Thursday, March 11, 2010

Design a Coherent, Flexible Program

The key to developing and maintaining an effective program is having knowledgeable, committed leadership—people who are clear about a community's teaching needs and visionary about how to address them. These leaders also know what learning experiences make for coherent preparation as well as how to meet their candidates' individual needs. And since most programs are partnerships, leaders must be able to create a structure for shared and responsive decision-making. Of the programs in this guide, only Hillsborough operates without partners. The other programs involve multiple school jurisdictions and often include universities or other entities in their leadership structure. For example, the programs in Texas and Georgia have regional service centers at their hubs. New York, Chico, and Wichita all have strong university partnerships. In each partnership program, policy is set jointly and each partner contributes to the program in specific ways. In Chico, for instance, the university provides televised or Web-based courses, regional supervision, and separate course sections for candidates. Participating local schools guarantee candidates 10 paid release days each year to attend classes. The state's Commission on Teacher Credentialing and the federal Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services help underwrite candidates' tuition, the services of mentors and candidate adviser, and program coordination and evaluation. Chico program leaders routinely collect and analyze data and make recommendations for program fine-tuning to the broadly representative advisory board.

Such data collection and adaptability are seen by all the programs as crucial to their continuing effectiveness. Not only do these programs respond to changing local needs, but each program considers itself a work in progress, continuously reviewing how best to serve its candidates' and districts' needs. Alternative route program administrators aim to devise an artful combination of course work and support, a program that is coherent and flexible.

Figure 4. Wichita Structured Interview Form

Questions asked of all candidates
1 Why are you considering a career change to become a teacher?
2 What experiences have you had working with middle school or high school age students and diverse cultural groups?
3 What are the greatest challenges you expect to encounter as a new teacher?
4 Based on your past work experiences, what do you think past employers and co-workers would tell us about you as an employee?
5 If you were to teach for five years and leave teaching at that time, what is the single most important thing you would want your students to remember about you as their teacher?
6 Classroom discipline can be challenging to any teacher. What would you do in each of the following situations?
  • Students failing to turn in assignments
  • A student talking back
  • A student caught cheating on an assignment or test
  • A student constantly talking and not paying attention in class
7 If you were limited to three adjectives to describe yourself as a teacher what three would you choose and why?
8 If a student complained to you about another teacher not being fair, how would you handle this situation?
9 How important is it for a teacher to have a sense of humor? Explain your answer.
10 Have you ever had difficulty learning any subject material? If so what method did you use to overcome this difficulty? How would you help a student experiencing a similar difficulty in your class?
11 How will you go about making your subject relevant to your students?
12 I have asked you several questions about teaching and your desire to become a teacher. What questions would you like to ask me about the transition to teaching program?

Traditional Standards

Like traditional preparation programs, alternative programs must be accredited and must ensure that candidates gain the competencies they need to teach their students and to meet state credentialing requirements. The design of the programs studied—from candidate advising through preservice, curriculum, and on-the-job practice—is driven by state requirements, including those for the credential itself, standards for the teaching profession, and standards that drive the academic content encountered by K-12 students. Region XIII in Texas took an especially thorough approach to building a program around standards. Early on, the program experienced considerable variability across different cohort groups and instructors in what was being covered. Not wanting to lose the supportive cohort structure, program staff created a more fully specified curriculum. Using the "backward-design" principles and tools of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, they completed an extensive redevelopment process. They started by determining what the candidates would need to know and be able to do based on the state standards. They then determined what evidence candidates would have to produce to demonstrate having met the standards. Finally, they developed the learning activities intended to enable candidates to generate that evidence. Figure 5 illustrates one piece of the backward mapping process, which has guided the program's unit development and assessment. In using this process, says the program director, program staff have gained a much stronger understanding of the state standards themselves and, as a result, have been more effective in working with candidates.

Program leaders in Chico describe standards as the common language spoken by everyone in the program. Each candidate's individualized plan specifies which standards are being met through which courses or activities. Similarly, candidates' lesson plans have to meet teaching standards and student standards. And their portfolios and reflective logs are organized around which standards are being addressed or illustrated. In each supervisor visit to a candidate's site, the conversation focuses on which teaching standards are observed in that day's lesson and which still need to be addressed.

In Hillsborough, the components of candidates' eight required courses are designed to help them gain the knowledge, skills, and abilities to successfully demonstrate competency in Florida's 12 Accomplished Practices for teaching.

Untraditional Standards

While programs are traditional in their alignment with state standards, how their candidates meet those standards can vary widely. Programs studied range in length from one to three years. Each begins with a few days to several weeks of preservice training, after which candidates take on regular teaching positions. Candidates are bolstered by structured support and continue to take courses at night and on weekends. The goal at the end of each program is certification. In New York, candidates also earn a master's degree. Wichita candidates have an option to earn a master's degree.

Each program's preservice segment, regardless of duration, focuses on similar essentials. Typical is Georgia's 80-hour intensive course, which orients candidates to best practices in lesson planning, instruction, assessment, and classroom management, and provides them with field experiences and observations. Candidates also learn about teacher roles and responsibilities and the teaching code of ethics, as well as basics of parent communication and special education.

