Developing a fitness to teach policy to address retention issues in teacher education.
The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) states that "candidates preparing to work in schools as teachers or other professional school personnel [should] know and demonstrate the content, pedagogical, and professional knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to help all students learn" (NCATE, 2002, p. 13). Dispositions, such as personal attitudes, beliefs, values, and perceptions that inform behavior, are the most difficult to assess because of their complexity. Many institutions prefer to concentrate only on knowledge and skills, using numerical criteria and technical skills as the only filter through which to evaluate a teacher candidate's fitness to teach. However, we cannot continue to ignore or avoid evaluating dispositions for teaching. While interpersonal skills may not be the sole predictor of teaching success, the lack of these skills will certainly cause problems in the future and will most certainly lead to early failure as a teacher, more so, perhaps, than even poor technical skills (Byrnes, 1999).
Even though many teacher educators acknowledge the importance of interpersonal skills for future teaching success, many institutions' policies regarding evaluation of student dispositions generally are informal in nature, or are not used consistently across programs, if at all (Ginsberg & Whaley, 2003). Many teacher educators have difficulty making adverse decisions about weak teacher candidates. This is due in part to a program's lack of clear definitions or standards about what constitutes an incompetent student teacher, as well as an ill-defined policy for addressing this issue (Raths & Lyman, 2003). In April 2000, the American Federation of Teachers listed one of the problems in teacher education as inadequate agreed-upon standards for entering and exiting teacher education programs (cited in Stevens, 2001). Given the fact that more is required of individuals entering the teaching profession than ever before, it seems time for teacher preparation programs to reexamine their screening policies to include more than just academic ability. Professional knowledge is only one of the necessary components of a successful teacher. Teaching today also demands a level of maturity and interpersonal skills that enables an individual to interact on multiple levels with a variety of people. Teachers no longer teach in isolation. They are expected to interact with the whole education community: colleagues, administrators, parents, and students. Building collaborative relationships with other teachers is expected and rewarded. Those who hire teachers expect a certain level of competence in both technical and interpersonal knowledge as well as the skills necessary for working well with others. This is evident in the list of criteria on school district recommendation forms for students seeking teaching positions. A review of several of these forms from different school districts shows personal qualities listed ahead of teaching skills. Yet teacher education provides little or no training in the area of interpersonal skills, and rarely does it formally and consistently assess this area of teacher preparation (Goodlad, 1990; Haberman, 1987; Russell, Persing, Dunn, & Rankin, 1990).
Teacher educators hesitate to venture into the assessment of such intangible qualities as interpersonal skills, often due to a fear of litigation. Faculty in teacher preparation programs have all faced the challenge of what to do with the intellectually astute teacher candidate whose interpersonal skills nevertheless raise concerns, or whose disposition for teaching is not so easily assessed using standardized criteria. It seems safer and easier to assess the ability of a student to teach a lesson cycle than it is to assess the student's attitude and behaviors. What seems clear, however, is that teacher education programs have an obligation to screen candidates for dispositions for teaching as well as technical skills. What is not so clear to many who work in these programs is how to do this without risking litigation.
This article provides an example of how one university addresses the challenge of evaluating students' skills and dispositions for teaching. It describes a "Fitness to Teach" policy implemented successfully at a large urban university that serves more than 1,200 students in its teacher education program. It describes the history of how the policy was developed and provides examples of how the policy is used for retention decisions. It also discusses how the implementation of a fitness to teach policy actually protects institutions from litigation.
DEVELOPING A FITNESS TO TEACH POLICY
At the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), faculty in the teacher preparation program worked together over time to develop a program that meets the state standards for teacher preparation as well as the students' needs in the everyday world of the classroom. As in many other institutions, admission to the UTSA teacher preparation program requires a certain grade point average, a criminal history check, and evidence of the potential to succeed in passing the state-required teacher certification exams. As students progress through the program, both formal and informal evaluation tools determine their potential to teach lessons, prepare curriculum, and generally be successful in the teaching profession. During this evaluation period, different challenges arise regarding an individual student's fitness to teach that are not necessarily tied to technical skills. When it became evident the program needed an evaluation tool for disposition assessment as well as a formal mechanism for screening students into, as well as out of, the program, and after a few experiences with particularly difficult cases involving student retention in the program, a fitness to teach policy was developed.
