The Quality of Teachers & Teacher Education

October 12, 2012

Teacher education is currently the focus of much debate and criticism. Should teachers be prepared at universities? Should teachers and teacher education programs be held accountable for student test scores? These are just a couple of questions that are being asked among educators, policymakers and the news media.

The teacher preparation program at Michigan State University is highly regarded nationally, and many faculty members in the College of Education are considered national and international experts on teacher education policy and practice. This positions MSU as an institution that can play a leading role in the discussion, not just in professional organizations, but at the state level, in national talks about teacher education practice, programs and policies, and in movements to hold programs and teachers accountable.

If you have been wondering how the College of Education is engaging in these issues, here are some of the latest developments.

The Faculty Conversation

With its history as a hotbed for teacher education reform, MSU certainly has the potential to influence future approaches for preparing teachers. Department of Teacher Education Chairperson Suzanne Wilson says faculty members have a responsibility to respond to the current attacks on university-based teacher education.

But not before asking themselves tough questions, and weighing all the options.

To stimulate thinking about what should be done institutionally and individually, the department began sponsoring a series of visitors last spring that will continue this academic year.

The series is underwritten by the Marianne Amarel Fund, which was donated by friends and family members in honor of Amarel, a long-time teacher and teacher educator who participated in the development of the Holmes Group and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

The speakers – most with connections to the College of Education – were Deborah Loewenberg Ball and Francesca Forzani of University of Michigan, Ken Zeichner of University of Washington and Sharon Feiman-Nemser of Brandeis University.

All of the visitors gave public talks and spent time meeting in small groups with faculty, staff and doctoral students. Among the issues discussed, attendees debated the core competencies teachers need to be effective today and how they learn best, whether that means moving teacher education further into schools and communities or – and? – reshaping the curriculum to help teachers master a different mix of knowledge and practices.

“The solutions are going to come by finding really thoughtful teachers who want to think through the problems with us,” said Feiman-Nemser, one of the field’s best-known scholars of teacher learning. Now at Brandeis, she was on the MSU faculty in the 1980s during some of the most pioneering achievements in teacher education research.

“We can’t take our reputation for granted,” she said. “We have to find more compelling ways to demonstrate the value-added of what we are doing.”

Up to six more speakers will visit campus during 2012-13 to add perspectives to the College of Education conversation. With new strategies for preparing teachers always underway at MSU, Wilson said more substantive program changes, public advocacy efforts and research could all be possible pieces of the university’s next steps toward positioning itself in the national discourse.

The Michigan Policy Process

Michigan passed legislation in 2011 calling for sweeping changes that will make teachers and school administrators more accountable for student outcomes. The group responsible for building a statewide evaluation system for educators, the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness (MCEE), has recommended conducting a pilot program during the 2012-13 school year.

Council member Mark Reckase, a University Distinguished Professor of Measurement & Quantitative Methods in the MSU College of Education, said this will give educators an opportunity to essentially try out different (1) tools for classroom observation and (2) methods for assessing student growth before creating a system for widespread implementation, a process that will require broad support and training.

“It’s really difficult to see how these things might be brought to scale for a whole state,” said Reckase, an educational assessment expert who was appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder. “We said the only way to really know is to do a pilot study.”

The study is now moving forward in 12 school districts with $6 million in state funding.

Gov. Snyder also appointed two MSU College of Education graduates to the MCEE: its chairperson Deborah Loewenberg Ball (’76, ’82 and ’88), dean of the University of Michigan School of Education, and Nick Sheltrown (’99, ’07), senior director of measurement, research and business intelligence at National Heritage Academies. Michigan Department of Education official Joseph Martineau (Ph.D. ’04) serves on the council without vote.

The other members are David Vensel, principal of Jefferson High School in Monroe, and Jennifer Hammond, principal of Grand Blanc High School. Suzanne Wilson, chair of the MSU Department of Teacher Education, provides technical support to the committee as well.

Reckase has been studying what works best among one popular type of student growth measure, value-added models or VAMs, under a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Jeff Wooldridge, University Distinguished Professor in the MSU Department of Economics, and Cassandra Guarino, associate professor at Indiana University, are co-principal investigators on that project.

As in other states considering policies related to educator evaluation, Reckase said Michigan’s new system will have implications for researchers studying questions of teacher quality – including how prior education plays a role.

VISIT Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness:

The National Rsearch Front

Michigan State University has been represented in recent national projects focused on improving teacher preparation. For example, Suzanne Wilson contributed to a 2010 National Research Council report on the need for better data about teacher preparation across the country. She and fellow MSU distinguished professor William Schmidt have served on panels in association with a forthcoming national review of teacher preparation programs by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ).

Now, the National Academy of Education is creating a new framework to assess the quality of teacher preparation programs. College of Education Associate Dean Robert Floden and alumna Deborah Loewenberg Ball are on the planning committee for that project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. Wilson also participated in the committee’s first meeting this summer.