States across the country should revamp their teacher certification requirements by deemphasizing traditional education courses and requiring prospective teachers to pass rigorous exams in the subjects they plan to teach, according to a new federal report.
The inaugural report to Congress on teacher quality, scheduled to be released today by the Education Department, also says that states should do more to deepen the pool of potential teachers by clearing alternative routes to the classroom for mid-career professionals who have strong content knowledge but lack "education theory" classes.
What We've Learned: Teachers and students reflect on their educations over the past year.
"We have got to focus on this and put it into action," Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige said yesterday. "We are issuing a call to colleagues in state legislatures and regulatory agencies . . . to ratchet it up. The quality of the teacher is the highest leverage point for change and effective student achievement."
There have been increasing calls for rethinking the way teachers are trained and certified. But despite those demands and some promising programs that provide alternative paths to teaching, such as Teach for America and Troops to Teachers, not enough has changed, according to the report.
Meanwhile, existing teacher preparation programs are failing to produce the kind of teachers the nation requires, the report says. Only 23 states have teacher standards linked to the content standards that guide what students are taught. Moreover, potential teachers are asked to earn only minimal scores on the standardized tests that are part of the licensing process in many states.
On one basic skills test used by 29 states to screen potential teachers, for example, only one state set its passing score near the national average in reading, while 15 set passing scores at the 25th percentile -- a score earned by three out of four test takers.
Even at that, 6 percent of the nation's teachers lack full certification and are teaching on waivers or emergency licenses, the report says. A disproportionate share of those uncertified teachers work in high-poverty schools and in hard-to-fill fields such as science, math and special education.
With enrollment rising in public schools across the country, and with a wave of veteran teachers on the verge of retirement, the demand for qualified teachers is growing. Researchers estimate that schools will have to hire more than 2 million teachers over the next decade, both to make up for retirements and to compensate for the rapid turnover that characterizes the profession.
But that reality is at odds with the push to improve teacher quality, even though Paige argues that raising standards will ultimately make teaching a more desirable profession. The far-reaching education law enacted in January requires schools that receive federal funds to have all their teachers be "highly qualified" by the 2005-2006 school year. The department defines that as teachers who demonstrate knowledge and skill in reading, writing, math and other basic subject areas.
"That's the whole fly in the ointment," said Rob Weil, deputy director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers. "There have been strong recommendations for improving teacher education across the country for years. But with the teacher shortage, those things sometimes conflict with each other."
Much of the information reported by states to the federal government for the teacher quality report is "inconsistent, incomplete, and utterly incomprehensible," according to the Education Trust, a Washington-based education advocacy group.
Many states, for example, reported that nearly all their teachers are fully certified, a claim they could make only by reporting incomplete data or by employing unconventional definitions of a certified teacher.
"It seems most states chose to present a Pollyanna view of teacher quality rather than the real picture," said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust.