Last month, Governor Mitch Daniels signed new teacher licensing rules into law that aim to ensure educators have a better mastery of their subjects before taking over a classroom. Among other changes, secondary education teachers now must earn a degree in their subject area.
The Governor and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett hope the measures raise standardized test scores, but some educators say a reduced emphasis on teaching methods could end up hurting Hoosier students.
In his first summer on the job, a newly-elected Bennett proposed changing how Indiana licenses its public school teachers. Known collectively as “REPA,” the document was immediately controversial.
Indiana University Assistant Dean for Teacher Education Jill Shedd says while some of REPA’s measures were poorly received, it was the manner in which they were proposed that was the most worrisome.
“The document that was presented on July 29th was created in isolation. It wasn’t a collaborative conversation with teachers, with school administrators, with teacher education professionals,” Shedd said. “And many of the issue that were addressed during those six months could have easily been addressed probably in a more positive and proactive way had there been collaboration at the very start.”
But Bennett says the proposals were created by consulting outside expertise and were meant as a jumping-off point for discussion.
“The National Council for Teacher Quality graded Indiana a ‘D.’ So we brought them in and said ‘Help us develop the recommendations,’” Bennett said.
Public Meetings Turn Tense
Hundreds turned out for public meetings. Feedback from educators was generally harsh. And as a result, the document changed. For example, one proposal would have placed limits on how many credit hours of education-based classes a prospective teacher would take. That idea was eventually scrapped.
When Governor Mitch Daniels signed the document last month, he touted its significance:
“Today we’re about to make formal and final new regulations which will transform dramatically what is expected of teachers in Indiana to receive a teaching license.”
But University of Indianapolis Dean of Education Kathy Moran says that’s not the case.
“It doesn’t change much. Most, if not all of the teacher ed[ucation] programs in the state, requires as much, if not more content, than the pure major does,” Moran said. That’s what’s so surprising about what the press release seems to imply that its changing something for content knowledge when [that’s] by and large what we’ve been doing anyway.”
But Bennett says the fact so many people attended meetings on the subject helps prove its worth.
“If this didn’t create a different way of doing things for the universities, the universities wouldn’t have turned out en masse to oppose it in the way they did,” Bennett said.
The Document, Reconsidered
Despite some revision, the plan still places more emphasis on content-matter courses and less on those that focus on educational philosophy or how to teach. One provision requires that those who teach grades 5 through 12 earn baccalaureate degrees in the subjects they teach.
“You can’t teach chemistry or physics if you don’t have strong content knowledge in chemistry or physics,” Bennett said.
For some colleges and universities, that means rewriting and restructuring their curriculum. But for most, Moran says, hardly anything will change. Bennett disagrees.
“We don’t depend on the colleges and university to interpret the document. We’ll interpret it for them. There is no question that this improves the content knowledge of teachers in the areas,” he said.
The Goal: Improved Test Scores, but Some Don’t See the Connection
Bennett says better teachers will translate into better students and improved test scores. But Shedd says the new requirements will not necessarily have that effect – especially if classes in pedagogy are blanketed by an emphasis on content.
“Teaching well is all about the relationship you have with students, the relationship you have with the content. And getting students excited about it. It’s all about that. And content mastery, or being an expert in the content, does not assure that you can pull that great relationship off,” Shedd said.
Bennett says there’s little risk in undergoing these particular changes because they’ve been shown to work in other places.
“Indiana is certainly nowhere near being front runners in these types of reforms for licensure. We follow a long line of states, including Louisiana,” he said.
How long the new rules are in place, Shedd says, is a question. Results from the last time the rules changed – in 2002 – are just now starting to become apparent, she says.
“Whether it is for the better we will wait and see,” Shedd said.
Teachers earning licenses before 2013 will still follow the old rules. But the changes will shape how freshman entering college this fall will be educated.