Rebecca Hamilton's first-graders at Rockledge Elementary School in Prince George's County plunged gleefully into her recent lesson on similes. Hamilton's teeth, they told her, were "as white as a cloud" and her eyes "as brown as dirt."
The 24-year-old teacher intern, a senior at the University of Maryland, feels confident about her classroom skills. But she came close to being barred from the university's teacher preparation program because of a low score on a math test required of all applicants.
It bothers Hamilton that one test nearly doomed her dream of becoming a teacher. "I think there should be a standard. You shouldn't let anyone into the classroom," she said. "But by rating someone on a test score of something that may never be used in the classroom, the school system might miss out on someone good."
Hamilton's case cuts to the heart of a national debate about the state of teacher training.
To critics of the current system, the low threshold that Hamilton had to meet is an example of lax academic standards in teacher colleges, a problem for which schoolchildren are paying the price. But to those who are wary of requiring better college grades and test scores in the training programs, Hamilton's case illustrates how trainees who communicate well with children will be disqualified if the academic bar is set too high.
Never before have the nation's 1,100 colleges of education faced such scrutiny, as many lawmakers and state school boards have decided that the tough new goals they have set for improving primary and secondary schools will not be met until the colleges start producing better teachers.
Many states, including Virginia and Maryland, have switched to tougher entrance and exit exams for the training programs or raised the required passing score. A federal law that takes effect next year will require that every college receiving federal funds report how well its graduates perform on teacher licensing tests, and some states are threatening to strip low-performing training programs of their accreditation.
There are also calls for the education schools to require more courses in basic subjects--so-called "content courses"--as opposed to classes that focus on the art of teaching.
To many education analysts, it makes perfect sense that teacher-training programs--just like school districts and schoolchildren--are being told to raise their standards and are being held more accountable for their performance.
There are too many "poorly educated teachers struggling mightily--and without success--to teach things that they don't know," said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based think tank.
That failure is especially costly now that so many states have adopted tougher tests to determine which students will graduate from high school, Haycock argues. Before the era of high-stakes student testing, she said: "strong content [in teaching training] didn't matter a lot. But under the new rules of all kids learning high-level stuff, deep and flexible content knowledge matters a lot more."
Officials at the education colleges welcome the call for higher standards to an extent. But they also say they are being asked to meet two goals that are often contradictory: produce more teachers and better teachers. The nation will need 2.5 million new teachers by 2010--about 20 percent more than normal for that time frame, because of teacher retirements and growing student enrollments. The higher the barriers for college students who want to teach, the harder it will be to meet that demand, officials at the colleges say.
They also say the quality of their trainees is dragged down by factors over which they have no control--low teacher salaries that discourage bright students from entering the profession and low admissions standards in universities as a whole. Students typically apply to undergraduate teacher-training programs in their sophomore year of college.
"I think lots of people are sick and tired of being battered about low performance and low quality," said David Imig, president of the Washington-based American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. "We have to hold other people in the universities accountable for the students they are sending us."
A recent visit to the University of Maryland's College of Education revealed both the pressures that school officials are facing to make their program more rigorous and the doubts they harbor about this new direction.
The college is trying to increase from 300 to 350 the number of teachers it produces annually. At the same time, the state school board has decided to start using the Praxis I exam next year as a qualifying test for the program, in place of the National Teacher Examination, which is widely considered to be less rigorous. That will likely mean a drop from 85 percent to 75 percent in the teacher program's acceptance rate, said Dick Jantz, the education college's associate dean.
Hamilton barely passed the math section of the NTE and likely would have had even more trouble on the Praxis I. In January, like all of her classmates, she will be required to pass the teaching licensing exam known as Praxis II, which is more difficult than the NTE licensing test given in previous years in Maryland.
Virginia switched to the Praxis exams in 1997 and set the highest passing score of any of the states using those tests.
U-Md. officials say they are trying hard to give their teacher trainees the academic skills needed to pass the tougher licensing test. Edna Szymanski, dean of the College of Education, said that those seeking credentials to teach high school soon will be required to take the equivalent of a double major in education and the subject they plan to teach and that she is considering a similar requirement for future elementary school teachers. Virginia already requires prospective teachers to major in something other than education.
U-Md. administrators also have proposed raising from 2.5 to 2.8 or 3.0 the grade-point average required to be admitted to teacher training. Ten faculty members at the College of Education, gathered in a conference room, all raised their hands when asked if they supported that idea. But many said it would not guarantee better teachers, and some expressed fear that some good teaching candidates would be lost.
"Some students who are intellectually bright in a college classroom aren't always that good with kids," said Steve Graham, a professor of special education.
Yet U-Md. officials concede that under the current system, some graduates are being hired to lead classrooms where they may be in over their heads.
Christy Corbin, U-Md.'s professional development school coordinator, said she has a set of phrases, such as "would benefit from strong mentoring by an experienced teacher," that she uses when she is asked to write a letter of recommendation for a graduate far from the top of the class. With a teacher shortage in many parts of the country, Corbin said, "I am concerned that mediocre graduates of many teacher ed programs are more likely now to be hired."
If they are to succeed both at raising their standards and at increasing the number of teacher candidates, education schools must recruit talented high school students more aggressively, some educators say.
Officials at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee visit Florida high schools and offer scholarships on the spot to qualified seniors, emphasizing the emotional rewards of a teaching career. At the same time, the university has raised the required minimum SAT score for students in its teacher-training program from 840 to 960.
The Florida A&M program produced only 67 new teachers in 1989 but will graduate 250 teachers this year, including more new African-American teachers than any other U.S. education school, said Melvin F. Gadson, dean of the school's College of Education.
In an important difference from many other states, Florida education schools are allowed some leeway if they see potentially strong applicants who cannot meet academic standards, Gadson said. Up to 10 percent of each new class of education majors at Florida schools may fall below the minimum scores on a state qualifying test.
"We want to have a chance to work with some of those who may be marginal in their ability to pass a standardized test," Gadson said. "In the end, we get more teachers and better teachers that way."
CAPTION: Teacher intern Rebecca Hamilton helps Erika Monroe, 5, at Rockledge Elementary School in Prince George's County.