In 1998, UTSA began to informally research other institutions' policies related to student retention. Some institutions had not yet considered a formal retention policy. Others felt it was impossible to adopt one, considering all the potential legal issues involved.
We also studied other relevant criteria related to teacher preparation and retention, including standards from NCATE and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, as well as our own state standards for teacher certification programs. A draft of a Fitness to Teach policy (FTT) was developed in 1999 and reviewed by the college's faculty and the Dean of the College of Education and Human Development, who were responsible for suggestions and/or corrections as well as final approval. The policy then was forwarded to the university system lawyers for review. The lawyers believed that the first draft did not contain enough due process reviews to hold up in court.
The faculty reviewed the policy again a year later. The Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies formed a college-wide committee composed of faculty and the Director of Student Teaching. This committee edited the policy; once everyone on campus was satisfied with the revised document, the UTSA attorney submitted it to the University of Texas System attorneys for approval. In 2001, the policy was approved and became part of the UTSA Handbook of Operating Procedures. It is a living document and two subsequent iterations have been developed since the original version.
Once the FTT policy was approved and adopted by the university, students, tenure-track faculty, and associate faculty members received notification of the policy in a variety of ways. The policy was posted on the college's home page. Faculty also developed a video showing how a student would proceed through an FTT review and posted this video on the college home page (http://coehd.utsa.edu/FTT/FTT.htm). Students entering the teacher education program are required to attend an initiation into teaching meeting that provides an explanation of the Fitness to Teach policy, along with information about how to access the policy and the video. Information about the policy is also disseminated to teachers and principals who work with UTSA students in establishing a variety of field placements in public schools. As a result, everyone involved in the teacher preparation program is working from a common understanding of the criteria for a successful teacher candidate at UTSA.
THE FITNESS TO TEACH POLICY
The Fitness to Teach Policy at UTSA addresses five different areas related to human characteristics and dispositions relevant to the teaching profession (see notes at end of article). These are: 1) academic requirements, 2) personal and professional requirements, 3) cultural and social attitudes and behaviors, 4) physical skills, and 5) emotional and mental abilities. Each of these categories includes a list of descriptors that explain the skills and dispositions expected of a student entering the teaching field. Students know that all instructors and mentor teachers are assessing these qualities throughout the student's tenure in the teacher education program at UTSA. Students are also aware that at any given time, should the need arise, the FTT policy will be used to evaluate their continued participation in the program.
The FTT policy is also part of the admission criteria to student teaching. Each student's file is reviewed prior to student teaching for any negative FTT reviews. Unconditional acceptance is granted if, along with meeting other criteria, there are no outstanding FTT reviews in the student's file. If a student has an FTT remediation plan in progress, the teacher candidate is placed on probationary status during student teaching until such time as he or she successfully completes a remediation plan, or until a decision to revoke the student's candidacy has been made.
Due Process Reviews
The UTSA Fitness to Teach policy review is based on legal requirements for due process. The policy includes three stages of review:
Informal Review. The first review is an informal one that involves the teacher candidate and a faculty member. The faculty member initiates a discussion about the concerns, using the FTT policy criteria as a filter. The outcome of this discussion is documented and placed in the student's file.
Formal Review-Level I. The second level of review, Formal Review-Level I, occurs when a faculty member is sufficiently concerned about the teacher candidate's fitness to teach that he or she sees the need for a meeting with the Associate Dean or her designee. After the faculty member completes the required forms for a Level I review, a three-way conference is scheduled to include the student, the faculty member requesting the review, and the Associate Dean. During this meeting, a remediation plan is formulated and signed by all parties involved and the candidate is put on probationary status. If the candidate successfully completes the remediation plan, probationary status is removed. Depending upon the circumstances, remediation plans can last for one or more semesters.
Formal Review-Level II. If the candidate fails to complete the remediation plan, or if a second incident or concern is reported in relation to this same candidate, then a Formal Review-Level II is initiated. The Fitness to Teach Council, made up of faculty and chaired by the Associate Dean, is convened. The task of the council is to review the paperwork in the student's file, interview the faculty member voicing the concern, interview the teacher candidate, and then make a determination regarding the candidate's suitability to continue in the program. The teacher candidate may appeal the council's decision; however, the decision of the Associate Dean is final. (Note: All forms for the FTT policy may be downloaded from the College of Education and Human Development FTT link.)
