Dear Homeroom:

As a parent with one child in a Prince George's County elementary school and another preschool child, I am troubled by the large number of uncertified teachers in county public schools, as well as lower teacher salaries relative to neighboring metropolitan jurisdictions. Could you compare the county's percent of certified teachers and average salaries with other jurisdictions? Do county leaders have specific plans and targets to eliminate disparities with Montgomery County and surrounding areas?

Chris Smith

Cheverly

You're not the only one troubled by this issue. In fact, just about the first thing the new superintendent, Iris T. Metts, did when she arrived this summer was to order that no new contracts be issued to teachers who were not fully certified. She was too late to prevent hundreds of contracts that already had gone out to teachers without full certification, however.

As of August, 1,360 of Prince George's 7,842 teachers--or 17.3 percent--held what is called "provisional certification." That is the highest percentage in the state, with the one exception of Baltimore, where 19.7 percent of the 6,184 teachers hold provisional certification. To give you some sense of how high those figures are, the next highest percentage in the state is in Queen Anne's County, where 5.5 percent of the teachers hold provisional certification. In Montgomery County, the percentage is 2.1 percent. The situation in Prince George's is a serious problem. It is no coincidence that the two jurisdictions with the highest number of provisionally certified teachers have the lowest test scores in the state. Teachers who don't have adequate training and education themselves cannot be expected to help students meet high standards. As bad as the situation is, however, it is hard to know exactly how bad, because provisional certification covers a lot of ground. Provisional certification could mean someone who was certified to teach in another state and who passed the test incoming teachers have to pass--Praxis II--but who needs one or two courses Maryland requires for teachers. That is a whole different story from someone who, in the words of Joann Ericson, the state's chief of certification, "has a degree in basket weaving and wants to teach elementary education." Such a person might need 45 or 50 hours in course work, plus a passing score on Praxis II before being qualified to stand in a classroom. Such a person--however well-intentioned, intelligent and sincere--is better called a babysitter than a teacher.

The way the state statistics are kept, it is impossible to know how many of Prince George's County's teachers fit into which category, Ericson said. However, Metts has made it a priority to eliminate teachers with provisional certification.

"We have written to uncertified teachers that they must take courses to enable them to take the test," she said. In the next couple of weeks, she said, 300 or so of Prince George's County's provisionally certified teachers will receive full certification. She is working with Prince George's Community College, the University of Maryland and Bowie State University to develop courses to bring other Prince George's teachers up to speed quickly. And the Sylvan Learning Center has a contract with the state to help prepare provisionally certified teachers for the Praxis II exam. Last year the state of Maryland also became alarmed by the number of provisionally certified teachers, and put limits on how long someone can teach with a provisional certification.

A few years ago they would issue provisional certifications almost indefinitely. Teachers now have one to four years, depending on what their situations are, to become fully certified. Metts also has worked to recruit fully certified teachers, in part by working with area universities to funnel graduates to Prince George's.

But one of the things Metts found when she arrived was how disorganized the hiring system was. Aspiring teachers, for example, would send resumes into Prince George's and then not hear from the county for months, by which time many of the teachers had found other jobs. This was true not only of teachers but also of principals. I spoke with a principal who had his heart set on working in Prince George's but who took a job elsewhere when he didn't hear from the county.

The good news to be gleaned from this is that there are skilled professionals who want to work in the county--they just have to be called back.

The other issue you raise is the low pay of teachers in Prince George's, which affects the ability of the county to recruit and keep teachers. According to the most recent state figures, the average pay of a teacher in Prince George's is $41,075. That compares with the average pay of $50,817 in Montgomery County, of $42,579 in Howard County and of $43,279 in Anne Arundel County. The relatively low pay means that experienced teachers in Prince George's often are lured away by other counties, which are always on the lookout for people to hire. Metts has said repeatedly that she thinks teacher salaries should be higher and that she wants a countywide discussion of how the schools are funded. She is looking for commitments from parent groups, business groups and politicians to work for more money. However, she has acknowledged that it is first necessary to convince Prince George's residents that the money they already are spending on schools is money well spent. That way, she says, they will agree to spend more.

This is an issue that needs a lot of discussion in public forums throughout the county, in PTAs, civic associations, places of worship and wherever parents and Prince George's residents meet. Schools need to be held to high standards and provided the resources necessary to meet those standards, and it is the obligation of residents to make sure both happen.

Questioning Hunger 101

Dear Homeroom:

I understand the intent and spirit of Hunger 101 ("A Study in Empathy" Metro, Oct. 16), a program being implemented in some county middle schools to teach students about the effects of poverty and hunger. But with the county's documented low test scores, particularly in English and math, wouldn't it be better to concentrate efforts on core curriculum to ensure that students will eventually be able to thrive in the workplace so that they and their future families aren't consigned to lives of poverty and hunger?

Steven Brown

Upper Marlboro

I had something of the same reaction when I read the story of the nine-week course that is being tried in five middle schools this year. The course is part of the family and consumer science curriculum, and it assigns children roles to play.

Some apply for food stamps, some are bureaucrats yelling at the first children for not filling out the forms correctly, others are bankers who turn their fellows down for loans to buy food. The idea is to teach children empathy.

The course may count toward service learning hours as well--that is a state requirement that students volunteer at least 60 hours by the time they graduate high school. Many of those hours can be earned through courses such as this one, which is something of a distortion of the original idea. The original idea was that students would go out and work in nursing homes, pick up litter near stream beds, work in food pantries or perform some other function useful to society, thus solidifying a sense of citizenship.

In any case, I'm not sure my first impression about the course was entirely fair. The course requires students to write a core academic goal--and use some math in drawing up budgets, calculating loan interest and so forth.

I would love to hear from students and teachers who have been part of Hunger 101 about whether they think it is worthwhile both academically and personally. And as long as I'm asking, what about those service learning hours? Are they valuable? Are there any students who thought they would be a waste of time but learned something valuable by volunteering? Let me know.

Homeroom is a forum for you. Send questions, opinions and issues you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20072. The fax number is 301-952-1397. Or you can e-mail homeroom@washpost.com.