The New Jersey Model: Biases, Not Facts

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Many questions popped into my mind while I read New Jersey Commissioner of Education Saul Cooperman's defense of his state's alternate teacher-certification plan. (See Commentary, Education Week, June 5, 1985.) The first three were:

Will Mr. Cooperman inform parents, prior to the beginning of the fall semester, that their children are being taught by teachers he has "provisionally" certified?

Will he permit objective evaluators from outside New Jersey--evaluators who are not paid by him--to observe the provisionally certified teachers?

Will he permit independent experts from outside the state to evaluate his methods of judging the results of the plan?

I predict that Mr. Cooperman will not allow any of these things to occur, for two reasons.

First, as a public official responsible for the quality of education, he cannot tell parents and the public that he is simply putting in place procedures based on the widely held opinion that teacher education is drivel. Mr. Cooperman's position prevents him from taking credit for being the most prominent educator to actually implement these eternal truths: "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." "Education courses are Mickey Mouse." "The best teachers learn on the job." And so on. Thus, he must pretend he is operating with an authentic plan, rather than merely trying out (on other people's children) some very pedestrian mythology about teacher training.

Because he cannot face the public and tell them their children are hostage to his prejudices, he is forced to pretend that he knows alternate certification will work, and that there is no experiment going on at all. He must guarantee competent instruction, and ease New Jersey into the alternate plan before large numbers of parents and citizens realize what has occurred.

Second, as a professional educator himself, Mr. Cooperman cannot face the education community and admit there will be no external, objective evaluation of what is being done. The problem Mr. Cooperman faces, therefore, is twofold. He must use New Jersey's children as subjects in a statewide experiment, while pretending that his plan is really a guaranteed method of improving instruction. At the same time, he must convince other educators that the state education department is collecting all kinds of data, that there are many unanswered questions being considered, and that he is open to changing his mind, depending on what the data show.

Mr. Cooperman is likely to do several things to solve this problem.

The parents and the public will not be told who the "alternately certified" teachers are or where they are teaching. Mr. Cooperman's excuse will be that they would be harassed by his enemies.

The pool of alternately certified teachers will contain a small number of carefully selected people--at first. By picking truly outstanding new teachers during the early stages of alternate certification, the plan's proponents will build an image of success.

A few alternately certified teachers will be placed in difficult urban schools (but will receive plenty of support and excellent help from the local schools and colleges) to "prove" the program works in all settings.

Few of the teachers will be placed in schools where parents are very active and aggressive (for example, elementary schools in middle-class suburbs).

Schools of education in New Jersey will be co-opted into providing help for the new system. The plan calls for them to offer workshops and other support, making them part of the process. Thus, at the same time that Mr. Cooperman dismisses the education schools' value, he will be able to show that he never circumvented them, and that they were his partners from the beginning. The education schools will be positioned to receive criticism if the program does falter.

School principals and classroom teachers who participate in the observation of alternate teachers will not recommend firing any of them. (Firing teachers leads to lawsuits.) Instead, they will certify almost every teacher they observe, but will simply not hire the less able ones for their own districts.

Mr. Cooperman's staff will quietly collect a wide variety of data to show that students with provisionally certified teachers learn as quickly as those with experienced teachers. But there will be no studies by objective evaluators.

I do not believe Mr. Cooperman should be given either credit or blame for this alternate system. The fact that he has been allowed to circumvent teacher training is the fault of a disorganized education profession. In developing the alternate-certification plan, Mr. Cooperman has received the cooperation and support of the universities, almost every school of education in New Jersey, the majority of the state's most reputable educators, the school boards, the state parent-teacher association, and the New Jersey affiliate of the National Education Association. (The lonely exception was Marcantonio Lacatena, president of the New Jersey State Federation of Teachers.)

Mr. Cooperman has also received support from--or at least he was not criticized by--various national associations concerned with children's welfare, early-childhood education, the education of exceptional children, higher education, and teacher education. An exception was the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, which sponsored a conference in New Jersey to organize opposition to the plan. But the group's outcry did not impress the state board of education.

These education groups apparently agree with Mr. Cooperman that college graduates who pass subject-matter tests should be allowed to learn to teach on the job. Mr. Cooperman should not be singled out as the architect or as the master planner of anything, when almost every professional organization agrees with or accedes to his approach.

A few other predictions: As the need for teachers increases in the next decade, schools of education, as they seek to raise standards, will cut down on the number of graduates. The effect will be that several states, in need of teachers, will emulate "the New Jersey model." A future administration in Washington will select Mr. Cooperman as secretary of education. By that time, groups of professional educators will be able to show that they supported Mr. Cooperman and the New Jersey model from its inception.

Vol. 04, Issue 42, Page 31

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