Newswise — Maryland Associate Professor of Education Linda Valli's research looks at what constitutes good quality teaching. As Congress begins to look at renewing the No Child Left Behind Act, her research provides clear evidence that the NCLB's focus on high-stakes testing has, as Valli says, "actually undermined the quality of teaching in reading and math."
The College of Education's Bruce Jacobs interviewed Prof. Valli soon after it was announced she will hold the inaugural chair of the Jeffrey and David Mullan Professorship in Teacher Education-Professional Development. The interview was conducted for the December issue of Endeavors - a publication aimed at the alumni and friends of the College of Education.
Q - Congratulations on your appointment. What was your reaction to being selected?
My initial reaction was amazement. I am thrilled to have this opportunity to pursue further work in strengthening teacher education. I feel real gratitude to Jean Mullan for being so generous and for affirming the importance of teacher preparation.
Q - What are your plans for this new position?
I am now finishing up a five-year study on fourth and fifth grade reading and math instruction, trying to better understand what good teachers do to help students who are struggling at grade level. Teachers-in-training often understand teaching concepts but do not know how to implement them in the classroom. I will use my new professorship to work with my colleagues here in the department to create computer-simulated experiences of teacher learning - classroom scenarios where pre-service teachers would have to decide what to do based on teacher theory and best practices. These new teacher training tools will help us put into practice what we have learned from our latest research.
Q - What have you learned from that research?
We started planning the study in 2000, before the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act and the subsequent emphasis on testing. We were simply looking for good teaching practices, but what we found during the study was the shift to high-stakes testing actually undermined the quality of teaching in reading and math. Our data show that what we would call high-quality teaching decreased over that period of time. There were declines in teaching higher-order thinking, in the amount of time spent on complex assignments, and in the actual amount of high cognitive content in the curriculum. We believe these declines are related to the pressure teachers were feeling to "teach to the test." Of course this runs counter to the stated idea of NCLB, which is for students to achieve rigorous standards. It is not what we set out to find, but it is what we discovered.
Q - Much of your work over the years has focused on what you call "challenging environments" for teachers. How do you define "challenging?"
One challenge for teachers today is they need to know how to teach a much more racially, ethnically and linguistically diverse range of students - students coming from an increasingly broad range of relatively disadvantaged or advantaged backgrounds: children in poverty, children whose first language is not English, children from well-off families. Another challenge is, because of NCLB, teachers are now called upon to produce very concrete outcomes for students that work against good teaching. Their jobs are increasingly stressful and dissatisfying. They often don't feel supported, they feel the expectations are unrealistic, and they feel they are not able to establish good, human teaching relationships with students because everything is so driven by testing. The task for teacher educators is to help teachers meet these new challenges in ways that are healthy for both them and their students.
Q - How do you see teacher educators accomplishing this?
It is increasingly important for us to help teachers create supportive communities in their schools, to involve parents and to find oases of support among other teachers and administrators. New teachers need to anticipate the necessity to do that. They cannot survive in today's challenging situations without that kind of support. Without it they will continue to flee to higher income suburban schools. It's just too hard for them. That is why I think our simulated environments will be so important as a way of preparing teachers for what they will face.