Focus on Teacher Preparation, Not Numbers, Panel Hears

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Lawmakers trying to revamp national teacher education and recruitment programs should focus more on improving the overall quality of the teaching pool, and worry less about increasing the supply of teachers, witnesses told a congressional subcommittee last week.

Much of the testimony during the hearing on teacher preparation emphasized the need for higher standards both for teachers and for the schools that train them. Class-size reduction, as promoted under President Clinton's $12 billion proposal to hire 100,000 new teachers, should not be undertaken if new teachers are not adequately prepared for the classroom, several speakers said. ("Clinton Seeks Teacher Hires, Small Classes," Feb. 4, 1998.)

"You are just as likely to see [worse] achievement as better achievement when you reduce class size in schools," Eric Hanushek, the director of the W. Allen Wallis Institute of Political Economy at the University of Rochester in New York, told members of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families on Feb. 24. "There is nothing as important as the quality of teachers."

But one Democratic lawmaker, Rep. Matthew G. Martinez of California, defended the need for smaller classes.

"A lot of the people jumping on the bandwagon realize the more attention a student gets, the better he's going to do," Mr. Martinez said.

Possible Delay

Legislators are grappling with teacher education proposals from both parties as they move toward the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which governs federal teacher training and recruitment programs, along with most financial-aid programs for college students.

The reauthorization is scheduled to take place this year, but lawmakers--crunched for time in an election year--may delay the process until 1999, Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., said in an interview last week. Mr. Riggs chairs the early-childhood subcommittee.

One issue in the reauthorization of Title V, the section of the federal education code authorizing federal programs in teacher education, is whether to make funding for teacher training conditional upon a training program's ability to meet specific state or national standards.

Under a bill proposed by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., teacher training programs would receive federal dollars only if they met national accreditation standards or if 90 percent of a program's graduates passed state and local licensing requirements to become teachers. Currently, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education has the only established national standards.

"I think we have a right to demand excellence," Mr. Miller said during the hearing. "We have some obligation to put accountability into a system where we spend almost $2 billion."

As more states raise the bar on student achievement, lawmakers need to raise their expectations of teachers, said Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group for poor and minority students.

"Far too many teachers are drawn from among higher education's least able undergraduates," Ms. Haycock said. "In our work with schools, teachers often turn to our staff and ask, 'How am I supposed to get my kids to standards that even I can't meet?'"

But Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok emphasized the importance of state control over teacher accreditation.

"We're not convinced that NCATE represents the Good Housekeeping seal of approval," Mr. Hickok said.

Training Disconnect

The problem of unprepared teachers is exacerbated by widespread examples of teachers being asked to teach subjects that do not match up with their academic training, said Richard Ingersoll, a professor of sociology at the University of Georgia in Athens. Almost a third of all high school math teachers have neither a major nor a minor in mathematics or related fields, Mr. Ingersoll said.

Mr. Miller's bill includes a proposal that would require districts to tell parents when students are being taught by teachers without academic credentials in the subjects they teach.

But hiring highly specialized teachers is not always economically feasible for rural districts, said C. Emily Feistritzer, the president of the Washington-based National Center for Education Information, a private research firm.

"Out-of-field teaching is very much related to the size of the school and where it's located," Ms. Feistritzer said.

Small schools, she said, are "never going to hire a physics teacher for that one physics class they have."

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