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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Using SB 458 to Enhance Teacher Preparation and Improve the Classroom

The Role of Assessment:

There are many new requirements in the Connecticut education reform bill. Many changes I agree with, some I do not.

I do agree with the increased focus on early childhood reading and reading in the K-3 classrooms. I also believe in the power and usefulness of short term assessments and repeated measures to monitor student progress. 

Using assessment data to inform practice can be truly beneficial to students. The problem: having a teacher available to actually teach is even more (if not astronomically) more beneficial.

In the new bill any school (please correct me if my interpretation is incorrect) labeled as a category four or five school  must give students short assessments in reading and mathematics every two weeks. 

The bill reads:

Section 28 (8) Students receive regular assessments, including short assessment tests every two weeks, that evaluate short-term progress and district-wide assessment tests every six weeks that evaluate a student's progress toward long-term objectives.

I worry about this implementation. As any P-3 classroom teacher can tell you there is nothing "short" about reading assessments with emergent readers. They have to be completed one-on-one. 

While I believe, and have written, that the future of P-3 assessments is in tablet based solutions these do not exist yet. Teachers will have to rely on running records and assessments such as the DRA2.

This amount of assessment, every two weeks, may leave little instructional time. In the past year when I visit schools that will be labeled as category 4 or 5, there is often  already a steady stream of assessments. In fact I often see the classroom teacher assessing more than teaching.

While the teacher is conduction benchmark assessments the students must be provided another activity. This, in my experience, is usually independent reading. While I am a huge proponent of choice and independent reading, if the time spent with books is not connected with meaningful (accountable) classroom talk and learning activities it is wasted instructional time.

If SB 458 is to have any impact on reading something must be done.

Training Future Teachers

I find a possible solution in section 35 (j):

 On and after July 1, 2015, any program of teacher preparation leading to professional certification shall require, as part of the curriculum, clinical experience, field experience or student teaching experience in a classroom during four semesters of such program of teacher preparation.

Schools of education, and programs for alternative routes to certification, could utilize future teachers to build an assessment support system. 

How it would work

Based on the bill I would suggest every teacher preparation program needs a clinical approach to teaching reading instruction and assessment. Candidates, as part of their clinical field work could:

1. Be identified by schools of education, or alternative certification programs as  top tier students who also have a desire to reform urban education. 
2. Undergo extensive training in the assessment systems approved by the state (Department of Education must approve these by July, 2013).
3. Have to administer the bi-weekly assessments.
4. In conjunction with the classroom and university supervisor develop an instructional routine for individual ans small group instruction,
5. Use data to inform their instruction and track progress.

 Such an answer could unleash numerous benefits.

Teachers Prepared to Assess and Teach Reading

Assessing Reading 

Teacher preparation programs have, and in some cases justifiably so, come under fire for the readiness level of candidates to provide explicit instruction in the areas of phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension. 

This is evident in both anecdotal evidence from the classroom and scores on the Reading Foundations test, which for many preparation programs are abysmally low. 

Given the large emphasis on P-3 reading in SB 458 teacher preparation programs must begin to reform their programs now so a cadre of well trained teachers wil be prepared when many of the reforms come to fruition.

One of the four required field experiences should focus on literacy instruction guided by literacy assessments. SB 458 carriers major consequences and put  a lot of blind faith a in assessment. Allocating resources, developing a student's plan of study, and determining teachers career paths all hinge, partially, on student scores. 

If these scores are to have any use at all every effort should be made to ensure the administration, evaluation, and interpretation of the approved assessments is as similar as possible at the classroom level. Achieving such widespread fidelity, to give the scores any meaning, will be almost, if not, impossible.

Teacher preparation programs should try to ensure teachers stepping into classrooms  have a basic knowledge of how to administer these tests and interpret results. This knowledge will improve instruction and serve the long term interest of teachers 

Teaching Reading

Using this information, during the hypothetical field experience, the teacher candidates could then use data from the  assessments to develop lessons for the literacy blocks required in SB 458. Their field experience could  require observing whole group, small group, and individual instruction. During student teaching the teacher candidates would be responsible for developing and delivering this instruction.

Freeing Classroom Teachers to Actually Teach

I have to reiterate how taxing it will be on category 4 and 5 schools to provide bi-weekly assessments. It will be a logistical and classroom management nightmare. If schools can work in partnership with teacher preparation programs then classroom teacher will be able to use the data gleaned from the clinical experience to provide targeted whole group mini-lessons and one-on-one support. 

Challenges to Such an Approach

1. Reliability of scores- One threat to this proposal would be ensuring that undergraduate students and graduate students can reliably administer assessments. Given, however, the low inter-rater reliability (how well two people score the same person/test) of assessments currently used in the classroom it cannot get much worse. A strong training program with inter-rater reliability exit requirements, fidelity checks could help.

2. Lack of credit hours-SB 458 doubles down on subject area majores for teacher candidates. This is especially challenging for early childhood and elementary majors who teach EVERY subject. There is little time in the schedule for flexibility as students must meet their subject area requirements. 

I would have suggested a 5 year approach, similar to UCONN's IBM, but my reading of SB 458 suggests that subject area major is now required for the MA degree eliminating the Masters degree. I am not sure if this is the case, or how the State Board of Ed will define subject area major (PLEASE, PLEASE, allow reading to be a subject area major for Masters degree and interdisciplinary  or general ed at the undergraduate level).

Either way, even increasing the amount of field work, let alone creating a truly clinical experience, will take coordination with subject area majors of the fulfillment of many credits online.

3. The Unknown

I am sure there are greater challenges to this approach that I have not identified. Please if you see any please let me know.

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