New York's seven-week summer preservice training involves both course work and student teaching to launch a master's degree program at any of the 11 partnering universities. During their preservice experience, candidates complete 90 hours of course work while simultaneously logging 80 hours of student teaching. At the end of each day, participants come together in groups of approximately 30 to meet with their fellow adviser; these meetings add up to about 75 hours of group support throughout the summer. In addition to being good teachers, fellow advisers are selected for their familiarity with alternative routes to certification and their skill in working with adults. These preservice advisers impart information and facilitate discussions intended to help program participants make sense of and mesh what they are learning in their course work and in their classroom teaching. To inform these sessions, the fellow advisers also observe candidates during their student teaching. Since the program's inception, participants have routinely identified these advisers as particularly helpful.

Figure 5. Region XIII Unit Planning Guide

Greater variation occurs in how and where candidates continue their course work once on the job, although nights and weekends are the norm. While Chico mixes in some release time, programs have run into the expense of hiring substitute teachers as well as candidates' objections to losing time with their students. In New York, in service schedules are created by each partnering university and courses typically are held in the evening or during the summer. In Hillsborough, district teachers teach courses in the evenings—an arrangement that fosters empathy since instructors and candidates alike have been teaching all day and experiencing common challenges. Hillsborough sets no order for taking the prescribed classes, which are offered at multiple evening and weekend times in multiple locations. In Texas, candidates receive 100 hours of in service training while they are on the job. The instruction is designed and delivered by the program's seven "education specialists," some of it via the Internet.

Online course delivery is a hallmark of Chico's two-year, special education-focused program, which serves an expansive rural area. Special education faculty, many of whom are classroom teachers, teach weekly evening courses, using real-time streaming video on the university's interactive distance education system. Despite drives as long as five hours, Chico candidates also come to the university and meet with their cohort for a full-day class each month using a release day. This face-to-face interaction on campus continues during the required summer school.

Individualized Approach

While all alternative route programs delineate course requirements and align their program with state standards, they also recognize the extra demands placed on their candidates. Unlike traditional teacher candidates, candidates are almost immediately on the job—with full responsibility for groups of students. Their course work sequence and the timing of support cannot be carved in stone. "They need everything at once," said one program coordinator, who—like leaders in all the programs studied—must balance that awareness against the reality that too much too soon is overwhelming.

Since most programs require that candidates demonstrate knowledge of subject matter to qualify for admission, the focus is typically not content knowledge but pedagogy—lessons and practice in how best to teach specific kinds of content to diverse groups of students. (Exceptions are New York's math immersion component, targeting non-math majors who will teach math, and the component of the Texas Region XIII program that helps candidates pass the state-required content knowledge examination.)

Each program offers candidates initial basic knowledge—say, in reading instruction or classroom management—and then follows up with more complex information and instruction at the moment the candidate needs it. The director of the alternative route program at Pace University—one of the partners in New York City—explains that alternative programs ground candidates' course work in their teaching and explore theory in practical terms. Similarly, an evaluator of the Chico program points out its pragmatic stance: "This approach is the reverse of traditional theory to practice," she says. "It's turned teaching upside down in university classrooms."

In Chico, the individualized approach begins with each candidate's Individualized Induction Program (IIP). Developed with a program supervisor, each IIP is a personal road map that documents a candidate's goals and tracks an action plan for achieving those goals. Candidates also sign a course contract that is forwarded to the university's credential analyst. To be sure candidates get the courses they need, and recognizing the stresses they are under, the program adviser monitors the candidates to make sure they sign up for the right classes—and to call them if they have not. "They get a lot of hand holding because they become so overwhelmed with teaching and taking course work," explains a Chico program adviser. Ongoing individual advisement addresses other university deadlines that Chico candidates have to meet, phone numbers they need, and general troubleshooting. "Tons of email," notes one program adviser, is the key to the ongoing personal support candidates receive from their instructors and advisers.

Other programs where candidates follow individualized programs include those in Hillsborough and Georgia. As in Chico, candidates' programs are tailored to their particular background and experience—and adjusted over time to address specific, individual needs.

Formative Assessment

Identification of individual needs in these alternative programs is made possible by the amount of ongoing assessment each candidate receives. This assessment approach models the kind of assessment candidates are learning to conduct with their own students. Generally, it includes formal and informal observations by program support providers and principals as well as the portfolios candidates develop over the course of the program. In Georgia, Hillsborough, and Chico, portfolios document candidates' growth in competencies aligned with state standards (see figure 6). Portfolios are also used as instruments for self-reflection and are tied to student learning. In Chico, for example, candidates' portfolios include samples of students' individualized lesson plans, plans that are driven by candidates' analyses of ongoing student assessment data and are then critiqued by supervisors, mentors, and the school that employs them. In Georgia, video clips document the candidate's classroom environment and instruction. Hillsborough has a particularly detailed structure for integrating assessment with support, as explained in the next section. Across the programs, a final sign-off on competencies generally involves support providers, the employer, and appropriate course instructors.

Michael McKibbin, consultant with the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, who is in charge of California's alternative programs, points to a critical difference between the evaluation in traditional and alternative teacher preparation. In traditional programs, he notes, by the time a student teacher realizes he or she cannot perform a skill or task, it's too late. The benefit of alternative programs, he says, is that "performance assessment can be done over a long period of time, so that remediation and improvement can be applied and monitored."

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