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States Raise the Bar on Teacher Standards

In state after state, education officials and state legislators are making moves to ensure that every teacher hired meets high quality standards.

In a recent survey, 419 California principals ranked "improving teacher quality" as their highest priority. Improving teacher quality would help principals do their jobs better, they said.

When asked which education reforms would have the greatest impact on student achievement, principals at all levels ranked improving teacher quality in either first or second place.

Reducing class size was the other contender for first place in this survey conducted by the nonprofit EdSource of Palo Alto.

In the next decade, America's schools will need to hire two million teachers -- the result of increasing student enrollments and of retirements among an aging teaching force. But where, many wonder, will school officials find two million quality teachers? How will cities and rural school districts -- many already suffering teacher shortages in some curriculum areas -- be able compete with suburban schools to attract good teachers? Will teacher-training institutions be forced to lower their standards? Will school systems be forced to hire uncertified and under-qualified college grads to fill vacancies?

Already, large numbers of students are being taught by teachers who lack the qualifications for their jobs, according to the 1996 report What Matters Most: Teaching and America's Future. Twenty-three percent of all secondary teachers don't even have a minor in their main teaching field, the report states.

President Clinton's call for smaller classes in America's primary-grades would seem to compound the problem. Where will school systems find more "talented, dedicated, and well-prepared" teachers to fill those new classrooms?

Incentives, including low- or no-interest student loans, might help provide the needed quantity of teachers, but what about the quality?

That question is being addressed in state after state.


Last year, when school officials in one New York City suburb advertised 35 new teaching positions, they received nearly 800 applications! To help narrow the field, they decided to administer a test -- an 11th-grade state English exam. Only a quarter of the applicants got passing marks on the exam!

"Today, in some states it may be harder to graduate from high school than to become a certified teacher," wrote Diane Ravitch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in a February Washington Post editorial.

But that may be changing.

In state after state, officials are instituting stringent new guidelines for teaching certification. Today, teachers in 40 states must take and pass tests in order to become certified.

Tests from the Praxis test series, created by Princeton-based Educational Testing Service (ETS), are administered in 36 of those states. Most testing states require teachers to take the Praxis II subject assessment test, which measures a candidate's general knowledge of the subject and/or level to be taught. (Praxis I is a prerequisite to being admitted to many college and university teacher education programs.)

What else are education leaders doing to address the issue of teacher quality? Here's what's happening in some states:

In Pennsylvania. Stricter regulations were proposed by Governor Tom Ridge last year and approved this March by the state's Education Board. Under the plan, college students must maintain at least a 3.0 average in the subject area they intend to teach and they must score "substantially higher than average" on a national teachers' exam before they can receive certification.

"We have in our state high standards for our accountants, law students have to take the bar exam, and medical students have to take exams that are very challenging," Michael Poliakoff, the state's deputy secretary for postsecondary and higher education, told Education Week. "So why should we allow someone into a profession which arguably will have a bigger impact on our commonwealth without having a challenging exam?"

"If you couple academic standards with the preparation of teachers only the highest achievers in our college classrooms will be Pennsylvania's 21st-century teachers," Eugene Hickock, the state's education secretary, told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In Massachusetts. In April, prospective teachers in Massachusetts sat for the state's first-ever certification test. Candidates sat for two four-hour tests -- a test of their reading and writing skills, and a test of their knowledge in the field they hope to teach.

Test critics contend that the tests do nothing to tell how well the prospective teacher will actually teach. The test "helps ensure that we get the best people into the profession," Steve Gorrie, acting president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, told the Boston Globe. "But I don't think it should be the sole thing considered [for] certification."

"I'm not in favor of these tests," added John Pierre Ameer, an education professor at Simmons College. "I think the state's responsibility is to accredit the [teacher training] programs. The test is another level of oversight that's redundant and unnecessarily costly."

Thomas Payzant, Boston's school superintendent, recently told a hearing panel in Washington that the results of the test were "very disappointing."

In New Hampshire. New Hampshire will administer a Praxis test for the first time this fall. In response to the critics of such tests, John Lewis, chairman of the state school board told Education Week that the tests help create "a confidence level among parents and the public that the people who want to teach have to at least have the basic skills."

