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Teacher education program sees dramatic changes

By Sally Jongsma

Education department sees big changes

Education department sees big changes

Graduates who went through the Dordt College teacher education program only a decade or two ago would hardly recognize the program’s requirements today. The biggest change is a move to performance-based assessment, a change mandated by the Iowa Department of Education.

In the past, students in the program were judged competent to teach if they had satisfactorily completed all of the courses required for the education major. Now competency is based on more tangible evidence. Students compile a portfolio in which they collect examples—or artifacts, as they are called—of their work. This includes such things as a philosophy statement, field experience reports, a technology project, unit plans, journal entries, classroom management plans, a case study, and more.

Each element of the portfolio demonstrates competency in one or more of the eleven teacher education program standards set by the department, says Dr. Dennis Vander Plaats, chair of the department. The standards reflect not only the Reformed biblical perspective of Dordt College but also the requirements set by the Iowa Department of Education (see box).

Dr. Pat Kornelis hopes that by compiling portfolios for the new state-required performance-based assessment, students will be encouraged to think critically and be more reflective about the learning process.

Dr. Pat Kornelis hopes that by compiling portfolios for the new state-required performance-based assessment, students will be encouraged to think critically and be more reflective about the learning process.

Completed portfolios are assessed at three points or benchmarks by education faculty, according to criteria spelled out in the portfolio handbook. The first benchmark determines whether students are accepted into the teacher education program, the second whether they are allowed to student teach, and the third whether they will be recommended for licensure. Students must have a satisfactory or outstanding rating to move forward.

Setting up this assessment process has been a long and time-consuming one for education department faculty, and it is ongoing. But it has value for both the students and the department, believes Vander Plaats, who has spent many hours writing up department documents outlining standards and requirements.

The current year is only the second in which the portfolio has been required, and the performance-based assessment really won’t kick into gear until next year. In place of teaching one course, Dr. Pat Kornelis, a member of the education department, will have responsibility for writing and updating processes, handbooks, and requirements for the new assessment process.

“It’s a lot more work for everyone, both faculty and students,” Kornelis says, but she is hopeful that it will also help students think more critically and be more reflective as they master material and learn teaching strategies. Only time will tell whether the process, which requires each professor to carefully go through the portfolio with each of their forty-five advisees at three different times, is eventually deemed too burdensome or whether it will be streamlined into a valued process.

Performance-based assessment has both positive and negative sides to it, agrees Dean of the Social Sciences Jasper Lesage. “Students come out of the program with a portfolio that concretely shows what they’ve accomplished in their pursuit of becoming good teachers.” That’s a good thing, he says. A danger can be that only what is obviously assessable is measured, providing an excuse for students to avoid doing creative things that are harder to assess. But Lesage has confidence that the education faculty will try to keep that from happening.

A second major reason for change in the department has been the “No Child Left Behind Act.” The legislation addresses the need for having “highly qualified teachers” and the need to find enough teachers to fill the critical teacher shortage across the country. As a result, most states now require teachers to take a standardized test before they can be licensed to teach.

“Iowa is the only state, currently, that does not require taking a test to prove competency to teach,” says Vander Plaats. In fact, Iowa is bucking the trend and can do so because of the excellent reputation of its educational system and its performance-based assessment requirements in teacher education programs.

“The act demands greater accountability,” says Kornelis. That means education departments like Dordt’s need to show that the people they are training are highly qualified. The portfolios will do just that. But new regulations also require teachers to be certified in specific content areas: a biology teacher will need to be certified in biology, not something more general.

To achieve its goals, the legislation puts heavy emphasis on reading, writing, and mathematics improvement. Schools whose students do not achieve satisfactorily on standardized tests in these areas are put on probationary lists and can lose funding. Schools that continue to “fail” are sent trainers who work with teachers to help them raise their school’s scores. While this pressure or added accountability can have good results, the potential for negative ones is strong.

“When a school system is pressured to improve test scores in particular areas, other areas of the curriculum can get short-changed,” says Kornelis, adding, “If these accountability measures end up making teachers teach for the test, the legislation may turn out to be short sighted.”

“In theory, who could be against ‘no child left behind,’” she says. “In our department we emphasize a biblical view of the learner. We encourage our pre-service teachers to view students as growing, unique image bearers of God. Each has been gifted in amazing ways and our role as teachers is to help our students discover and develop those gifts. Of course, we don’t want any child to be ‘left behind.’”

Dordt’s education department emphasizes the “wholeness” or multi-dimensional nature of students, continues Kornelis. “Our goal is to celebrate that wholeness and guide our students to become responsible and responsive disciples of Christ. If legislation like NCLB prevents that from happening by narrow and punitive measurement strategies, we should view that with concern.”

A second result of “No Child Left Behind” is the move by some states to allow alternative routes to certification. The United States Department of Education has recently suggested a list of competencies that indicate a teacher is “highly qualified.” In descending order of importance, they include: having high cognitive ability, having knowledge in a content area, having a four-year degree, and having teacher education training. Highly qualified teachers, in essence, are those who can point to higher standardized test scores by their students.

This focus, too, leads to teaching for the test, says Vander Plaats.

It also puts education departments in a defensive position because they are not necessarily seen as essential. In essence it ignores the importance of much of what has been learned through educational research and experience over the years, says Vander Plaats. He is thankful that Iowa remains strongly committed to teacher education and the role it plays in preparing teachers for the classroom.

“There is nothing wrong with accountability,” says Kornelis. “The danger is that measurements are only made in a quantitative way. Education is better evaluated using quantitative and qualitative means.”

Despite some negatives, bringing change often brings positive results because professors have to reevaluate how and why they teach what they do. In the end, the challenge for the department essentially remains what it has always been—to train competent teachers who are visionary, bright, knowledgeable, engaging, and committed in good pedagogical strategies. In short, teachers who will

be well prepared to train students for lives of service in schools across the country.

Teacher Education program standards

The first principle of accountability for results involves the creation of standards in each state for what a child should know and learn in reading and math in grades three through eight. With those standards in place, student progress and achievement will be measured according to state tests designed to match those state standards and given to every child, every year.

NCLB website