States Stiffening Recertification For Teachers
Standards, tests, and accountability have been buzzwords among policymakers for much of the past decade. Now, with many of those school improvement measures in place, states are attempting to improve the skills and knowledge of current teachers to meet the tougher demands.
With pressure from parents and the public mounting to document higher student achievement, state officials are raising the amount and focus of classroom teachers' continuing education. In the past two years, at least seven of the 45 states that have teacher-recertification requirements have augmented their regulations, primarily by shifting from merely requiring coursework in any education-related area to more-targeted professional development.
States have long known that "one of the issues with professional development is that most of the money has been frittered away in uncoordinated activities, not related to school or students needs," said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education, a Washington-based group that advocates high academic standards.
Wisconsin is among the states taking steps to change that. The legislature earlier this year approved new recertification regulations that will go into effect in 2004. Under those rules, a teacher will have to design and complete a professional-development plan every five years. The new rules also mandate that the content of the plan be approved by a panel of peers within the teacher's school and be consistent with the school's goals.
Current state regulations allow teachers with permanent certificates to renew their licenses every five years by accumulating six college credits in any education-related area—a recertification policy similar to those in other states.
"Our desire was to have professional development focused on students in the classroom and school improvement," said Peter Burke, the director of teacher education and licensing for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
The previous system was altered in part, he said, "because it allowed credit for classes that were of interest to the teacher, but did not fit into the needs of the school or district."
Other states have preceded Wisconsin down the path of increasing recertification requirements, including Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and South Carolina. Though each state's policy differs, all have moved away from a system in which teachers can take any education-related classes to renew their certification.
New Hampshire and South Carolina, for instance, require that all teachers undergo professional development in their subject areas, as well as in technology, to become recertified. Massachusetts has increased the total number of clock hours of continuing education from 120 to 150 and given principals the authority to determine whether teachers have met the requirements.
To a large degree, those states are increasing the expectations for teachers because they have already done so for students. Almost all the states have adopted standards outlining what students should know and be able to do and tests to measure how well they've done so.
Having accomplished that, states are trying to train teachers to help students meet the standards. In a U.S. Department of Education survey conducted in 1998, teachers said they were more likely to have had training in state and local academic standards than in other areas in the past year. But worries arise about the efficacy of the training because it is often a one-time experience that is unrelated to activities in the classroom.
Examples abound of professional development gone astray.
Mr. Burke of the Wisconsin education department said that his agency had found instances in which teachers had submitted classes taken in a seminary for recertification credit.
A study of the Boston school district found that 77 percent of professional-development spending was for activities not integrated into the district's standards-based-reform strategy. The study, which was released last December, was conducted by the Boston Plan for Excellence, a public education fund, and the district.
Some teachers agree that their staff development has not been beneficial. Jeannie, a middle school teacher who asked that her last name not be used, has taught in the Bronx borough of New York City for the past two years. She describes her professional-development experiences as "totally uneventful and repetitive."
"The programs for professional development come from these top-down mandates. It would be better to find out what teachers want and then begin to offer that," she added.
The degree to which such policies can improve professional development and teacher quality through more-rigorous recertification requirements is questionable, some experts agree.
"Simply raising the number of [recertification] hours leads to mainly just an increase in activity; it doesn't ensure that the activities are of real value," said Tom B. Corcoran, a co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, a federally financed research network based at the University of Pennsylvania. "It doesn't provide teachers with an incentive for changes in practice."
Mr. Corcoran also warns against setting regulations that are too specific. "The more narrowly [the requirements] are framed, the more they are seen by teachers as an onerous burden rather than as the possibility to have intellectually engaging experiences," he said.
Others experts also argue that states need to provide and finance high-quality training opportunities. "Telling people to take courses in their areas of endorsement is not likely to have constructive results," said David K. Cohen, an education professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "Most universities that offer math courses don't offer courses that are for teaching and learning."
Mr. Cohen said that states need to offer more incentives—monetary and otherwise—for teachers to obtain enriching professional development that is ongoing, collaborative, and focused on student learning.
But finding funding for such high-quality professional development is not easy. Because of budget cuts, some districts in Wisconsin, for example, might have to scratch professional development in the upcoming school year, Mr. Burke said.
In the last legislative session, his state allotted $1 million over two years to mentoring and staff development for teachers and another $4 million for technology training. Lawmakers killed a bill that would have established regional professional-development centers at the cost of $3 million over two years.
Wisconsin encourages districts to spend discretionary money on staff development. Mr. Burke estimates that about 1.7 percent of all district spending goes toward teacher training.
Because of differing definitions and complicated funding mechanisms, it is nearly impossible to pinpoint how districts in Wisconsin or elsewhere compare in professional-development spending.
"Nobody knows how much states are spending on professional development," said Judith A. Rényi, the executive director of the National Foundation for the Improvement of Education, a research foundation endowed by the National Education Association and based at its Washington headquarters.
Mr. Burke is confident that the Wisconsin legislature will finance the recertification requirements in the next legislative session. "The next step is to put our money where our mouth is and fund that policy," he said.
States that have strengthened recertification requirements have run into some resistance from teachers. Although the Wisconsin Education Association Council supported the modifications to the recertification regulations, a few of the local unions were against it.
The local affiliate in Madison disliked the idea of teachers reviewing their colleagues' work. "We were feeling that you could knot your own noose. We are putting our teachers in the position of evaluating another teacher, of whether or not they should be licensed," said Paula J. Ferrara-Parrish, the president of Madison Teachers Inc., a National Education Association affiliate. "This would have a chilling effect on teacher congeniality."
Ms. Ferrara-Parrish, as well as other school officials and teachers in Wisconsin, also argued that the problem with professional development there is not its lack of focus, but its lack of funding.
Bob Peterson, a 5th grade teacher at Milwaukee's La Escuela Fratney Elementary School, said that if the state wants better professional development, it should offer more money, not new requirements. "In our [school] budget, there will be virtually no funds for professional development next year," he said.
A state that encountered similar opposition when it tried to pass recertification requirements two years ago has now found success, according to officials. In 1998, the state school board in Maryland ordered all teachers to take classes in reading in order to be recertified. The board acted because reading scores across the state had lagged.
Though teachers at first were hostile to the change, according to Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland's schools superintendent, they now see the relevance of the reading courses.
Many secondary teachers in particular took their six credits in reading instruction "kicking and screaming," she said, but "at the end, talked about how valuable the class was to them."
Vol. 19, Issue 34, Pages 1,16