Teacher training moves up the agenda

SALEM — Usually, nothing gets the attention of Oregon policymakers quite so fast as getting a big, fat "F" on a national report card, a (dis)honor often reserved for Southern states like Mississippi or Alabama.

Witness the outcry a few years ago when Oregon posted the highest hunger rate in the nation. Politicians swung into action — Gov. Ted Kulongoski even lived off food stamps for a week to make the point — and the state's hunger rate made a marked improvement.

Same story when Oregon got a failing grade on college affordability from a national higher education watchdog group. Last session, lawmakers poured nearly $50 million more into programs designed to help students pay their college costs.

So, it was par for the course when Republican lawmakers in Salem pounced recently on a national survey done by the research center affiliated with Education Week, the well-respected weekly newspaper, that assigned an "F" to Oregon over teacher licensing, preparation, training and evaluation.

"We are spending our money in an uncoordinated, non-transparent manner," fumed Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day.

Ferrioli and the Republicans have honed in on the state's poor showing on professional development, meaning the chances (or lack thereof) for teachers to hone their craft, or learn about new ideas and techniques.

To back up the argument, they are citing a report from the Portland-based nonprofit Chalkboard Project that estimates districts choose to spend about 3 percent of their budget on professional development for teachers — that's about $130 million statewide — but dedicate different amounts of time and get varying results. And there's little state oversight or proof that the time educators do spend learning about their subject matter and teaching techniques is actually helping their students.

To address that, Ferrioli's been pushing a bill to set aside $400,000 in public money to create an oversight commission, to track and promote the best professional development opportunities for teachers, and put the information into an online database.

But the effort has encountered some pushback, including questions about whether the Education Week survey made implicit value judgments, favoring state-imposed mandates on how money should be spent over Oregon's time-honored tradition of local control for each of its 198 school districts — a tradition that's particularly cherished in the small, rural communities from which Ferrioli and most of his Republican colleagues tend to hail.

"Without question, investing in teacher professional development is one of the most important things we can do. But these are local decisions, made by local school boards," said Pat Burk, chief policy officer at the state Department of Education. "And you could make them set aside more days for professional development, but every time you do that, it raises more questions about 'Why isn't my kid in school?' "

State education officials agree that more focus on teacher training is needed, Burk said, but a host of questions remain, among them how to pay for an expanded program, how proscriptive the state should be, and whether training opportunities would need to be concentrated in the summer or an extended school year, in order to ensure that classroom time isn't reduced.

Sue Hildick, executive director of the Chalkboard Project, said her group isn't arguing for state mandates on professional development. But Chalkboard's research has shown that Oregon teachers are far less satisfied with their chances for training than educators in other states; because of that, she said, Oregon should develop clear standards for training opportunities, and ask districts to choose from a list of programs that uphold those standards.

The upshot is that the whole discussion looks likely to wind up on the Legislature's agenda in 2009, where it could attain flavor-of-the-session status, much as the whole idea of providing mentors for new teachers did in 2007.

Other portions of the Education Week survey on teachers were equally unflattering to Oregon. For example, the state was penalized for having no multiple-choice test that new teachers must take to demonstrate that they know their subjects cold. That's because, Burk said, the state has chosen instead to require teachers to submit a comprehensive portfolio from their student teaching work.

Similarly, Oregon got low marks for having no state program that gives bonuses or incentives for teachers whose students perform well, or those who decide to take on leadership roles, but salary discussions are confined to the local level across the state.

Amy Hightower, who worked on the Education Week survey, said other states with strong local control traditions had raised similar qualms and questions about the surveys. But she said that in certain areas — including teacher training — studies have shown that states like Vermont and Utah that have statewide policies are reaping big gains for students.

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