An SOS for teacher education

Better training should become a top priority at colleges, new reportsays

For decades, K-12 teachers and the university faculty who train them have bemoaned the scant resources devoted to teacher training. But that's changing. Fast.

One key sign: A new national report on teacher training by the Washington-based American Council on Education (ACE) bluntly told college and university presidents last week that teacher-education programs must be "moved to the center" of their school's priorities "or moved out."

Teacher education moved into the spotlight last year after nearly half those taking a Massachusetts certification test failed. Most were newly minted college graduates. It shocked the public and provoked outcry from legislators.

Now some say the timing is right for this report's message to ripple through higher education.

"We feel pretty good about the fact that college and university presidents will pay attention," says Michael Baer, a senior vice president at ACE. "This report will give college presidents something, some ammunition, to take back to their campuses."

The report says America has an opportunity to transform the quality of its teachers because 2.5 million new teachers must be hired in the next decade. Yet to take full advantage of the opportunity to boost teacher quality nationally, universities must:

*Coordinate education programs with arts and sciences faculty and courses to "move teacher education beyond the confines of a single department or college and raise it to the institutional level."

*Ensure the quality of teacher training with regular campus-wide reviews - and with external audits by an independent third party. College and university presidents must "embrace independent assessment of the quality of their teacher programs, or close their teacher-education programs," the ACE report says.

But some observers question whether teacher-education colleges will embrace such recommendations.

For one thing, their status as cash cows for many institutions may make education programs resistant to change. "Anytime you increase the quality and reduce the income to an institution, it's going to create a dilemma for a university president," says Randy Hitz, dean of the college of education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. "Teacher education has long been one of the primary ways for schools to bring in extra revenue."

A 1997 study co-authored by Dr. Hitz showed that undergraduate institutional expenditures per student credit hour ranged from 80 percent to as low as 69 percent of what is spent on other disciplines.

Growing public concern about the quality of teachers is not the only factor fueling a push for change in teacher-education programs. As early as next April, the federal government could require states to provide report cards on colleges and universities that offer teacher-education programs - gauging an institution's success by the percentage of graduates who pass state tests.

"They're going to rank every teacher-education program in every state and this is all going to be very public starting next year," Hitz says. "There are going to be enormous implications."

There is also rising concern about what might happen in Congress, which is already irate over the spotty quality of K-12 teaching. Perhaps the biggest impetus behind the ACE report was concern by the lobby group about fallout for federal funding for higher education when state-wide rankings begin appearing.

"The Senate and House are exercised over teacher education," says David Imig, president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. "That's really the impetus for this council report."

Indeed, ACE warns that "the public's impression of entire institutions will be influenced by the perceived quality of teacher education programs and graduates. If for no other reason, this reality alone justified elevating the education of teachers to a prominent position on the institutional agenda."

Many schools have gotten the message. Helen Heineman is president of Framingham State College in Massachusetts, the nation's oldest teachers college. About 20 percent of its 3,000 students are prospective teachers - a smaller number since the school beefed up academic requirements for its teaching program in the wake of the state test.

"We do have to pass that test," Dr. Heineman says. "But the most important thing [institutions] have to ask is: 'Is teaching at the center of our mission or isn't it? Put it right out in front.'"

*E-mail claytonm@csps.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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