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Unqualified Teachers: A Predictable Finding

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In California and elsewhere, the single biggest blame for unqualified teachers rests with those who share the belief that "anyone can teach."

The study released last month by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, aptly titled "What Matters Most: Teaching for America's Future," reports that a significant percentage of the nation's newly hired teachers are undertrained and ill-prepared to meet their responsibilities ("Teaching Focus Called the Key in Reform Push," Sept. 18, 1996.)

We in California are not surprised that our state mirrors this national problem. And even more distressing for us, the commission's report drew upon data generated prior to recently enacted class-size-reduction legislation, with accompanying funding deadlines that generated a hasty flurry of new hires of the type the report decries. ("Class-Size Cuts Set Off Hiring Spree in Calif.," Sept. 4, 1996.) When the data related to undertrained teachers in California are expanded to include this current year, the statistics will be even more dismal than those reported by the commission.

As the report points out, there are multiple causes for this unacceptable condition, including too many weak and insipid teacher preparation programs. But in California and elsewhere, the single biggest blame for unqualified teachers rests not with teacher-educators, but with those who share the misguided belief that "anyone can teach." And this blame exists across the political spectrum.

On the left, teachers' unions contribute to the lowering of expectations regarding professional standards by their knee-jerk resistance to merit pay and to more stringent standards for teacher evaluation and retention. Reflecting a similar mentality are special-interest groups in California that have launched a federal lawsuit to eliminate the use of the California Basic Education Skills Test, or CBEST, as a screening tool for entering teaching. This test, which is basically a "three R's" assessment with roughly an 8th grade level of difficulty, is attacked by the plaintiffs for allegedly discriminating against some minority groups. What CBEST actually does (and legitimately so) is to identify and thus discriminate against anyone who cannot show mastery of its very basic academic material. (The federal trial court recently decided against the plaintiffs in this case, but they have promised to appeal that decision.)

On the political right, we have advocates of vouchers for private schooling who support no standards or licensure for teachers beyond what is demanded by the marketplace. In California, Gov. Pete Wilson and his supporters, because of the class-size-reduction legislation and the concomitant pressure to increase the number of available teachers, continue with their attempts to reduce teacher preparation and provide shortcuts for entry into the profession. Hastily conceived laws have been enacted to bypass rigorous teacher preparation through devices such as "district intern programs," which allow school districts to assign unprepared interns to the classroom with the oxymoronic idea that their "training" can come later. But as the commission's report suggests, such politically expedient responses will likely prove to be iatrogenic. In California's case, an elementary class of 20 taught by an ill-prepared "instant" teacher will prove to be far worse for the students than if they were in a class of 40 taught by a highly qualified and well-prepared teacher.

Even President Clinton has joined with this misguided "anyone can teach" chorus through his continued endorsement of the ill-conceived and disastrous fiasco called Teach For America. This Peace Corps-style volunteer program places untrained college graduates in urban classrooms. The president diminishes standards for teaching when he suggests that such volunteers will make a significant difference in the education of our children.

To lower standards even further ... is to do a terrible disservice to our children.

There is a sad irony in that this national and state movement toward providing easy access into teaching occurs as we are discovering ever more about the subtle and complex processes of how learners learn and how the myriad decisions that teachers make profoundly affect that learning. Beyond that, we have compelling evidence of the deficiencies and vulnerability that accompany many children to school. Such children, if they are to overcome those conditions, need the very best professional care possible. In California, a four-year college degree and one year or less of pre-service training qualifies a person for a teaching credential. To lower those standards even further for political or economic reasons, or even to reduce class size, is to do a terrible disservice to our children.

The findings of the Commission on Teaching and America's Future come as no surprise to those of us who have witnessed the impact of political expediency on efforts to raise standards for becoming a teacher. Obviously, the proper way to increase the pool of talented people interested in becoming teachers and capable of fulfilling stringent entrance requirements is to improve inducements related to teaching salaries and working conditions. But woe to the politician who suggests such an approach. It is much easier and costs nothing (in dollars) to simply lower the entrance standards. And sadly, it is that heritage of political expediency that makes it easy to predict that the commission's report, as disturbing as it is, will have little, if any, impact on elevating the standards for entering the profession.

Political leaders like Gov. Wilson and President Clinton, who conceive of teaching as a simple and readily mastered task and thereby diminish the importance of a rigorous professional preparation program for prospective teachers, make it that much easier for all politicians and the American public to duck the responsibility for finding ways to support and finance high professional standards for those who would teach our children.


Dennis L. Evans is the director of credential programs in the department of education at the University of California, Irvine.

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