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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
March 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 6

How Alverno Shapes Teachers: A Conversation with Mary Diez

    For 20 years Alverno College has been perfecting its “assessment as learning” system for all students, especially those who aspire to be teachers.

      For 20 years Alverno College has been perfecting its “assessment as learning” system for all students, especially those who aspire to be teachers.
      For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with Alverno College, please give us a capsule description.
      Alverno was founded in 1887 here in Milwaukee as an institution to prepare teachers. We are a women's college in the Roman Catholic tradition, with a diverse student body. We have a handful of men in our post-baccalaureate teacher ed program, about 5 percent—probably as many as other institutions enroll in their coed education departments. (I like to tell white men in our program, that it's the one place where they can have the experience of being in the minority.)
      Historically, we've served first-generation college students, middle and lower income students. A good 85 percent of our students receive some form of financial aid. An increasingly older population attends our weekday college program—only 39 percent are under age 23. We run a program on weekends for working women as well. So the vast majority of students are what we used to call nontraditional, but it's becoming a traditional age. And we have about 25 percent minority students on our campus.
      We graduate 80–100 teachers a year. We are a four-year program, but many of our students take more than four years, because to finish in four years, you have to take 18 semester hours every semester, and that would mean no job, no family. A fairly large number of our students have transferred from another institution at some point or another, so we're working with all those variables.
      Would you tell me about the eight abilities that Alverno defines as those necessary for well trained teachers?
      The eight abilities are what defines for us a liberal arts education. They're an arbitrary set. They could be broken out in a variety of ways, but what's important is that all faculty agreed on them for all students.
      Communication is one that's really central— reading; writing; listening; speaking; communicating using other media like the computer; and using math as a kind of communication, a quantitative language.
      Problem solving and analytical thinking are similar but different. Problem solving is a very active way of making sense of the world. Analysis or critical thinking is a more reflective way of making sense out of the world.
      Another important ability is valuing and decision making, not to be confused with holding a particular set of values. At any age, but particularly at the college age when you're trying to make sense of what it means to be a member of the human community, it's vital to ask, What's important to me and why? Where did my strong positions come from and how do they guide my actions? And then it's a step from that to say, And how does this happen for other people?—not to agree with their values, necessarily, but to be able to be empathic and to see that diverse points of view have a root in something that people care about.
      This builds into the next ability, social interaction—the notion that you have to put all the alternatives on the table before you can make a good decision. Unless you have mined everybody's collective wisdom, then you may come to a consensus, but it may not be a good decision.
      Coming to consensus by itself is not a virtue. In fact, it can be peacemaking of a very negative sort. But a good conflict can help you refine your thinking. When you are polishing a diamond, you need to rub another diamond against it in order to see all the facets. For teachers, social interaction is a critical skill. It means being able to work effectively in a group, being able to work effectively one-on-one helping someone else set a goal or solve a problem, holding conferences with a learner or with the learner and a parent.
      Those five—communication, problem solving, analytical thiking, valuing and decision making, and social interaction— really cut across the curriculum; the last three are a little more tied to disciplines. Global perspectives is tied to social studies, environmental science, and cultural perspective. We want our students to understand the global dialogue and why people have different viewpoints and what are the impacts of acting one way or another.
      Effective citizenship, for our teacher education candidates, means examining what the place of school is in society. How do I see my role as a member of an institution that has an impact on society? How can I have an influence on the common will for the benefit to all.
      Then, finally, aesthetic responsiveness. The liberal arts would not be complete without discovering how expressions of what it means to be human play out in dance, drama, literature, music, and art. And how I interact with the arts is very important for my own growth and reflection.
      Alverno's claim to fame really is its assessment process, isn't it? On your videotapes of students before and after they entered the program, I watched shy students who mumbled and faltered before the camera eventually turn into polished confident speakers. Students are not graded, but they are being evaluated through videotapes and other assessments from the first day of class. It's unusual to find that a college has been doing this sort of thing for 20 years now.
      In the early '70s, when our faculty decided to move in this direction, we did so out of a concern that some students were falling through the cracks. We've always been good teachers, but what we did was intuitive. Now we've made it more explicit. We said if we could be clear about what students need to demonstrate to earn a degree, we could do a better job for the students.
      Students who come in very talented and who have developed their abilities are easy to teach. One of my biggest concerns about the standards and assessment movements is that we'll screen out some people and just take those who can already do what we want them to do at the end. It's a real challenge to take people where they are and get them to where they can be.
