Higher Standards for Teacher Training

By Hickok, Eugene W. | Policy Review, September-October 1998 | Go to article overview
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Higher Standards for Teacher Training

Hickok, Eugene W., Policy Review

Pennsylvania's education chief vows to restore luster to his state's teacher-prep programs

No single element is more essential to students' success than excellence in teaching. Fine buildings, equipment, and textbooks are important, but it is the skill and dedication of the teacher that creates a place of learning. So it is both distressing and heartening that incompetence among the ranks of the nation's teachers is finally entering the spotlight. New York's state education department recently discovered that hundreds of its teachers, most of whom have master's degrees, could not pass a standard test in English, math, and reasoning skills. In response to a storm of public criticism, state education officials in Massachusetts recently repealed their decision to lower the qualifying score on a rather basic teacher-licensing exam after 59 percent of the applicants flunked it.

Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge has decided to confront teacher incompetence with a bold new program that focuses on clear, measurable, and rigorous standards for the men and women preparing to be teachers. Indeed, as a result of the Teachers for the 21st Century Initiative, we believe that Pennsylvania's teachers will soon be the most qualified in the nation.

Low Expectations

Before the state enacted these vital changes, it was astonishing how little was expected of prospective teachers, many of whom received undergraduate or master's degrees from one of the state's 91 education programs. When we examined our system of teacher preparation and licensure in 1996, we found a system with limited assurances of competence and quality. We identified six areas of urgent concern:

* Few teacher-education programs had meaningful admission standards. Most undergraduate programs, at best, required prospective majors to have a 2.5 grade point average prior to majoring in education. In other words, the doors were open for C-plus students (or worse) to become teachers. Moreover, that requirement could be fulfilled with the easiest classes.

* Grading standards in teacher-education programs were extremely low. At one public university, 78 percent of students who took courses in "curriculum and foundations" received A's. But on that same campus, only 18 percent of the grades earned in English or physics were A's. A study of 14 state universities showed that the average grade in an education course was a full letter-grade higher than the average for a math course, and one-half grade higher than the average humanities grade.

A study by the National Center for Education Statistics confirmed that grade inflation has been far more pronounced in the nation's education departments than in other fields. The average grade in an education course was 3.41, compared with 2.96 in social sciences and 2.67 in science and engineering. We also found that many teacher-preparation programs were increasing the departmental requirements for education courses at the expense of strong preparation in academic subjects.

* Students preparing to be high-school teachers were not required to take the same courses as their peers who majored in academic subjects such as history or science. Mathematics majors, for example, have to complete courses in differential equations and advanced calculus, while education majors planning to teach high-school mathematics--including advanced-placement classes--could substitute a course in the history of mathematics for these rigorous courses. In Pennsylvania, we discovered that some candidates certified in foreign languages were unable to engage in basic conversations in the languages they were purportedly trained to teach.

* Many teacher-preparation programs had no meaningful standards for achievement in the academic content areas their candidates intended to teach.

* Even in nonacademic coursework, such as classroom management and professional skills, which these programs tend to emphasize, few departments had sufficient benchmarks to assess the progress of aspiring teachers.

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