New York Times- January 23, 2000, Fighting for Teacher Quality
This country is facing an extensive teacher shortage and will need to
hire more than two million instructors over the next 10 years. But
the recruitment effort will be wasted unless the states raise standards for
what teachers need to know, commit themselves to hiring only qualified
teachers and revamp schools of education that are often no more than
diploma mills, offering watered-down courses and marginal preparation.
The federal government has an important role to play in this process,
given that it spends $2 billion each year to subsidize colleges of education
through the Higher Education Act and $8 billion more through Title I of
the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to provide impoverished
children with special courses like remedial reading and math.
Unfortunately, attempts to mandate better teacher education in exchange
for federal aid are meeting with stubborn resistance, both in Congress
and in the states.
The uneven nature of the teacher corps is on vivid display in the new
issue of Quality Counts, an annual study by the magazine Education
Week, which this year focuses on teacher training. Despite universal
agreement that teachers should have basic literary skills and know the
subject they teach, Quality Counts finds that the states are playing "an
elaborate shell game" by setting standards for teachers that are routinely
ignored at hiring time. The study shows that 39 states require prospective
teachers to pass basic-skills tests -- but 36 have loopholes that permit
people who fail those tests to teach anyway. The loopholes are used
most often in inner cities, which typically have more than twice as many
uncertified teachers as affluent districts in the suburbs do.
There is confusion in Congress about how to address this problem. The
House proposes to amend Title I by requiring that teachers who are hired
with federal funds pass state tests on subject matter. It would also require
schools to send notices home to parents in cases where students are
being taught by uncertified teachers. But this sensible plan is in doubt in
Congress took a first cut at this problem in the 1998 Higher Education
Act, which included amendments that encourage the states to improve
their schools of education and rely less on unqualified teachers.
One provision of that law requires the states to provide the federal
government with a "report card" that rates teachers' colleges on the basis
of how their graduates fare on the certification exams. Low-performing
schools of education would then be labeled as such -- so that students
could choose successful schools instead -- and could eventually lose
Massachusetts, New York, Florida and Texas are all complying with the
law. But several states that fought the legislation in Congress continued to
do so even after it was passed. The federal Department of Education
recently announced that the report cards, originally due out in April of
2000, would be a year late.
Several states and universities have failed to reveal the information
needed for the report card, fearing that exposure will cost them prestige
and federal aid.
The aim of this legislation was to renovate the teacher corps so that every
child in the country had access to a qualified teacher by the year 2004. If
the federal government backs down now -- or lets up even slightly -- it
will undermine the school reform process for years to come.