In Virginia. In 1996, Virginia set the highest cutoff score of any state on the Praxis I tests. As a result of the high cutoff, about one-third of first-time Praxis test takers didn't pass the test. Many laud school leaders' efforts to raise teaching standards. But others worry.

"This could have a major impact on the number of minority teachers that are entering the profession," said John Oehler, dean of education at Virginia Commonwealth (Education Week, March 25). "We would be losing up to 70 percent of our persons of color."

In New Jersey. Starting in the year 2000, New Jersey teachers will be required to dedicate 100 hours every five years to keeping their skills current. This continuing education mandate is new to New Jersey. Until now, the state was the only one without a professional development requirement for teachers after they obtain their licenses.

In California. In May, California governor Pete Wilson announced a $55 million plan to address the state's dearth of available and qualified teachers. Wilson called his plan "the greatest effort ever undertaken" to recruit and train teachers in California.

"We've done class-size reduction and put in place standards," said Dan Edwards, Wilson's education spokesman told the San Francisco Examiner. "The glue that holds this together is teachers. This is an aggressive and comprehensive way to address the problems of teacher quality and quantity."

Wilson's plan includes increased scholarship aid to teachers who pledge to work in inner-city schools; a $2 million campaign to attract students to teaching; and additional $33 million to support new teachers; and merit awards of $10,000 for the most highly qualified teachers.

In Missouri. In response to public demand for "more 'proof' that teachers are adequately trained and academically talented," the Missouri State Board of Education has introduced Improved Standards for Teacher Training and Certification. Those standards include requiring prospective teachers to

  • demonstrate academic competence in their subject before entering a teacher education program;
  • earn an overall college grade point average (GPA) of 2.5 in order to be eligible for a teaching certificate; and
  • demonstrate subject area competence on a national test to be eligible for a teaching certificate.


A recent effort to raise standards in North Carolina -- a state with standards that are already among the most stringent -- ran into a major backlash.

Last June, 247 teachers in the state were scheduled to take a competency test. The teachers to be tested were those who work in 15 schools that posted the worst results on last year's state tests. Many of those teachers threatened to boycott the test, one element of the state's Excellent Schools Act passed in 1997, even though it was the law.

Many people sided with the teachers. The teachers, they said, already had to pass a national teacher exam to be certified in the state. Others added that forcing the teachers to take the test was a violation of their rights because all teachers don't have to take it. It was also noted that some teachers in the state's low-scoring schools had already transferred from those schools to others -- to escape the test! The tests were driving good teachers away from schools where they are most needed, some critics add.

In addition, the test -- a general knowledge test -- does nothing to test teacher competence. If improving teaching is the goal of this test, then the test ought to test teaching ability, says Mike Ward, state schools Superintendent (Raleigh News-Observer, April 3). "If we don't have a test that can meet the criteria, we don't have what we want," he said.

Meanwhile, the teachers were insulted and furious, the test was scheduled to be given, and -- according to the law -- by the school year 1999-2000, teachers in all low-performing schools (which could end up being more than 100 schools) were scheduled to take the test.


But on June 9, just three days before the scheduled test, Governor James B. Hunt Jr., signed into law a revision that gave those teachers a reprieve. In the future, teachers in low-performing schools will be evaluated using a state school board instrument. A poor evaluation, one suggesting a teacher lacks general knowledge (as opposed to having other problems, such as poor teaching technique), could result in that teacher being required to sit for the multiple-choice, general-knowledge test.

"These teachers should never have been harassed. They should have been honored for their commitment [to these schools]," John I. Wilson, executive director of the North Carolina Association of Educators told Education Week ("N.C. Lawmakers Revoke Teacher-Testing Plan," 6/17/98). The NCAE is satisfied with the final results.


But are tests the answer? Many people think not!

"We're in a climate of raised standards," said David Haselkorn, president of Recruiting New Teachers, Inc., a Belmont, Mass.-based organization that advocates improving school-hiring practices (Education Week, March 25). "But we should not be blinded to assuming that all we have to do is raise the standards, and that everything else will fall into place."


Helping Teachers to Achieve
A look at Connecticut's Beginning Educator Support and Training (BEST) Program, Virginia's technology standards for educators, the NBPTS national teacher certification program, the new focus on teacher training programs, and Linda Darling-Hammond's "twleve-part plan for powerful teaching."

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Article by Gary Hopkins, Editor-in-Chief
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