There are about 5 million classroom teachers in the country, hardly any of whom work for the federal government. But the Education Department is trying to do its part to raise the quality of the nation's teaching force.
The department plans to issue guidelines by the end of the year that for the first time will require all colleges to publicly disclose how well their graduates perform on state teacher licensing exams, information intended to serve as a report card on teacher training programs. And a new round of grants has provided $33 million to universities that have joined with local school districts to upgrade the knowledge and skills of new teachers.
The federal focus on producing better teachers comes as the nation's schools have begun to experience shortages in the classroom, which has led many school districts to relax their standards and increase their hiring of recruits who are not fully credentialed. Recent research has also documented what many parents have long believed: A teacher's capabilities strongly influence how much students learn.
At the same time, opinion polls have begun to show that the public believes that improving the quality of teachers is one of the best ways to fix the nation's schools. Both major political parties appear to have picked up on this rising public concern and have tried to promote "teacher quality" through federal legislation.
"There is very serious concern among members of Congress, the general public and I would say even among teachers about the quality of the various teacher preparation programs around the country," said Therese Dozier, a former social studies teacher who advises Education Secretary Richard W. Riley on teaching issues.
Both the report cards on teacher training programs and the $33 million in grants were authorized by the revised Higher Education Act that passed Congress last year with bipartisan support.
Beginning next year, every university that receives federal funds will have to annually report the percentage of its graduates who pass state teacher licensing exams. (Florida, New York and Texas already require similar reports from their colleges.) Each university will have to disclose how graduates perform on exams required for different teaching licenses, for instance, elementary education or special education.
The report cards are designed to make universities that train teachers more accountable to the public. Most of the nation's teachers attended state universities whose schools of education, critics have often charged, turn out large numbers of graduates who have taken less than rigorous courses.
"You'll get a better picture of which institutions are doing a better job of preparing teachers within a state," Dozier said. But comparisons between colleges in different states will be difficult to make, she added, because "all states don't use the same licensing exams. Even if they have the same licensing exam, they may have a different passing score."
COMMAND AND ACCOUNTABILITY: The 25 grants awarded earlier this month to help universities upgrade their teacher training programs are intended to help graduates gain a better command of the academic subjects they plan to teach, more student-teaching experience, more professional support during their early years in the classroom and more knowledge about how to use computers and other technology in instruction.
Educators and policymakers have reached a consensus that teachers need to have more "content knowledge" about their academic subjects, particularly elementary school teachers who typically take a smattering of courses because their jobs demand they provide instruction in several subjects.
With its $2 million grant, the University of Miami plans to redesign its academic program so that prospective elementary school teachers will have double majors--one in the arts and sciences and the other in education. Kean University in New Jersey received $1.6 million to use, in part, to implement a new state requirement that education majors take more math and science courses. Johns Hopkins University received $2.4 million to recruit and train 1,400 teachers, mainly to meet a shortage in Baltimore's schools.
Universities--not their schools of education--are the grant recipients.
"We've been emphasizing the idea that the preparation of a teacher is the responsibility of the entire university," Dozier explained. "The content background you get in arts and sciences. You don't get that in the school of education. It's not just the school of education that is being held responsible."