Virginia Institutions Lukewarm On Reforms in Teacher Training

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Institutions that prepare teachers in Virginia are in the process of making major revisions in their programs that state officials hope will result in a crop of teachers with better knowledge of their disciplines.

But not everyone is going along willingly.

"We have no alternative available to us," says Robert Smith, dean of the school of education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. "It's a matter of being told what to do."

The changes by the state board of education require all prospective teachers to major in an academic subject other than education. In addition, colleges and universities must limit the education coursework that undergraduates receive to 18 hours with the exception of student teaching and field experiences.

In August, the board reviewed the proposed redesigns for 37 institutions of higher education. It rejected two proposals, gave final approval to one program and preliminary approval to 34 more.

The institutions have until May 1 to present their finished proposals, which must go into effect by 1990.

Only three institutions--the University of Virginia, George Mason University, and Virginia Commonwealth University--have chosen to change to a five-year teacher-education program, which exempts them from the 18-hour cap. The rest of the institutions will continue to prepare teachers within a four-year undergraduate degree.

Some Exceptions Made

Charles P. Ruch, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Virginia Commonwealth, says institutions are now grappling with how to design appropriate arts-and-sciences majors for prospective elementary-, vocational-, and special-education teachers.

In some instances, the state board has allowed institutions to exceed the 18-hour limit by as much as six hours.

But even that, says Mr. Smith of Virginia Polytechnic, will not address the issue. The fundamental problems that teachers face are pedagogical in nature, he asserts, "and way down on the list is anything having to do with the need for more content in history, mathematics, science, or whatever."

According to Mr. Smith, prospective teachers really need to learn how to manage a classroom effectively, respond to an increasingly diverse student body, and cope with the stresses that students bring from home, such as drug abuse and divorce.

'Ought Not To Dictate'

Virginia Polytechnic Institute will be particularly hard hit by the required program changes.

The university prepares approximately 90 percent of the marketing- and business-education teachers who are employed each year in the state. But under the new requirements, such teachers must now major in a liberal-arts discipline, and not pursue an education major.

The result, Mr. Smith asserts, is that prospective business teachers are not going to work in schools at all. "They're going to go work at Virginia Bank," he says. And the university's program "is likely to be wiped out."

The university also has the second-largest elementary-education program in the state, next to that of James Madison University. But its request to maintain an elementary-education major was turned down by the state board, although it will be allowed to continue training physical- and agricultural-education majors.

"Regulatory agencies ought not to dictate how professional personnel ought to be trained," says Mr. Smith. "That's the responsibility of university faculty members."

Commission's Idea

The policy changes grew out of recommendations made two years ago by the Governor's Commission on Excellence in Education. The commission also advocated requiring all Virginia teachers to earn a master's degree.

In October, however, the board's ad hoc committee on teacher education recommended against mandating such a proposal, which it said would be very costly and could exacerbate the teacher shortage in certain fields.

An analysis of the proposal by independent researchers found that it would cost the state approximately $850 million to phase in that type of requirement for all teachers over the next five years, and $100 million to phase it in for new teachers only. It would then cost about $25 million annually to run the program, the researchers said.

Costs Seen Exceeding Benefit

Harold L. York, a research economist at the University of Virginia's center for public service, concluded that although there is a slight improvement in teaching performance among those with a master's degree, "the costs are so substantial that they really outweigh any benefit that might be accrued."

Mr. York and his fellow researchers at the center for public service and at the Commonwealth Center for Education recommended that the state instead explore creating incentives for some teachers to pursue master's degrees and establishing research centers that would help all teachers keep abreast of their field.

Margaret Roberts, director of community relations for the state department of education, said the proposal to require a master's degree "is still being studied, but at this point [the board] is not going to be requiring it."

Meanwhile, most teacher educators say the initial ruckus over the new requirements is dying down.

"I think it's pretty much blown over," said James M. Cooper, dean of the school of education at the University of Virginia.

"There are honest differences of opinion" about the new program requirements, agreed Mr. Ruch of Virginia Commonwealth, "but the train has left the station."


Vol. 08, Issue 15

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