparation and they plan to work with districts and teachers around the state in designing programs that are mutually beneficial with students as the focus.

At the same time, NJEA, working with the New Jersey Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (NJACTE) and other education associations and organizations and has formed the Garden State Alliance for Strengthening Education. This alliance, perhaps the first of its kind in the nation, is a coalition designed to make recommendations to policymakers about the alignment and cohesion of policies and strategies to ensure a quality teaching force.The recommendations of the alliance will span the continuum of teaching practice, from teacher preparation through induction, professional development and teacher leadership.

Given that up to 40 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first five years, now is not the time to point fingers. It is time, however, to join forces so we can recruit and retain great teachers in the profession and do what is best for students. Education should be led by educators, and we need P-12 educators to work with colleges and universities to ensure the continuum of learning for teachers is rigorous and relevant.

Common sense and research tell us that we build stronger programs when we work together. Take a stand with us and do what is right for education by building the partnerships that focus on a broad definition of learning rather than the narrow scope of test scores.

Jeanne DelColle is the 2012 N.J. State Teacher of the Year. She now teaches and serves as the Strategic Partnerships Specialist at Richard Stockton College. She can be reached at  jeanne.delcolle@stockton.edu.