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A Call for Alternate Paths to Teacher Certification

In May 2008, Mark McQuillan, the Connecticut Commissioner of Education, issued a memorandum outlining the requirements for early childhood and elementary education certification that the State Board of Education had recently enacted. As of July 1, 2009, in order to obtain certification in either of these critical areas, teachers in Connecticut have to demonstrate their knowledge of foundations of reading development, development of reading comprehension, and reading assessment and instruction. 
Teachers applying for these certifications in Connecticut are now required to pass tests in each of these disciplines. In order to pass the test of reading development, teachers have to demonstrate their understanding of phonological and phonemic awareness, concepts of print and the alphabetic principle, the role of phonics in promoting reading development, and word analysis skills and strategies. For the section on development of reading comprehension, teachers must display their understanding of vocabulary development, how to apply reading comprehension skills and strategies to imaginative/literary texts and informational/expository texts. For the test on reading assessment and instruction, teachers need to show that they understand formal and informal methods of assessing reading development and multiple approaches to reading instruction. 
Connecticut's actions were newsworthy even though these instructional competencies were contained in the recommendations of the National Reading Panel (2000) that were published years earlier. The reason that the change to Connecticut's certification was still noteworthy is depressingly simple. Despite the preponderance of scientific evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of instruction delivered by teachers well-informed in these areas, few states have made significant changes to their certification requirements in response to the recommendations of the National Reading Panel. As a result of the failure of states and schools to require teachers to be knowledgeable of evidence-based reading instruction practices, up to 40 percent of students in the United States are struggling or failing readers (Lyon, 1998). To the casual observer, the root causes of this disastrous disconnect between scientific knowledge and actual practice are not at all obvious, but the very troubling results are: 8 million American students in grades 4 to 12 are not fluent readers (U.S. Department of Education, 2001), and 3,000 students drop out of high school every day because of poor reading and writing skills (Partnership for Reading, 2003).
Inadequate certification requirements are only part of the problem. Teacher preparation programs simply do not sufficiently prepare new teachers. In the Journal of Learning Disabilities (2009), Louisa Moats cites research by Walsh, Glaser and Dunne-Wilcox (2006) in which they found that: "Courses provided in teacher licensing programs are often insufficient in content and design to enable the students to learn the subject matter and apply it to the teaching of reading." Moats' observations are confirmed by an analysis of the results of the Connecticut certification test in which "about one in three test-takers in teacher preparation programs at colleges and universities across the state have failed the exam since the state began using it last year as a licensing requirement" (The Connecticut Mirror, February 10, 2010), and failure rates exceeded 40 percent at some of the state's largest teacher preparation programs.
Joshi et al. writing in the Journal of Learning Disabilities (September, 2009) confirmed the deficiencies in teacher education programs, stating: "The National Council on Teacher Quality (Walsh, Glaser and Wilcox, 2006) concluded that many schools of education may not be teaching their pre-service teachers the basic knowledge required to teach literacy skills." An earlier study (Moats and Lyon, 1996) also demonstrated that teachers have "insufficiently developed concepts about language and pervasive conceptual weaknesses in the very skills that are needed for direct, systematic, language-focused reading instruction, such as the abilities to count phonemes and to identify phonic relationships." In what can only be considered an understatement, Joshi (September, 2009) summarized his findings: "It would seem ... that we need to turn our attention to improving teacher education and teacher development at the early grade levels by providing intensive instruction on the linguistic features of the English language."
Based on these studies and the poor performance on the Connecticut certification test, it is clear pre-service teachers are not getting the content they need to be effective teachers of reading. Unfortunately, that is only part of the problem. Remarkably, Joshi and his colleagues also found that many instructors who teach reading are not themselves equipped to teach pre-service teachers about the structure of language. In Joshi's study the Survey of Language Constructs Related to Literacy Acquisition was administered to 78 college and university instructors who were responsible for teaching reading education classes to prospective reading teachers. Of the instructors, 68 had doctoral degrees and 10 were working on their doctoral degrees; all had previously taught in elementary schools. They came from 30 different colleges from the southwest United States. Their scores on the various domains tested were: phonology 78.97 percent, phonics 56.47 percent, morphology 34.36 percent, and comprehension 57.5 percent. 
Given this worrisome condition of traditional teacher preparation programs, states are now turning to alternate paths to master's degrees and certification. The New York State Board of Regents recently approved a pilot program that will allow alternative organizations to create their own master's degree programs (New York Times, May 14, 2010). Organizations like Windward School applaud this initiative. At Windward, we have long recognized the deficits that smart, conscientious teachers bring with them simply because they did not receive proper training at their colleges and universities. To address this problem, Windward created the Teacher Training Institute (WTTI) in 1988. The WTTI is dedicated to providing the type of training that enables professionals to have the expertise needed to teach children of all abilities in both mainstream and remedial classrooms. It offers professional development based on the most current, scientifically validated research in child development, learning theory and pedagogy. WTTI courses, workshops and lectures translate this research into practical classroom applications. In spring 2007, Windward Teacher Training Institute became an accredited IMSLEC training center, enabling the WTTI to offer national certification in Multisensory Structured Language Education. 
Before a teacher is given full teaching responsibility at Windward, the teacher must complete courses in scientifically validated strategies for teaching reading, writing and language that are offered by the WTTI. In addition to completing these courses, teachers new to Windward are typically required to work under the direct supervision of a master teacher for two years. This commitment to professional development continues throughout a teacher's career at Windward where each Friday afternoon is devoted to professional development. Windward's program for professional development is consistent with the recommendations of the National Reading Panel (2000) and produces results that are in stark contrast to national data. At Windward, students who come to the school as struggling readers and writers leave with the skills and competencies that consistently place 90 percent of them at or above their grade level peers on standardized tests.
Connecticut has taken the first step in a long overdue reform of the teacher certification process; the New York State Board of Regents' recent approval of alternate paths to master's degrees is also laudable. Windward has a proven program of professional development that makes it well positioned to support these much-needed changes.


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