Putting the Fitness to Teach Policy Into Practice
Since its inception, the UTSA Fitness to Teach policy has been used successfully as a screening tool for teacher candidates. To date, no student who has been through the FTT review has filed a lawsuit or attempted to do so. Some examples of cases in which students were recommended for an FTT review involved disrespectful behavior on the part of students towards instructors, peers, supervisors, and children; chronic tardiness or absenteeism; very poor interactions with young students; refusal to comply with program requirements; violation of the UTSA code of conduct; and failing a number of required courses. As of this writing, only three students have reached a Formal Review-Level II; of those three, two were dismissed from the program. The third student's dismissal is pending, based on the outcome of a second semester of student teaching.
BENEFITS OF THE FITNESS TO TEACH POLICY
Although UTSA has only just begun a formal study of the advantages of its Fitness to Teach policy, the benefits of this policy are clearly evident in the daily interactions between students, faculty, and school partners involved in the teacher education program. Following are some of the perceived benefits of the FTT policy from a variety of perspectives.
Implementation of a formal policy to address concerns about a candidate's fitness to teach provides many benefits to all parties involved in a teacher education program. One of the most important benefits is the protection such a policy provides against litigation by students who may feel unjustly dismissed from a teacher education program. Contrary to popular belief among many faculty members in teacher preparation programs, it is the lack of such a formal policy that makes universities vulnerable to litigation. Not having a formal, written policy regarding retention of teacher candidates puts institutions at risk for lawsuits, since students can claim that lack of clear policies or due process led to their dismissal from a program. Also, when a policy is clearly written and extensively disseminated within a program, students cannot claim ignorance of the criteria used to judge whether or not a candidate should continue in the program.
In speaking with faculty members involved in teacher education programs in various universities and colleges, it is apparent that fear of lawsuits prevents many from developing written policies regarding their programmatic expectations for teacher candidates. As mentioned before, however, it is the lack of such policies that puts them at risk. What many institutions do not understand is that they have a great deal more latitude in making decisions about issues of fitness to teach than they realize. In reviewing court cases related to higher education, Ginsberg and Whaley (2003) found that when students filed suit against universities, judges were reluctant to intervene in the arena of higher education policy. "Few court cases at any level of the court system directly deal with these issues, and no U.S. Supreme Court cases actually adjudicated such concerns for the field of education" (p. 172). Students seldom prevail in discrimination lawsuits if the institution can show it has a formal written policy for programmatic expectations, and that due process is followed in implementing this policy. It is to the benefit of the institution to have such a policy. Not doing so puts the institution at greater risk for legal challenges.
Benefits for Faculty and Students
Overall, the Fitness to Teach policy provides a much-needed compass for both faculty and students in the teacher education program. The goals and processes are well-defined, and students know what to expect should a question arise about a candidate's qualifications for teaching. All parties feel more comfortable in a program with explicit processes for ensuring that only the best candidates will enter the teaching profession. Having clear guidelines for what the university expects of its teacher candidates is especially helpful for non-tenure track faculty who teach and supervise in teacher preparation programs.
Part-time faculty members usually have the responsibility for identifying and evaluating the competencies of future teachers. Yet, they are perhaps the same individuals who are typically outside the loop when it comes to making policy decisions regarding the teacher preparation program. Maintaining consistency in evaluating teacher candidates is also a problem, because of high turnover among part-time faculty. Although highly competent in their roles, part-time faculty may not be as highly vested in the department's mission of inducting only quality teachers into the teaching profession. Therefore, as a result, weak or incompetent candidates may end up being recommended for a certificate despite their apparent weaknesses, because some faculty may believe that it causes less trouble to do so than to deal with complicated due process rights and grievances. Our experience, however, shows that an FTT policy helps alleviate many of these concerns for part-time faculty because the policy provides them with the support they need to make confident high-stakes judgment calls about teacher candidates.
Most students respond positively when asked about their perceptions of the FTT policy. Some students believe that the policy protects them as well as the children they will serve from teachers who should not be a member of the profession. They, too, recognize the difficulty in removing undesirable candidates from the program, and appreciate the fact that an appropriate avenue is available to address such issues. One student even wrote in a questionnaire about the FTT policy that it should be more stringent, and suggested that the informal review be eliminated. Another student suggested that psychological screening should be mandated for every candidate upon entering the teacher education program.
