Even though Mary Young is just in the final weeks of her training to become a new teacher, she’s already become an expert in Colorado’s complex stack of standards for good teaching that will one day be used to decide whether she should stay in the classroom.
On a late spring afternoon, she pored over the standards — which rolled out to schools around the state this year — and speculated on where she’d rank on each piece.
In some areas, like building a strong classroom culture, Young said expected to excel. But she also realized she had little to no experience practicing other areas of expectation, like incorporating technology in the classroom.
“I have no idea if I will be good at it,” she said.
And the guide that lays out all of the standards, which runs to 20 pages, is daunting for a new teacher.
“How do you balance all of these?” she asked.
But Young is already ahead of the game in getting ready for her first evaluation. Her training program, Stanley Teacher Preparation Program, is one of just two in the state selected to be part of a pilot program figuring out how to train teaching candidates on the new evaluation system.
For teacher preparation programs, the incentive to graduate students who will do well under the new evaluation system is strong: eventually, the state’s teacher trainers will be graded based on how well their students do in their first years of teaching.
But the pilot has revealed just how far programs have to go to prepare teaching candidates for the new system and has illuminated a system still in flux as officials gradually introduce a complex series of laws governing teaching practices.
“They’re not going to be done by the time I’m done with my job,” said Jennifer Arzberger, who supports the grant-funded pilot program, which is entering its second and final year and was formed as a collaboration between the two state offices overseeing Colorado’s higher education and K-12 systems.
Teacher preparation programs also have a dilemma: school districts, which have to teach according to the new evaluation standards, want their incoming teachers trained on those. But the higher education system still holds the programs accountable to teaching the old standards, so prep programs must meet those expectations as well.
Moreover, teacher prep programs often work closely with individual school districts, many of which have developed their own variations on the state’s evaluation system to meet the requirements of the law. But programs must prepare new teachers for classrooms anywhere in the state.
And the implementation of the new standards has raised a number of practical questions for teacher trainers, including ones as simple as exactly how advanced young teaching candidates should be when they first enter the profession.
No answers, yet
One of the biggest problems for teacher training programs is that there is still no clear consensus on how skilled teachers should be, within the framework of the new evaluation system, when they graduate and enter classrooms for the first time on their own.
Young and her fellow students received training on how they would be evaluated and assessed themselves on the standards. But when Stanley instructors prepared to evaluate Young and others on the standards, it became obvious that no one knew where they should score if the program was doing its job. Should they be proficient on every standard? Or are some areas impossible for students who don’t run their own classroom to demonstrate mastery of?
Stanley, which puts teaching candidates to work immediately in a classroom under a mentor, polled their mentor teachers on where students should fall early in their careers. The program leaders also broke down the standards by what candidates are taught in the program.
“In most cases, they are going to be around basic, proficient or partially proficient,” said Sue Sava, who heads the Stanley program. Few recent graduates will rank in the top tiers on the evaluation.
Right now, those designations carry no consequences for teaching candidates. But eventually, under legislation likely to come forward next year, teacher candidates’ rankings on the evaluations could be tied to whether or not they receive their teaching licenses.
That’s a move Sava isn’t so sure about.
“Does state model rubric even make sense for teachers [in training]?” Sava said. Using it as a training tool works well, but to demonstrate mastery, she said, a candidate would really have to have their own classroom.
Other remaining questions are as basic as exactly which variation on the state’s system programs should use to train their students, since many of the largest districts have designed their own evaluation systems.
Both Stanley and the other participating program, University of Colorado-Denver’s Urban Community Teaching Education Program, collaborate closely with districts to place teachers-in-training in classrooms and prepare them for the needs of the specific districts. But most smaller districts use the state’s model system, whose language and structure can differ significantly from Denver’s LEAP evaluation tool and other district-designed systems.
While these questions and others linger, Arzberger hopes their work will help inform other teacher preparation programs statewide as they grapple with the new system.
Caught in the middle
As Sava and her team spend the next year totally redesigning Stanley’s preparation program to align with the standards of the evaluations, they will have to confront the side effects of a set of teacher accountability policies that have been stitched together piecemeal.
While their teachers will be evaluated on one set of standards after they graduate and enter the classroom, the teacher training programs themselves are still held accountable for teaching an old set of standards. And to make things more complex, teacher preparation programs will soon be ranked based on how well their candidates perform on evaluations during their first three years of teaching.
Sava believes that the old guidelines, known as “performance-based” standards and dating back to 1991, are antiquated and burdensome. The strain the old standards place on programs like Stanley takes physical form in a document called Big Bertha — a stack of papers several inches thick that contains all of the compliance information on just one of the standards, literacy instruction.
“[The new standards] are much more concise,” said Sava.
And she thinks they do a better job of pushing teachers to get better. “They do a good job of articulating this is what highly effective teaching looks like.”
Stanley is currently attempting to comply with both sets of standards, but Sava hopes to abandon the old standards entirely and discard Big Bertha. But that would require new legislation.
“We hope that’s going to happen,” said Sava. In the meantime, Sava said she has been encouraged to continue their work with the new standards.
“All they’ve known”
While programs are grappling with how to comply with the policies, the teachers they train are facing them fresh. New teachers like Young won’t have to deal with the transition many veterans have.
It’s a fact Young is acutely aware of. Her mother is also a teacher in Denver Public Schools. This year, Young received more training on the standards than her mother did.
“I feel better knowing what’s going to be expected and that [Stanley] is a safe place where I can ask questions,” said Young. While she finds some aspects of the standards daunting, that’s more hopeful than her mother’s response: “How are we supposed to do this?”
According to Arzberger, the teachers in training on whom so much of the difficulties center may emerge relatively untouched.
“It’s all they’ve known,” Arzberger said.