The Sky Is Not Falling!

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People are painting the picture of a looming nationwide teacher shortage with tones reminiscent of Chicken Little.

People are painting the picture of a looming nationwide teacher shortage with tones reminiscent of Chicken Little: classes without teachers; incompetents hired in desperation; standards lowered to the "warm body" level; and possible chaos. As a former state commissioner of education, I know how they feel. But I also know that a simple strategy can avert catastrophe.

In 1982, the sky was falling in New Jersey. Our shortage of teachers was so severe that a majority of new math and science teachers in the state had their certification in other subjects. They were pressed into service in these critical fields because "bodies" were needed to fill the classrooms.

Yet, since 1984, New Jersey has had no new teachers teaching out of their fields of certification. Only mathematics majors are teaching math, and only science majors teach science. Moreover, since 1984, New Jersey has not hired one uncertified teacher in the subjects of math, science, English, social studies, and foreign languages—not one.

This turnabout occurred because New Jersey did not follow the common wisdom. Whenever there had been a shortage of teachers in the past, the basic strategy was to lower standards in order to provide for more teachers—to get someone, anyone, in front of every class. We changed that approach in 1982, and unless other states do the same now, the projected shortages will overwhelm the field's old, reactive mentality and give us real cause for lamentation.

In New Jersey, we said we'd raise the standards for teachers, and, at the same time, open the doors of the teaching profession to college graduates whose degrees came from areas outside education. This simple strategy achieved three objectives. First, it allowed thousands of bright and energetic people who were attending liberal arts colleges to consider a teaching position. It opened the door to talent. Second, by raising standards, it ensured that the people coming into the classrooms would be of higher quality, not lower. And, third, it ended the monopoly of schools of education in the preparation of teachers.

For years, teachers who graduated from education schools complained about the "Mickey Mouse" courses they had been required to take. But the system left them no other route to the classroom. We devised an alternative.

We thought that a history teacher should be a history major, a math teacher should have majored in mathematics, and so on.

We thought that a history teacher should be a history major, a math teacher should have majored in mathematics, and so on. We required that all prospective teachers take and pass a test in the fields they were going to teach. This seemed to make common sense to us, even though it somehow had eluded schools of education.

We believed that teaching was a profession, and as such should have a defined body of knowledge—a pedagogy to be learned. We asked Ernest L. Boyer, then the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and a committee of other nationally renowned educators to react to a single question: "What is the essential body of knowledge necessary for beginning teachers to know?" The results became known as the "Boyer Topics" and formed the body of knowledge to be taught to prospective teachers with degrees from outside education. No longer could education schools demand that students take innocuous courses simply because the schools declared them "required."

Finally, we instituted a support program for these teachers. A school principal and at least one teacher were responsible for mentoring the new teacher. We called this program the "alternate route."

What were the results? Shortages were eliminated in a few years, and uncertified teachers in English, mathematics, social studies, science, or foreign languages became a thing of the past in New Jersey.

After collecting data from 1984 to 1990, we found that 16 percent of the education-school-prepared teachers were leaving the classroom after one year, compared with 4 percent of the "alternate route" teachers. This occurred because an education-school-prepared teacher was in a sink-or-swim situation, while the "alternate route" teacher had a support system in place. The support system is now standard procedure for all new teachers in the state.

The percentage of alternate-route teachers averaged 27 percent in the 1990s. We recruited at prestigious colleges such as Lafayette, Yale, Colgate, Princeton, and others. And we found that, contrary to popular opinion, these students wanted to teach, if we could show them the way. The number of candidates from minority groups entering teaching through the alternate route has been three times that from teacher colleges, because we actively recruited minority students.

This success in New Jersey does not mean that our approach is the only approach. But for 15 years, it has stood the test of time. Perhaps some of the people writing articles warning that the sky is falling in teacher recruitment and retention should look for answers to a place where the sky remains very much intact.

Saul Cooperman is the president of Citizens For Better Schools in Morristown, N.J., and the author of How Schools Really Work: Practical Advice for Parents From an Insider.

Vol. 19, Issue 20, Page 31

Published in Print: January 26, 2000, as The Sky Is Not Falling!
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