Candidates Tout Teacher-Quality Proposals
The debate about teacher quality, one of the hottest education topics on Capitol Hill this year, is spreading to the presidential campaigns.
The four major candidates have unveiled proposals with one overarching goal: ensuring that every classroom has a qualified teacher. That aim has long been a top priority for parents, and it's an education issue most voters can easily comprehend.
But it's also a popular notion that defies easy solutions.
Candidates must answer the same questions as Washington lawmakers: how much of a role the federal government can play, and whether their plans will even be feasible, given severe shortages in some teaching specialties and geographical areas and the demand for teachers created by moves to reduce class size.
More hurdles await in the state bureaucracies that license teachers and the local offices that hire them.
The Case for Quality
The current political attention to teacher quality is an outgrowth of a number of factors, observers say.
In 1996, the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, a bipartisan, blue-ribbon panel chaired by North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., released an influential report making the case that well-qualified teachers make a big difference in children's learning.
"Believe it or not, some of the research evidence that has been bubbling up is starting to affect public consciousness," said Barnett Berry, the director of policy and state partnerships for the national commission.
Recruiting New Teachers, a nonprofit organization based in Belmont, Mass., also began warning of shortages in qualified personnel. Now, said senior adviser Mildred J. Hudson, "the need for these teachers is upon us, and in the scramble to find teachers, we're realizing the need for quality."
And as the movement to set higher academic standards and build accountability systems for schools took root, educators and policy-makers began to realize that teacher quality would ultimately determine the success of such efforts.
President Clinton and some members of Congress have long highlighted the need for qualified teachers. Mr. Clinton, for example, called in his 1997 State of the Union Address for federal support for 100,000 teachers to be certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., a proponent of teacher quality, believes the standards movement has brought out the fact that many students, and particularly low-income children, are being taught by uncertified teachers.
"For a long time, this was a problem that was unspoken," Rep. Miller said in an interview. "Now, standards and accountability have brought it out."
John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy here and a former aide to House Democrats, agreed: "We've exhausted ourselves talking about standards and accountability and choice. Now, we've come to realize a lot depends on who's standing at the front of the classroom."
In addition to being heavy on teacher-related proposals, the presidential candidates' platforms are more specific than in past years, Mr. Jennings said, because education has proved to be such a popular issue with voters.
In fact, a poll released last week by the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, showed that voters overwhelmingly supported federally funded teacher-quality initiatives such as college scholarships, national certification standards, and financial incentives.
Vice President Al Gore leans heavily toward recruitment in his teacher-quality plans. Mr. Gore, the leading Democratic contender, has proposed a 21st-Century National Teaching Corps that would give 60,000 scholarships to students who agreed to teach in high-need schools for at least four years, and give bonuses and training to 15,000 midcareer professionals who wanted to become teachers.
Under his "Higher Standards, Higher Pay" initiative, Mr. Gore has proposed a plan to give needy urban and rural districts competitive grants to help attract and retain qualified teachers through community partnerships, higher salaries, mentoring, and other programs.
Mr. Gore's plan also would require states to test all teachers for subject-matter knowledge and teaching skills.
His rival for the nomination, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, would increase funding for states to offer incentives for people to teach in high-poverty areas. It would also require that all Title I teachers be fully certified within the next four years.
Gov. George W. Bush of Texas has proposed consolidating Elementary and Secondary Education Act programs to focus on five overarching goals, one of which would be teacher recruitment and training. That plan echoes proposals by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which has called for dramatically increasing federal funding for teacher-quality programs and requiring states to have all teachers fully certified by 2005.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, meanwhile, has proposed to award block grants to districts to give higher pay to "master teachers," as a way of providing incentives to keep good teachers in the field. His ESEA reauthorization proposal urges states and districts to test teachers in their subject areas, and he is a leading proponent of the "Troops to Teachers" program, which helps recruit retired military personnel for jobs in the classroom.
"Just as we must have high standards for our students, we must have high standards for our educators, because for every one teacher who can't teach, there will be hundreds of children who won't learn," Mr. McCain said in a Feb. 10 speech in South Carolina.
Finding solutions to shortages of fully qualified teachers is daunting. Experts recommend multipronged approaches, including forgiveness of student loans for graduates who go into teaching, higher salaries, and cash bonuses, especially for teachers willing to work in high-poverty districts.
"It's one issue that's easy to talk about, but doing something about it is going to cost some money," Rep. Miller said.
Amy Wilkins, a senior associate with the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group for needy students that has focused much of its work on teacher quality, says that ensuring qualified teachers is a realistic goal, but that it will take political will to change the current system.
States need to rethink their funding structures and create equitable salary scales so that teachers will not be lured to wealthy suburban districts by higher salaries, Ms. Wilkins said.
Plans such as Mr. Bradley's are focusing on plausible solutions, such as setting concrete goals and offering incentives such as loan forgiveness and bonuses, she said. But too often, she argued, politicians promote small programs such as "Troops to Teachers" as a cure-all.
"We need a systemic response," she said. "Not a bunch of cute, feel-good initiatives."
Part of the problem, added Ms. Hudson of Recruiting New Teachers, is that states have come to rely on loopholes in their certification standards to staff their classrooms. "These are not systematic, long-term approaches to a problem that will be with us for a long time," she said of the candidates' proposals.
Vol. 19, Issue 24, Pages 25,29