THE PIONEERS in Virginia's plan to toughen the state's teacher education programs, fresh from five years of training, have begun to enter classrooms around the state.
One hundred University of Virginia students, the first class to pursue a new five-year education program that awards them master's degrees and stresses the liberal arts over education courses, were certified as teachers last spring. And though there's no telling yet exactly what the changes have wrought, campus officials say that the quality of students they are now luring to be education majors is clearly rising. Grade-point averages are up, and scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test have jumped about 100 points. University of Virginia officials also are turning away qualified students because there's no room left in the program.
"We've found that the higher standards have had a real strong appeal," said James Cooper, dean of the Curry School of Education at the university. "Students like the five-year program because they get a bachelor's degree in liberal arts, but they also leave with a master's certificate in education."
The University of Virginia's step to overhaul how it trains teachers, which began in 1986, has been in the forefront of an effort underway at 35 other state colleges to impose stricter academic requirements on students studying education. The changes were sparked by national education reforms and follow years of debate. Most state colleges in Virginia imposed the new standards last fall. By 1994 -- when the recruits graduate as teachers -- they'll enter classrooms with much different academic preparation than many of their predecessors.
Generally, the statewide changes require students to meet stricter academic criteria to enter the teaching programs. And with few exceptions, students will be required to earn degrees in the arts and sciences, not education. The elementary education degree has been eliminated. At most schools, students will not be allowed to enroll in more than 18 hours of course work in education.
Though the University of Virginia has students in a five-year program, as does George Mason University in Fairfax County, most other colleges in the state have decided to keep the traditional four-year degree.
At George Mason, once education students reach the fifth year of the new program they will be required to spend six weeks as teaching assistants in summer school, then to work the entire fall and spring as classroom aides in Fairfax County's public schools. That doubles the time George Mason students had been obligated to spend teaching before earning certification under old rules. Students also will be paid by Fairfax County for their work.
Mary Anne Lecos, who directs teacher education at George Mason, said the university increased the requirements because it believed too many students had left campus without enough preparation, and and as a consequence soon quit the teaching profession.
Thomas A. Elliott, who oversees teacher certification for the Virginia Department of Education, said that educators are hoping that the new standards will attract better students and create teachers with much broader academic backgrounds -- not just mastery of teaching techniques.
"If you go back to the old education degree, the problem we had was the perception that it did not deal with enough serious academic training, and in many cases that perception became reality," said Jerry Moore, who directs teacher education at the University of Virginia. "We don't see the same attitude now."
Instead, the University of Virginia is certifying graduates such as John Hillstrom, who began work this fall in the Albemarle County public school district. Hillstrom earned a degree in environmental sciences while simultaneously studying teaching.
"I think that now when I'm in front of a class, I have a lot more knowledge to draw from," said Hillstrom, who is teaching in an elementary school. "That helps students, and it helps me. This is a much better way to educate teachers, and I think it also helps confer more status on the profession."
Under the University of Virginia's new standards, Moore said, there is a limit of 125 students in each class level. The university also requires students in the program to work as teaching assistants for seven of their last eight semesters. THE UNIVERSITY HAS also taken the unusual step of establishing a teacher warranty. If any school is not pleased with the performance of any of the University of Virginia graduates it has hired, it can notify the university. The university then will dispatch faculty to help, or even enroll the student in more course work.
There is great enthusiasm about the new standards in the College of Education at the University of Virginia, but several questions about its effects linger, officials said. For example, will the higher-quality students, much more versed in liberal arts, still find teaching (and its unspectacular salary, compared to other professions) rewarding after a few years on the job?
And as at many other colleges, debate persists at the University of Virginia about whether the new program will limit minority enrollment. About 7 percent of the University of Virginia's prospective teachers are black, Asian and Hispanic, a number that has neither grown nor dwindled with the new standards.
"But that continues to be one of our bigger concerns," Moore said. "It's still too low."
University of Virginia officials have not tracked the first 100 students to complete the new teaching degree yet, but say that most of the group seemed bound for the affluent school districts in northern Virginia and other high-paying school systems along the east coast. That, too, is cause for concern.
"We think that very few of them are going to smaller, rural districts," Moore said. "Most want to take their new credentials where the money is."
Rene Sanchez covers District of Columbia schools for the Metropolitan Desk of The Washington Post.