Recently, we have begun to discuss how we, as a faculty, can help students become more aware of their personal and professional growth in the area of teaching dispositions. We are investigating appropriate avenues for helping students, early in the program, to do some self-assessment of their dispositions for teaching, and to track their own growth over time in these areas.
Benefits for Principals and Mentor Teachers
Principals and mentor teachers have commended the university for instituting an FTT policy. They are grateful for the opportunity to have input in the evaluation of candidates, especially those they may have concerns about. The FTT policy provides an objective instrument with which principals and mentors can assess the qualities of teacher candidates in partnership with the university. Cooperating or mentor teachers face many of the same issues part-time university faculty do with regard to evaluating teacher candidates. It is difficult to make high-stakes decisions about teacher candidates if no written policies are in place, or if the guidelines for dismissing a student teacher are vague. A policy such as Fitness to Teach provides clear and compelling guidelines and support during the decision-making process about a candidate's teaching competencies.
Principals and mentors work with and through university faculty to process any FTT reviews. When an FTT review is initiated by someone other than a faculty member, the faculty member responsible for the student in question automatically becomes a participant in the review process. This ensures that all of the FTT policies and procedures are followed as prescribed.
Finally, the FTT policy reminds everyone involved with teacher preparation that teaching is more than just having technical skills--teaching also includes interpersonal skills. Just as we talk about assessing the "whole child" in education literature, we also need to look at teacher candidates holistically.
SOME FINAL OBSERVATIONS
Evaluating teacher candidates' potential for success in the teaching profession is a difficult and complex undertaking. It is important, if not imperative, that teacher training institutions consider carefully the processes used to screen candidates as they progress through the program. Programs that train doctors, nurses, lawyers, and social workers, among other professionals, all use fitness guidelines for their candidates. Why not the teaching profession?
As teacher educators, we are the gatekeepers for the teaching profession. We are accountable to the public for the competencies of the teachers we graduate from our programs. We sign on the dotted line attesting to a candidate's character, teaching skills, and fitness to be in a classroom. Yet, recommendations of incompetent student teachers for licensure continue (Raths & Lyman, 2003). Teacher educators have a moral and ethical responsibility to ensure teacher candidates are well-suited for the teaching profession in all areas of their professional life. This includes interpersonal as well as intellectual skills.
Admittedly, the task of defining certain behavioral competencies is a messy and difficult process, due to the variability of how people perceive these so-called acceptable dispositions (Freeman, 2004; Maylone, 2002; Wilson, 2005). Freeman (2004) suggests much work must be done before teacher educators can reliably assess dispositions in teacher candidates. Issues of culture, family values, and religious beliefs must be considered. In addition, the question remains of whether or not dispositions can be acquired, or if they are innate traits that cannot be enhanced or developed through training. Nevertheless, we believe that teacher education faculty must attempt to encode their beliefs in a clearly defined policy that is intertwined in various ways throughout the teacher preparation program (i.e., by using evaluation forms, reflection, assignments, discussions, etc.). As new insights about dispositions and teaching evolve, policies will change and evolve. Implementing a Fitness to Teach policy provides a springboard for the development of clearer definitions and meaning regarding dispositions for teaching.
Teacher preparation programs must make aligning an FTT policy with the content of courses for teacher preparation a priority. If interpersonal or intangible teacher qualities are deemed important enough to assess, then development of these skills should be part of the professional development of teacher candidates. For example, how many teacher preparation programs include courses in interpersonal knowledge and how to build successful relationships?
Many teacher education programs attempt to assess interpersonal skills and dispositions for teaching, using interviews, rating scales, portfolios, and other approaches (Byrnes, Kiger, & Shechtman, 2003; Denner, Salzman, & Newsome, 2001; Malvern, 1991; St. Maurice, 2002; Shechtman, 1992). What is missing in these programs, however, are processes for linking these assessments to an action plan, should students prove deficient in any of these areas. This article provides an example of a successful action plan. It is hoped, by sharing this example, that others will be encouraged to develop similar Fitness to Teach policies for their own programs.
Note: The FTT policy recently has undergone review and editing. The latest edition of the policy and forms can be viewed and downloaded from http://COEHD. utsa.edu/FTT/FTT.htm. Also, following the example of the teacher education program, the UTSA now has a Fitness to Practice policy for its counseling program, which can be viewed at the same Web site.
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Blanche Desjean-Perrotta is Dean for Teacher Education, College of Education and Human Development, University of Texas at San Antonio.
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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