First the Bush administration pushes through an education bill that calls for guaranteeing a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom. Then the administration releases a report arguing that the nation's education schools spend too much time on classroom methodology.
Mixed messages? More like a punch in the jaw, say educators involved in such training programs.
Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige said teachers will be better prepared by studying their subject material than educational theories.
(Terry Ashe - AP File Photo)
"We ask policymakers not to lower standards by placing unqualified, unprepared individuals into classrooms," said Arthur E. Wise, president of the Washington-based National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.
Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford professor who has led a national effort to improve teacher training, said the U.S. Education Department report was full of statistics that were "inaccurate, misrepresented or badly out of date."
But Education Department officials said these schools need to spend less time explaining the mechanics of teaching and more time making sure educators understand the subjects they teach. Indeed, reports show that many teachers do not have a firm grasp on the subject matter they are assigned.
"While teachers certainly need to understand how to teach -- and to have other basic skills such as classroom management -- there is no evidence that lengthy preparation programs achieve these goals any better than streamlined programs that quickly get talented teachers into the classroom," said an Education Department statement last month attached to the report on teacher quality. "Requiring excessive numbers of pedagogy or education theory courses acts as an unnecessary barrier for those wishing to pursue a teaching career."
This debate over content vs. method takes on new significance now that the federal No Child Left Behind law requires states to certify in the next three years that all of their classroom teachers are highly qualified.
"We now have concrete evidence that smart teachers with solid content knowledge have the greatest effect on student achievement," Education Secretary Roderick P. Paige said in his endorsement of the teacher quality report. "If we are to meet the challenge of having a highly qualified teacher in every classroom by the 2005-2006 school year, states and universities must take heed and act now to bring more of these people into our nation's classrooms."
Undersecretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok noted that states, not the federal government, set teacher standards, but he promised that the Bush administration will continue to push for changes. "This is basically common sense," he said. "You can't teach what you don't know."
People on both sides of the argument agree that the standards are low in many states. Paige's report on teaching quality, "Meeting the Highly Qualified Teacher Challenge," noted that on the Praxis licensure test used by 27 states, the District and the Virgin Islands, about half the jurisdictions set their passing scores below the 25th percentile in reading. A notable exception was Virginia, the only state to set its minimum passing score at or near the national median score in reading, writing and mathematics.
Mike Bruck, who teaches Advanced Placement U.S. history at McKinney (Tex.) High School, is still angry about the many teachers who flunked a state minimum reading competency test several years ago. "They were allowed to retake it numerous times," he said. "They should never have been allowed in the door again."
The Bush administration and many critics of the nation's education schools want states to let high-scoring college graduates and career-changing professionals receive teaching certificates without taking so many education courses. The education schools and their many supporters say that even the most brilliant scientists may not know how to communicate their knowledge to children. They want to raise standards by paying teachers more and giving them better training in how to teach.
Darling-Hammond cited several studies showing that students score lower on standardized tests when their teachers do not have education training or certification. Reducing preparation, she said, may also increase the chance that new teachers will leave the profession.
"Other research indicates that those who complete five-year teacher education programs enter and stay in teaching at much higher rates than four-year teacher education graduates, who stay in teaching at higher rates than teachers hired through alternatives offering only short-term" training, Darling-Hammond said.
Wise cited the example of Teach For America, which puts bright new college graduates into classrooms after only a summer of training. Of 8,000 participants, he said, only 2,000 are still teaching.
Several experts said there was room for improvement in both methods and content courses and that education schools should focus more precisely on the different needs of teachers at different grade levels.
Kati Haycock, director of the Washington-based Education Trust, has been called as an expert witness against a group of New York City teachers who say they should be allowed to teach despite failing licensure exams. Such tests matter, she said: Teachers who do not understand a subject are less likely to see where their students have erred and less able to find different ways to reach students with different learning styles.
Haycock also shares with most experts a deep distress about the fact that "many teachers -- including both those who come through education schools and those who come without education course work -- don't know anything about how to teach reading."
And yet, she said, there is little research being done to determine what specific teacher skills produce increased achievement in students.
Bruck, the history teacher in Texas, said he dreams of the day when public schools could compete for employees and customers like private businesses do. "It would help weed out the grossly incompetent teachers and allow the quality teachers to earn more," he said.
A more likely change, experts said, is in the way education schools organize and states assess teacher courses. Andrew Rotherham, director of the 21st Century Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, said credentials should be tied more closely to what is being taught. "There is a substantial difference in the pre-service training that a second-grade reading teacher and an 11th-grade U.S. history teacher need," he said.
And education school faculty have to be told when standard courses are not helping teachers raise student achievement. Paul Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle, said education colleges "would be better off saying what course work really matters, rather than defending much course work that wastes time, costs money and drives away smart people."