Commentary

In Defense of New Jersey's Alternative Certification Plan

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In their criticism of New Jersey's alternate route to teacher certification, Faith Dunne and Beth Hannah argued that our plan will allow teachers who are "well prepared in their academic specialties but [lacking] any conception of teaching methodology or learning theory" to "walk into a classroom and start teaching." They call the alternate route a "20-day" program that "allows schools to hire untrained teachers ... and hope for the best." (See Education Week, Feb. 13, 1985.) Such a description distorts what we are trying to do.

It is true that our plan permits districts to hire people who are not graduates of teacher-training programs and who did not perform student teaching in college, but it also requires districts to provide these people with rigorous professional training both before and during their first year of teaching. This training complements the liberal-arts background applicants bring with them. To be eligible for employment as a provisional teacher in New Jersey, one must hold a bachelor's degree in an appropriate major and pass a state subject-matter test.

The alternate training program for these teachers combines 200 hours of instruction in professional topics identified as "essential" by a panel of education researchers--80 hours before taking charge of a classroom and the remaining 120 during the first year--with a strongly supervised "first teaching" experience. Formal instruction for provisional teachers is provided by college faculty members and qualified public-school personnel at regional centers coordinated by the state department of education. Or it may be offered in local districts in programs approved by the department.

Each provisional teacher also spends one month under the supervision of an experienced teacher before assuming full responsibility in the classroom. During the first 10 weeks in charge of a class, the provisional teacher is observed each week. These observations are done by a team composed of the school principal, an experienced teacher, a curriculum supervisor, and a college professor. During the next 20 weeks, team observations are conducted on a monthly basis.

Provisional teachers are evaluated every 10 weeks and, largely on the basis of these evaluations, school principals recommend whether or not the teachers should receive standard state certification.

This plan is not, as Ms. Dunne and Ms. Hannah suggest, an example of the "ineffectual scurrying around" that they believe has marked the current education-reform movement. The New Jersey State Board of Education established the alternate route in response to four major findings of a 1982-83 study of New Jersey's system of teacher preparation and certification.

First, we found that there had been a decline in the quality of college students enrolling in traditional teacher-preparation programs. In a 1982 ranking of 24 college systems, for example, the high-school seniors who intended to major in education in New Jersey colleges ranked 22nd in average Scholastic Aptitude Test scores. Sixty percent of those accepted into our state-college system, which produces the bulk of our new teachers, scored below 399 on the verbal portion of the SAT For many reasons--salaries, the working environment, and the perceived quality of the programs themselves--fewer talented students were investing their energy and tuition in the study of education.

Second, we determined that traditional programs were deemphasizing the liberal arts and subject mastery. Some prospective teachers were being required to take as many as 70 education and education-related credits. Departments and schools of education fostered the proliferation of such courses, which occurred without any general agreement about what knowledge and skills beginning teachers need to possess. In New Jersey's six most active education programs, we discovered 120 different courses, some of which were required by one college yet not even offered in the others. Yet, because the state had to rely almost completely on these programs--despite their inconsistencies and the quality of their students--we were routinely certifying mediocrity in the classroom.

Third, we found that many talented people--liberal-arts graduates, private- and parochial-school teachers, college instructors, people from industry--wanted to teach but were systematically being denied the opportunity. Regardless of their talent, dedication, or ability, these people were told to first take education courses and then to quit their jobs to complete student teaching. A major effect, then, of the proliferation and inconsistencies in education programs was the creation of an artificial barrier that kept many capable people out of teaching.

Finally, we found that New Jersey already had used an "alternate system"--in the form of substandard or emergency certification--for the past four decades. Until recently, school districts had been able to hire unqualified people when certified teachers were unavailable. When a shortage occurred, districts could hire almost anyone, even people without a bachelor's degree or professional training. Yet, regardless of their lack of qualifications, these "emergency" teachers were not required to undergo any special instruction, support, or supervision--they were placed immediately in charge of a classroom. Emergency certification was a "sink-or-swim" experience for teachers. Ironically, the system had many of the characteristics that Ms. Dunne and Ms. Hannah falsely ascribed to the alternate route.

Nevertheless, emergency certification was tolerated by many college education faculties. With some exceptions, they did little to provide special on-site training for emergency teachers.

Overall, the reforms proposed in 1983 by the New Jersey Department of Education were intended to improve quality and consistency in the traditional route to certification, and to replace the emergency system with a rigorous and legitimate alternate system that would allow districts to employ talented persons who had not taken education courses.

In developing its specific proposals, the state department first convened a panel of nationally recognized education researchers who worked under the chairmanship of Ernest L. Boyer. This panel described the knowledge and skills that are essential for beginning teachers. Its findings provided the basis for revising traditional programs and for designing the curriculum of the alternate route. The structure of the alternate program was developed by a commission on which the major education interests in the state were represented.

In September 1984, the state board adopted regulations that substantially changed both routes to teacher certification. We in New Jersey are proud of our efforts to improve the quality of our new teachers and to raise standards for teacher training. We have strengthened both the liberal-arts and professional aspects of our traditional programs, and we have replaced emergency certification with a legitimate approach to employing and training alternate candidates. In so doing, we have raised standards while enhancing both the size and quality of our pool of prospective new teachers, and we have created a healthy competition between two training approaches, a competition that will stimulate attention to quality in both.

We are already gratified that deans and faculty from many of our colleges are working with us to improve the traditional route and put the alternative approach in place. For more than two years now, we have worked to replace the patchwork system that so often exists in teacher certification with a reformed and rational approach. Throughout this effort, we have attempted to set aside our various special interests and focus on the question: What will be best for the schoolchildren of our state? In the final analysis, we believe they will be the true beneficiaries of what we have done.

Vol. 04, Issue 37, Page 24

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