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Poor Is Poor And More Won't Make It Better

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New Jersey has a problem. It has come to the state's attention that the academic quality of its prospective teachers is not equivalent to that, let us say, of its prospective doctors and lawyers. In fact, the SAT scores of prospective education majors in the state run 30 to 50 points below the not particularly stellar New Jersey average. Furthermore, the state has a shortage of teachers at any level of academic quality and it appears that the situation will worsen over the next five years, especially in secondary mathematics, science, and English.

New Jersey also has a solution. In fact, it has a pair of them, passed into law in October of last year.

First, the state department of education says, it will improve the cadre of teachers coming up through the regular state-college pipeline by beefing up the requirements in the standard teacher-preparation programs. Were prospective English teachers required to take 24 credits in English? Make that 30! Are a few institutions sleazing by with only a half-semester of student teaching? Crack down on those slackers and make them choose between increasing the number of hours a candidate spends in the classroom or closing up shop. New Jersey wants a handle on how those certification candidates spend their time.

Raising the quality of the teaching pool by increasing standards is fine, but it still leaves a teacher shortage. Here, New Jersey's second strategy comes into play. If you are a good student who didn't go through a teacher-training program, you have another option: Walk into a classroom and start to teach. The new legislation offers the opportunity for an "alternative route" to teacher certification through a school-based internship program that allows college graduates who have undergone a 20-day "seminar/practicum" to earn a teacher's salary and certification at the same time. Have we found the way to excellence at last?

Probably not. New Jersey's new laws and the countless similar pieces of legislation that have emerged across the country during the last year at best spell ineffectual scurrying around and at worst may mean active harm to the quality of a teacher cadre that cannot tolerate much more abuse.

Standards will not be raised in any meaningful way by increasing the number of hours prospective teachers sit on their rear ends in lecture halls or even by increasing the number of minutes they stand on their feet at the front of schoolrooms. We are reminded of the joke Woody Allen tells at the beginning of the film, Annie Hall.

Walking out of a resort hotel, one woman says to another, "The food here is terrible."

"Yes," answers the second woman, "and such small portions."

If the quality of instruction in standard teacher-preparation programs is poor (and it has certainly been excoriated in report after report), if the academic potential of the student pool is poor (and that is certainly well documented), more won't make it better.

Allowing schools to hire untrained teachers will be even more counterproductive. There is no question that more teachers need to be drawn from among academically superior college graduates. But high-level academic skills do not prepare one to teach. Typical new college graduates are about as prepared to walk into a public-school classroom and teach as they are to fly a DC-10. They are well prepared in their academic specialties but lack any conception of teaching methodology, learning theory, or how to build effective relationships with students. To hire such people and hope for the best is to make them cannon fodder in a war in which one side has no ammunition. Some remarkable people survive; there are born teachers. But far more leave in miserable defeat, learning only that teaching is an impossible occupation, unfit for anyone with options in the world.

New Jersey argues that these untrained teachers will not be left to sink or swim in, for instance, the junior-high-school classrooms of Trenton and Newark (which are typical of the kinds of schools that tend to feel teacher shortages first). They claim that elaborate supervisory programs, run by experienced school personnel, will prepare these neophytes to teach. However, those of us who have worked in schools, especially schools with multiple problems and a shortage of personnel, know what happens when push comes to shove. The pressing need for adult bodies to fill classrooms, patrol hallways, and break up fights leaves teachers with little energy to focus on the demanding requirements of intern supervision. The conflict of interest is more than any school can reliably be asked to resolve in the intern's favor.

The schools where in-school internship programs have worked best have either been run by external institutions who take responsibility for protecting the interns against exploitation by the schools, or by private schools where parents can afford to require close supervision and support for the neophyte. The Harvard University Graduate School of Education-Newton Public Schools program of the 1960's worked because it combined the resources of a prosperous suburban school district and a major university. In the less affluent districts, the likelihood is that new people will be left to find their own way--or not, as the case may be.

The problems inherent in New Jersey's new laws are not restricted to the Garden State. Ever on the cutting edge of regulatory lunacy, state departments of education across the country seem to be working hard to pass legislation that works against their own interests. Perhaps most ironic, the proposed legislation now flooding the state capitols threatens to destroy the few programs that produce precisely the kinds of teachers all those commissions and regulators and legislators say they want. The members of the Consortium for Excellence in Teacher Education, 15 selective liberal-arts colleges with teacher-preparation programs, are typical of this endangered group. We, and people like us in other liberal-arts settings, work in programs that yearly produce certified teachers whose average SAT scores are in the 600-to-650 range, who have been richly grounded in the liberal arts and in their teaching specialties, and who have been adequately prepared to cope with the rigors of the classroom.

To do this, we have had to walk a tightrope strung between the imperatives of state regulation and the demands of a strong liberal-arts college. Our students must build Byzantine schedules that allow them to include a broad spectrum of courses in science, humanities, and social science. They complete majors in the standard academic specialties. And, in addition, they take educational-foundations and methodology courses and complete rigorous student-teaching assignments.

One would think that the educational regulators would cherish these programs and encourage them to continue to produce teachers for the public schools by passing minimal regulations that focus on producing the best-qualified teachers rather than teachers with the most complex credentials. That, however, is not the case. On the contrary, most of us fight for survival every time we come up for recertification. New Jersey's recent initiative for rigor nearly did in the teacher-preparation program at Princeton University, which limits student-teaching to eight weeks so that its certification candidates can write the senior thesis that is an integral part of a Princeton liberal-arts education. Only executive intervention, after a blast of publicity, won the waiver that will permit the program to continue. In the name of excellence, New Jersey regulators were ready to close down the teacher-preparation program in the state's premier institution of higher learning.

Not to be left behind, Pennsylvania has newly proposed regulations that threaten to "specify" the liberal-arts-based programs out of existence. A certifiable biology teacher in that state would have to have "in-depth" preparation in 10 specific biological subfields, from anatomy to ethology. In addition, the new teacher would have to take courses "beyond the introductory survey level" in eight other particular fields, from oceanography to statistics. Having slogged through all of that, the prospective teacher then must establish mastery over a list of 26 detailed professional competencies.

Reading these proposals, one has a sense that basic trust does not prevail among Pennsylvania's policymakers. Moreover, if these proposals are voted into law, they may simply drive most of the selective liberal-arts colleges out of the teacher-preparation business. The Swarthmore Education Program's two-member faculty cannot tell its college to initiate an advanced oceanography course for the biology-certificate candidates. Even if they could, it would not help. The distribution and major-field requirements at Swarthmore make it hard enough to complete both a full major and the seven-course teacher-preparation program. A liberal-arts college places its own set of demands on students. When the state adds to this an additional specific and voluminous set of requirements, then it becomes a logistical nightmare to educate even the most dedicated prospective teachers.

In the push for higher standards and in the emphasis on training alternatives, the ultimate objective must remain clear: What New Jersey wants--what we all want--is a group of new public-school teachers who are academically skilled, personally committed, and able to function effectively in a classroom. A regulatory structure that threatens programs that produce precisely the kinds of teachers we all want is misguided from the start. New Jersey--and Florida, Pennsylvania, and all the other states that are busily redesigning certification requirements--must focus on the quality of teachers who emerge when they look at nonstandard certification programs. Jiggling the tightrope will not improve the quality of the act.

Vol. 04, Issue 21, Page 24

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