      Not everybody comes in confident and able to speak on their feet. We work with those students, and at the end, we hear from employers across the board—not just the school administrators— that our students are effective presenters and are confident in talking about what they know. Having people demonstrate that they can do something with what they know is an innate part of the design of our curriculum.
      When we began identifying what a liberal arts degree would mean, we very quickly discovered the need for assessment. If you say this is what we want students to know and be able to do, your very next question is, How will we know? What will count? You have to identify the criteria that indicate meeting different levels of ability. And so we have developed something we call “assessment as learning.” When you walk into our classrooms, teaching and assessment look very much the same. The students are practicing the ability and at some point teachers are taking a measure of that. You really need multiple measures over time to get an increasingly rich and complex picture of how the students are developing each ability.
      So there are never any finals that students have to pass? Assessment is part of everyday school activity.
      Right. At some colleges you prove yourself once, and then you don't have to think about it again. My favorite image is that you get a license to practice, but you can still get pulled over to the side of the road. There's more to being a good teacher than getting a license. There are ongoing expectations. We don't want students to take a developmental psychology course and forget about it. We want them to keep thinking and deepening their understanding of how social, intellectual, and physical cognitive development progress in children.
      One of the critical parts of our program is that these abilities need to be demonstrated in multiple modes, in multiple contexts. Students will come in with learning style preferences, but that doesn't mean that they're off the hook. Students will come in and say, “Well, I can't write,” and I say to them, “You can't write yet”—because they can learn. The written mode may never be their preferred mode, but they'll know they can do it.
      One of the students I talked with told me one of the most difficult things about the Alverno program is not having grades.
      Some students do feel that way, especially at the beginning, but not all of them. Those students who come directly from high school where they've been straight A students have the greatest difficulty, because they miss that affirmation. But for people who have been solid B students or C+ students, it's not a hard transition for them, because a solid B or C is not the same kind of reinforcer. After time they often find the amount and quality of the feedback they get here much more enriching than grades. We really work hard to try to help the A student see that value as well. I was an A student myself; having A's puts some blinders on you. You don't see where you could improve, and that can really be an impediment.
      Our president often greets the students in the first week of orientation with the statement, “I hope you fail at something this semester.” She tells them that they can learn more from failure than from success. Not having grades makes that possible. If you can learn from your mistakes and not have them averaged in, it's very freeing.
      Students also say that faculty members really model the practices Alverno believes in.
      Most of us teach as we were taught. That's why part of teacher education has to be changing the way everybody's teaching at teacher institutions. When we first began this curriculum, it became clear to us that if our students were practicing problem solving and social interaction in the classroom and then went into a school office where a secretary dealt with them in a way that undercut problem solving, the curriculum was out the window.
      Three times a year we conduct an Alverno Institute—three days in August, three days in January, and two weeks in May. Also, on Friday afternoons when there are no classes, we conduct workshops for the staff and others on the abilities. In fact, one of the smartest things that we did—and again, we didn't know what we'd done until 20 years later—was ask faculty to belong to interdisciplinary groups. There's a group for each of the eight abilities. We work on clarifying those abilities and assisting faculty in conducting assessments.
      I am part of a social interaction ability department that also trains assessors from the community: we have a bank of 400 assessors who come in and evaluate the students in that first social interaction assessment. When the assistant dean from the Marquette Law School and the charge nurse from a local hospital are here giving them feedback, the students know that social interaction is an important skill.
      Let's talk a little about the reforms in teacher education in the past 10 years. Is assessment the most promising reform?
      The most promising thing is a call for all those involved in teacher education to engage in a redesign process. We must figure out a conceptual framework about what really holds programs together. We must ask what knowledge, skills, and attitudes students will learn through the program. This is in line with what the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is doing. In fact, if you line up NCATE, INTASC, and the National Board, then you have a kind of continuum of development across the professional life span of the teacher. We have a sense of how good teaching builds—first from a strong teacher preparation program, then from a strong orientation or induction process, and then during ongoing staff development.
      Is there a trend in teacher education that worries you?
      If there's any movement that I'm concerned about, it's the notion that we can separate a teacher's conceptual understanding from her practical knowledge. A current trend in England is to move teacher preparation out of the institutions of higher education and put it back into the schools. The danger is that people will see the teaching process as a set of tricks rather than as a very complex process of understanding all of the components that are necessary to teaching.
