BOSTON — Nearly 1 in 3 prospective teachers in Virginia last month couldn't pass a basic skills test in reading, writing, and math - and that's the good news.
If the 20 other states with the test had used Virginia's cutoff standard, about 1 in 2 would-be teachers would have failed.
The Praxis 1 exam isn't a tough test. Neither was the English exam for high school juniors that a New York school district used to screen prospects last year. Yet only 202 of 758 applicants to teach in Connetquot schools could pass it.
Such sobering results are driving urgent calls to ratchet up the quality of United States teacher education. But the need isn't just better-qualified teachers. Growing enrollments and pressure for smaller classes have many schools scrambling for more teachers as well.
How states reconcile the desire for higher teacher quality with the need to fill positions will set the character of classrooms for at least a generation.
Most teachers enter the classroom with a degree in education from an accredited program. Such training includes courses in child development, classroom management, and supervised student teaching. The degree is a sure path to state certification.
But teacher shortages, especially in poor urban and rural schools, have encouraged many states to explore new ways to certify teachers. Forty-one states and the District of Columbia offer alternatives for people without traditional training. Some programs target mid-careerists or retired military personnel, offering them formal training in teacher practices along with mentoring as they start out. Others, such as Teach for America, recruit recent college graduates for poor schools.
New Jersey has found that alternative credentialing has been its main source of minority teachers. In Texas, 43 percent of teachers coming through alternative routes are minorities, in a state where 91 percent of all public schoolteachers are white, says Emily Feistritzer, president of the Washington-based National Center for Education Information, which studies such programs.
At stake are two very different visions of teaching as a profession. For many teacher-educators, the solution to the quality crisis is to come up with national standards for teachers and teacher-ed programs.
"We're trying to do a lot of things in schools, including getting more ambitious material to a greater range of students," says Linda Darling-Hammond, executive director of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, a nongovernmental group that aims to boost teaching quality. "But it all will depend on whether teachers have the skills to teach courses well."
Much of the history of teacher education in this century has been a battle for respectability. Chronically underfunded and often physically isolated from the rest of the campus, education departments often attract large enrollments but rarely top students. Some 79 percent of education faculty members in a recent survey said their programs are second-class citizens.
In addition, promising students are often told, "You're too bright to be a teacher," says William Dandridge, dean of the School of Education at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass.
Critics argue that ed schools churn out junk scholarship and opaque jargon. If the goal is to improve quality, "it would be unwise to spend any taxpayer money that finds its way into schools of education," says E.D. Hirsch, founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, which helps schools overhaul curricula.
Teachers, too, rank ed-school courses as one of the least important factors contributing to their competence, according to the National Center for Education Information in Washington.
Such criticism is prompting teacher educators to criticize other teachers or teacher-ed programs. "If there are bad programs, who is accountable at the state level for shutting them down?" says James Cooper, former dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Local legislators will rally round that institution."
Ed-school backers insist that the profession is already reforming itself. "Until a few years ago, you could get a state license just for graduating from a state school of education. Now most states require an exam," says Arthur Wise, president of the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization.
Some 41 states are working with NCATE to set standards for teacher preparation. Forty states are also working on performance-based teacher assessments.
A key to such reform efforts is ensuring a deep grounding in the subject matter. The Curry School at UVA, for example, offers a five-year program that anchors students in the arts and sciences while layering on teaching experience. Employers of Curry graduates are offered a warranty, which guarantees any additional course work that former students may need to be effective.
Recent White House initiatives, such as the $30 million Lighthouse Partnerships for Teacher Preparation, also reward programs that encourage such collaboration.
What is unclear is whether ed schools will come out of this reform effort with the same hold they formerly had on the teacher-education process.
Cara Relich, a Teach for America recruit, trained for only five weeks before starting at Tubman Elementary School in Washington, where 15 of her 25 students speak limited English or have special needs. She takes night courses in student assessment and Spanish to help her in class. "I'm willing to try anything it takes to make things work," she says. Her principal, Peggy Wines, says she is doing well.
Critics such as Ms. Darling-Hammond argue that Teach for America doesn't include enough training, and is robbing at-risk students of quality teachers.
Here the debate over training gets up-close and practical: If teachers like Ms. Relich can be effective without years of training, then the case for teaching as a profession is diminished.
"Teach for America is a black sheep for ed schools. It's not ideal, but it's very effective. And it's getting teachers where they're needed," says Edith Tatel, former director of teacher education at American University in Washington who now works with Teach for America. The test will be whether such teachers can make a long-term difference in US classrooms.