Fighting for Teacher Quality

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

          the Senate.


          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

          federal aid.


          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.