Special Report

Setting Policies for New Teachers

By Craig D. Jerald & Ulrich Boser — January 13, 2000 8 min read
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The states fall short when it comes to guaranteeing a qualified teacher for every student, a 50-state survey conducted by Education Week for Quality Counts shows.

Most states do not ensure that all secondary teachers know their subjects. Most do not aggressively recruit people into the profession, or adequately support and evaluate the novice teachers they do hire.

The survey is the most comprehensive ever conducted on state policies related to beginning teachers.

Education Week first conducted telephone interviews with state official, using a detailed, 11-page questionnaire.

Next, researchers analyzed information from relevant laws, regulations, guidebooks, other documents, and Internet sites.

Finally, each state superintendent or commissioner of education was asked to confirm the data.

No Guarantee

While most states require some level of subject-matter knowledge, at least for secondary teachers, nearly every state provides loophole that allow people into the classroom who have not met state standards, the survey found.

For example:

  • Thirty-nine states require teacher-candidates to pass a test of basic skills or general knowledge.
  • But of those, 36 permit someone to begin teaching without having passed the exam.
    Though most state place a time limit of one to five years on such exceptions, 16 states allow the permission to be renewed indefinitely as long as a district says it cannot find a qualified applicant.

  • Twenty-nine states require prospective high school teachers to pass tests in the subject they plan to teach to earn a beginning license. Most require a simple multiple-choice test, but, depending on the subject, from five to 15 states also include essays or other performance items. In addition, 23 states require prospective high school teachers to earn an undergraduate major, or the equivalent number of courses, in the subject they plan to teach; 16 states require at least a minor or the equivalent.

But those expectations also can evaporate when it comes to filling classrooms. Of the 29 states that require high school teachers to pass tests in their subjects, all but New Jersey allow some individuals to enter teaching who haven’t passed the exams.

And though most states require that such permission be renewed annually, 11 allow teachers hired on that basis to remain in the classroom indefinitely. Elsewhere, the time limit ranges from three months in Oklahoma to five years in California, Louisiana, and North Carolina.

Every state but New Jersey that requires high school teachers to complete coursework in their subjects also waives that requirement when districts say they can’t find qualified applicants. (New Jersey waives such requirements only in bilingual and special education.)

Out-of-Field Teaching

Even if teachers are fully licensed to teach particular subjects, they can still be assigned to spend part of their day instructing student in classes outside their certificate areas, a practice known as “out of field” teaching.

  • Eleven states permit teachers to instruct students for part of the day outside their certificate areas without obtaining special permission.
  • Twenty-two states have the authority to penalize schools or districts that exceed rules on out-of-field teaching. But few closely monitor such transgressions, let alone use the penal tie at their disposal.
  • Only one state--Florida--has a law requiring that parents be notified when their children are taught subjects by teachers who are not certified in those areas.
  • No state includes data on out-of-field teaching in its report cards for schools, although two--New York and Ohio--plan to do so in the future.

  • Many states don’t even keep track of the number of classroom teachers who have not met all their licensing requirements. Only about half the states could provide Education Week with the numbers and percentages of teachers who hold various waivers.

The Middle School Muddle

Common sense--supported by an increasing body of research--says 8th grade math teachers should be well-prepared to teach mathematics, up to and including such subjects as algebra.

But most states fail to insist on subject-matter knowledge for middle school teachers. Among the study’s findings:

  • Only 17 states expect all middle school teachers of academic subjects to obtain secondary licenses in their subjects--either the same certificates high school teachers need or ones geared to their grade levels. An additional seven allow them to use elementary-level certificates, but require them to add some specialized coursework in the subject. The rest allow teachers of the middle grades to hold “generic” elementary school certificates.
  • Only nine states require all prospective middle school teachers to pass exams in the subjects they plan to teach. (Massachusetts requires middle school teachers to pass a single test that covers all the academic subjects.)
  • Nineteen states require all prospective middle school teachers to complete coursework concentrations in the subjects they plan to teach. But the details vary widely, with most states insisting on only a minor or its equivalent.

New Jersey and Colorado are the only states that require all middle school teachers to have completed college majors in their subjects. Three additional states--New York, Ohio, and Rhode Island--require at least 30 semester hours of college coursework in the subjects.

Most states also waive such requirements, using the same loopholes available for high school teachers, when qualified candidates can’t be found.

Weak Recruitment

Some policymakers and observers argue that raising the standards for prospective teachers and closing loopholes will diminish the supply of teachers at a time when many districts already are pressed to fill vacancies.

So states are turning to financial incentives, better recruitment, and streamlined hiring practices to attract job candidates.

Relatively few states, though, take full advantage of such strategies. The Education Week study found that:

  • Twenty-seven states offer prospective teachers college scholarships or “forgivable” loans through one or more programs. Last year, such programs helped pay for the college educations of more than 28,000 recipients; states have budgeted nearly $81 million for such programs this year.
  • Only 11 states have programs aimed specifically at academically high-performing candidates, and 10 have programs targeted at minority candidates.
  • Eighteen states have programs targeting particular subject areas that have a shortage of qualified teachers.
    But only 10 states require or encourage college-aid recipients to teach in schools that are hard to staff because of their locations, demographics, or low performance.

  • While the programs cover from $1,000 a year in college tuition and other expenses to more than $10,000, most average about $5,000, severely restricting the range and quality of institutions recipients can attend.
  • Only Massachusetts offers signing bonuses to some future teachers. Maryland will do so beginning next school year.
  • Few states have made use of new technologies to streamline recruitment and hiring. Although 27 states have World Wide Web sites that list teacher vacancies across the state, not all require districts to participate in order to create a true statewide clearinghouse.
  • And only nine states permit prospective teachers to submit job applications and related information electronically for consideration by district administrators or school principals.

  • Another method for streamlining hiring seems remarkably underused: Only three states--North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina--reported having common application forms that their districts were required to use or had agreed to accept.
  • Of those, only South Carolina allows candidates to post their applications online.
    California, Georgia, and Oregon also have Web sites that use common electronic application forms, but the forms are good only for districts that voluntarily use the sites.

Not Enough Support

To help new teachers get the support they need during the especially difficult first year or two in the classroom, many states have passed laws encouraging or requiring mentoring or induction programs for beginning teachers.

But most such efforts are underdeveloped and underfunded:

  • Twenty-eight states require or provide funds for districts to offer induction experiences for novices.
  • But only 19 mandate that districts offer the programs to all beginning teachers. And of those, only 10 states foot some or all of the bill.

A vital element of most induction programs is a mentor teacher who provides advice and support to novices. Six states go one step further, requiring that a new teacher be assigned a whole “support team,” including or in addition to the mentor.

And 10 states call for professional-development opportunities or training aimed at new teachers. Of those, six states require districts to offer such training rather than provide it themselves.

Assessing Beginning Teachers

States have even further to go when it comes to assessing the performance of beginning teachers:

Only about half the states could provide data on the numbers and percentages of teachers who hold various waivers of licensure requirements.

In New York, beginning teachers videotape classroom lessons that they submit to a central evaluation center. The assessors use a common rubric to examine the video for certain teaching skills.

Connecticut requires novice teachers to submit portfolio of their work, including videotaped lessons, evaluations of student work, lesson plans, and other elements. The portfolios are evaluated by assessors trained to use a common set of standards in each subject.

In both states, teachers who fail the assessment cannot advance to the next level of certification and may no longer teach.

Connecticut is the only state that evaluates the classroom performance of new teachers based on subject-specific standards, instead of more “generic” teaching skills.

A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2000 edition of Education Week


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