WASHINGTON — If you just follow headlines or this season's political campaigns, it looks as if it's time to get tough on teachers.
Low scores on a recent test for prospective teachers in Massachusetts prompted acting Gov. Paul Cellucci (R) to propose statewide testing to drive poor teachers out of the classroom. And across America, candidates vie for the number of times they can combine the words "tough" and "education" in a 30-second TV spot.
But back of the tough talk, states are realizing that the business of improving teaching will take more than a big stick. The underreported side of this story is how states and teachers are succeeding in ratcheting up the quality of teaching one classroom at a time.
Nearly all 50 states have or are developing standards for what is taught at each grade level and assessments to measure whether schools are meeting them. The next wave of lawmaking will be to make sure there are teachers in the classroom capable of teaching to higher standards.
"To have people say that what's wrong with our schools is that the teachers are idiots is very offensive. That attitude won't make much of a difference to a very poor teacher, but it could drive a very wonderful teacher out of the profession," says Cathy Hammond, principal of Allenbrook Elementary School in Charlotte, N.C.
Some 18 states have already enacted laws to reward successful teachers, and more are targeting incentives for hard-to-staff districts and subject areas. In North Carolina, the Senate is proposing $98 million for incentives to teachers in schools that meet or exceed student achievement goals.
Last year, North Carolina teachers were stunned to learn that the Legislature wanted to test all teachers in the state's 123 low-performing schools. In addition, assistance teams were sent into the 15 lowest schools, where student achievement had actually declined. The team observed classes, reviewed lesson plans, and worked with teachers one-to-one to boost teaching skills.
"It was a total shock that a state team would come in, but once they did, we built a bond with them," says Bonnie Gathman, a fourth-grade teacher at Allenbrook Elementary. She credits the team with focusing the whole school on improving the teaching of writing.
The effort paid off: Last week, North Carolina announced that 14 of the 15 targeted schools had met or exceeded the goal of a 10 percent increase in the percentage of students at or above grade level. The Legislature shelved mandatory testing, but extended the requirement for evaluations to staff in all low-performing schools.
"What we are up against in these schools goes beyond holding people's feet to the fire," says John Dornan, executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonprofit policy group based in Raleigh. "There must also be incentives to allow these schools to compete for a high-quality faculty."
Other states are stepping up efforts to attract new people into the profession. Last week, Massachusetts Democrats proposed a $20,000 bonus for new teachers. Baltimore schools are offering $5,000 home-buying grants to draw teachers. Some states forgive student loans in exchange for commitments to teach.
Lawmakers are also paying more attention to ensuring professional development for teachers already in the classroom. A new Florida law taking effect this month requires school districts to link teacher pay to performance evaluations.
On Friday, New York's Board of Regents will vote on the most sweeping proposals to improve teaching quality in the nation. The plan requires teachers to get at least 175 hours of continuing education every five years, and decertifies education programs if less than 80 percent of their graduates can pass the state certification exams. As few as 30 percent of the graduates of some teacher-ed programs now pass the exams.
Teacher unions are also realizing that the national push for more accountability in the classroom is a trend that they ignore at their peril. Unions still oppose merit pay, but are more open to contracts that do not strictly link teacher pay scales to years in service. Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are featuring teacher-quality resolutions at their national meetings in New Orleans this month.
Last week, the NEA launched a national campaign to help 100,000 teachers achieve advanced accreditation with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The Southfield, Mich.-based board is an independent group that aims to do for teaching what medical boards did for the practice of medicine at the turn of the century. Backed by education foundations, business groups, and some $49 million in federal funding, the board is defining professional standards and assessments for teachers.
Candidates submit portfolios and videotapes to demonstrate teaching practice, and pass a six-hour examination. It takes about 400 hours to prepare a portfolio. Since 1995, the board has certified 912 teachers - and is aiming for 106,000 by 2006.
"We're seeing a substantial building up of the volume of candidates. We're also seeing more and more teaching programs use board standards and assessments, as they redesign their own undergraduate offerings," says Philip Kearney, senior program director for the National Board.
Thirteen states now cover all or part of the $2,000 advanced certification fee, and others offer incentives: In Iowa, board-certified teachers get an additional $10,000 a year for five years, and Florida recently adopted legislation offering up to a 20 percent bonus. Some local districts, such as Los Angeles, offer 15 percent bonuses. For Amy Forsythe, a high school teacher in Cincinnati, Ohio, the credential means a $3,500 yearly stipend and status as a lead teacher in her school district. "The money doesn't hurt, but what makes it all worthwhile is that you get in touch with your teaching," she says.
But critics warn that board certification is no substitute for informed local decisions about the quality of teachers. "There is no evidence that board-certified teachers are actually better in the classroom," says Michael Podgursky, an economist at the University of Missouri-Columbia who works on teacher quality issues. (The Education Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., is preparing a study on this issue.)
"You can't just rely on a test or a certificate as a magic bullet to identify good teachers," he adds. "That's a managerial function, and it's inherently local."
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