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February 21, 2002

Dean says tests measure only part of what make a good teacher

What makes a good teacher?

There's no simple answer, of course. But according to Pitt's School of Education Dean Alan Lesgold, there is much more to teacher preparation than what's measured by state-required competency tests.

"You have a lot of issues that go into preparing a good teacher, especially for the younger aged kids," Lesgold said. "Yes, you want teachers to know math and how to write and know science, but you also want them to know how to work with young children, how to be loving and caring."

Instructional psychology, therefore, is an important component of a teacher's training, Lesgold said.

"If you're going to be a teacher, you need to know something about how the mind works, about learning habits, about behavioral psychology, and something about the main ideas in instruction, including certain basic issues like keeping your class orderly. If you can't modify behavior without a whip and a chair, you've got some problems."

That's why demonstrating competency in basic principles of human learning, by testing whether a prospective teacher knows the standard material in educational psychology, is important in teacher preparation, he said.

"I believe we have an obligation to prepare our students for that part. But it's a delicate issue: On the one hand, you don't want to just teach the stuff that's on the [competency] test, because it's not enough and not sufficiently tied to teaching itself to be practically useful. On the other hand, we also would like all of our students to be certified to teach, and that requires passing these tests."

Another indicator of teaching success is the ability to absorb pedagogical strategies, Lesgold said.

"Science teachers, for example, need to learn what are the dozen or so most difficult concepts in science and what are some plausible teaching strategies for dealing with each of those.

"How do we use our knowledge of how learning works to help us apply those strategies effectively with real cases and real kids? — That's the part that's not very much on any exam but is awfully important."

Another predictor of teaching success is an applicant's own philosophy on the profession.

"We pay very careful attention to an applicant's statement of goals," Lesgold said. "The admission process is fundamentally an act of integrity on our part to ensure that people don't waste several years of their lives pursuing a goal that can't be reached or isn't going to be satisfying. So, if we get an application from somebody who states reasons to be a teacher that are incompatible with what's going to happen when he or she does become a teacher, we owe it to that person to say that that path is going to lead nowhere.

"We also come upon cases where the person's thinking about what it is to be teacher is so diffuse that it's hard to be convinced that they're going to hold up under what will be rather strenuous activity," he continued.

Candidates entering the master of arts in teaching program, for example, are facing a tortuous schedule just to keep up.

"They're going to be taking a pile of courses, at the same time they're going to be working all year in a school. Sure, the contract says 'half-time,' but hospital interns have contracts too and life is about the same for the two groups: They're never going to have enough time in the day, they're going to be always tired, they're going to have a really strenuous year.

"If we get a good sense from an application that people are not ready for working their butt off," the dean added, "it isn't responsible to admit them, to take the tuition, and if they bag it, say, 'That's that.' "All of the screening we do is first and foremost being responsible for taking people's money in exchange for preparing them for a career as a teacher."

Better candidates, Lesgold said, are those who know early that they want to pursue a teaching career and have realistic goals and expectations.

"We try to talk to a lot of people early on. I get e-mails from freshmen: 'I've just been accepted at Pitt. I really want to be a teacher, what should I do?' That's exactly the person we want to respond to. Help them work out a plan, put them in the right position to succeed by the time they come [to School of Education graduate programs]."

Lesgold said the education school's admissions and advising staff will go out of their way to help qualified candidates who may lack a particular credential for admission to an education program.

"For someone who obviously should be a teacher, if they have some course they should have taken, we'll help them get signed up, even if it's not at Pitt," Lesgold said. "Our advising staff will help people figure out how to pick up those few loose ends they may need."

Lesgold also said that more needs to be done to ensure that good teachers of all ilks get certified, including non-traditional candidates who may decide they want to teach after being in the workforce.

"As a society we need to be able to find ways for good people who are dedicated and caring and who actually will become good teachers to get there. You hate to see screening processes that essentially force people to go in lock-step through a sequence of events or not be allowed to teach, and of course the state is trying to avoid that. But sometimes those things are in conflict."

People want the teaching force to be qualified, first and foremost, Lesgold said. "On the other hand, we want to accommodate the person who's been a successful engineer or policeman or electrician and now wants to become a teacher. We want to take advantage of the talent and experience of someone who maybe didn't have a 3.0 average 20 or 30 years ago.

"I think we're at the point here at Pitt where we have to say if we can't take all the people who want to come here, who are the best bets?"

–Peter Hart

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