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Project Seeks to Trace Development of Novice Teachers' Skills

What skills do teacher education programs set out to teach? What understanding of those topics do their graduates actually come away with? And which of those competencies help improve academic outcomes for students?

Those questions are at the heart of a three-year, federally funded study now under way by researchers at the University of Denver. Its main goal is to see whether it's possible to come up with a coherent, measurable set of beginning-teacher competencies.

Though the study's first year is only now wrapping up, the scholars say the results indicate that Colorado teacher education programs differ quite a lot in what they emphasize.

"While all the program have at least some baseline attention to the core competencies, there is a whole lot of variation within and across programs about what exactly the curriculum profile is," said Kent Seidel, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the university, and the principal investigator on the grant.

The project, funded under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences, has three distinct phases. First, the researchers are defining a set of "core competencies" for novice teachers. Then, they're examining how much exposure teacher candidates get to those competencies during their training. And finally, they'll see whether candidates who embody certain competencies are linked to improved student achievement.

Twenty-one of the state's teacher-education programs are participating, and the researchers have requested data from 24 school districts, including Denver and Jefferson County.

The researchers' initial goal was to try to come up with the core competencies that describe what new teachers should know before they graduate from teacher-preparation programs. They examined more than a dozen different sets of teacher standards, including the standards put out by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and the Interstate Teacher Assessments and Support Consortium, among others.

The task was challenging, Seidel said, partly because the research on teacher standards largely pre-dates the emphasis of the last decade or so on performance. And some of the standards reviewed were either too general to be measurable, or too similar to beliefs to be explicitly taught.

After many iterations, the researchers came up with nine competency areas. In a nutshell, they are: demonstrating mastery of and pedagogical expertise in content taught; managing the classroom environment; developing a safe, inclusive classroom environment for a diverse student body; planning and providing instruction; designing and adapting assessments, curriculum, and instruction; engaging students in higher-order thinking and expectations; supporting the development of academic language and English-language acquisition; reflection and professional growth; and supporting literacy and numeracy across the curriculum.

Next, the team collected survey data from preservice teachers at the end of their program, graduates of the programs who have been teaching five or fewer years, and faculty and supervisor at the education schools. They also collected and coded hundreds of program documents, such as the institutions' syllabi, admissions materials, and culminating assessments, to determine which of the competencies the programs explicitly taught.

One of the researchers, Kimberly Hartnett-Edwards, gave a few early findings from the first year of the analysis at the annual American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education conference, held last week in Orlando, Fla. For one, she said, no program explicitly taught all of the nine competencies, and engaging students in rigorous, higher-order tasks seemed to be the least "enacted" of the competencies overall. Conversely, while programs said they put a lot of emphasis on teacher reflection, novice teachers didn't report that as an area of focus.

Programs' overall goal or conceptual framework didn't always line up with what was in the coursework, Hartnett-Edwards added. "What we think we are teaching, we're not teaching, for the most part," she said.

The second year of surveying will be beginning shortly. Researchers will also be visiting classrooms in 18 schools to see whether graduates of the programs are demonstrating the competencies in their classrooms, and to interview them in depth. Finally, the scholars will be analyzing the growth in test scores of students taught by the teachers.

The full analyses from year 1 will be released in the next month or so, and you'll want to visit the project website for all the details.

Clarification: An earlier version of this post said eight districts were participating, based on a list on the initiative's web site. In all, the researchers are seeking information from 24 districts.

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