      Lee Shulman describes pedagogical content knowledge as going beyond understanding your subject matter to understanding the representation of that discipline. That includes communicating about that subject. Too many people believe that if you just know the subject, then you can walk into a classroom and be a teacher. Those who advocate dissemination of knowledge models denigrate any other model, saying they are all Mickey Mouse. And we in teacher ed have to take some responsibility for that because, in the past and probably in the present, some education courses have not been challenging or have not been strongly theoretically based.
      What about alternatives to teacher education, like Teach for America, where teachers are trained in classrooms, not schools of education?
      Teach for America also assumes that you can go into the classroom without some solid underpinnings and easily learn on the job. On the other hand, I would love to hear my fellow deans say, as I heard Wendy Kopp say on national radio, that they discovered some things about their programs that were not working, so they changed them. If there's a fault that we've had in professional teacher education, it's the assumption that we're doing just fine. I think everybody needs to be in the mode of continuous questioning.
      Along those lines, what's Alverno's next challenge in teacher education? Are you trying to help the public schools change their dominant method of teaching?
      We're working very closely with our local public schools. One of our challenges is to figure out how to support our colleagues out there. It takes extraordinary work to support the kind of change that has to happen for entropy not to take over.
      Right now through a grant from the Joyce Foundation we're working to help teachers learn to incorporate performance assessment in their teaching. The states will be demanding performance assessment, particularly portfolio assessment. The danger is that we'll do a bad job of it. There are schools around the country that have very neat and tidy systems for portfolios, but the portfolios have junk in them.
      To get teachers creating the criteria that could guide a class curriculum or teach problem-solving across the curriculum will take a lot of trust. The mode has been to stay in that classroom with the door shut. Of course, you know, some people always push the door. In one high school, the principal made time for faculty to work together to create interdisciplinary curriculum. But several of the faculty said, “I don't want the time, thank you.” So you can't force it.
      Integrated curriculum could be good, could be terrible. Why do you want to do it? The goal is for the kids to connect the subjects they're studying to life and work. That's worth doing. From my own experience as a high school teacher, curriculum integration is a lot of fun for the kids and the teachers. That's what I always wanted: for people to want to do it.
      Teacher ed institutions need to figure out their relationships with schools. How can we bring the school more into the teacher preparation process? How can we more effectively help the schools with their change process?
      You are certainly getting your students into those classrooms out there much more than happened 10, 20 years ago.
      Yes, from their sophomore year on they are in classrooms. But we don't just send people out to a school and let them observe. We know from anthropology, psychology, and sociology that you don't take in everything unless you have a framework to guide you as you gather the data. We've created a set of logs to help students look at what's going on in a classroom and at their own interaction with kids.
      We ask students to interview the principal, the teacher, and parents of kids at that school. How do parents think about how the school communicates with them? What would parents really like to have? How do teachers work as partners with parents, particularly those who are threatened, or shy, or, in some cultures, overwhelmed by respect and therefore not willing to ask questions? Working with parents is an area teachers need to study throughout their experience.
      You said that you're not looking to recreate little Alvernos, but you have a very different kind of college. What do you say to people who say that this kind of teacher education only works because you're small, or because you all have the same philosophy?
      I'd say, “You need to figure out what you need to do to have the results you want.” Our president likes to say, “If you're manufacturing tires, those tires have to roll.” If they don't, you go out of business. If you're running an educational institution, it has to do a good job with its students.
      As to whether we all must have the same philosophy, I think it's pretty important that we do. It doesn't mean we always agree. What we do agree on is our desire to do a good job of teaching in a way that produces students who can think, challenge, and take responsibility as professionals. Michael Fullan says unless you have a common vision or a common goal, you can't sustain innovation in a school. At heart, very few people go into teaching who don't care about kids. Now sometimes that care gets rusted over, and you have to get out the moral equivalent of steel wool. But if we're in this business to help kids develop and learn, then it just makes sense to work together to figure out how to do that, because we have more power together than we'll ever have individually.
      Smallness is important, too. Large institutions are more difficult to manage. A number of schools around the country have divided themselves into houses or schools within a school. Any institution could do that. Smallness sharpens focus and fosters personal relationships. John Goodlad has said you should not accept any more candidates for teacher education than you can provide a quality experience. He raises that as a moral point.
      If we have one million students and are dealing with them in a superficial way because it's easier on us, we need to raise the question, Is it good for them? That's where the moral, ethical consideration comes in. The education institution that does not educate should not be in business. We have enough knowledge, enough “technology” about teaching, that we can be in business and do a good job.

      Mary E. Diez has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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