A theme common to all of the recent studies on American schooling is criticism of the caliber of new teachers entering the classroom. So last month when the Council of Chief State School Officers urged states to pass teacher certification laws that do not require prospective teachers to take undergraduate education courses, the step was hailed as the second most important reacommendation (after raising teacher salaries) likely to draw new talent into the classroom.
The council represents the chief state school officers of the 50 states and six other US jurisdictions. The chief state school officers, through the state education agencies they direct, are responsible for certifying classroom teachers.
Gov. Thomas H. Kean (R) of New Jersey not only agrees with but is ahead of the council. His state is the first to adopt major legislation that permits graduates of accredited universities and colleges to teach in the state's elementary and secondary schools without first taking college-level education courses in a teacher-training program. A district-monitored intership would substitute for teacher-training courses.
Governor Kean, himself a former teacher, says it is imperative to provide qualified teachers: "In the decade ahead, we estimate that fully half of all New Jersey's current teachers will retire or seek other employment," he told participants at the National Forum on Excellence in Education, held in Indianapolis earlier this month.
The fact that "57 percent of the new students in New Jersey public colleges' education programs scored less than 400 on the verbal SAT [Scholastic Aptitude Tests, 800 maximum and 200 minimum], and 47 percent of them scored less than 400 on the math section" were, he said, catalysts in the state's decision to permit alternative teacher certification.
"These [scores] are far below the averages of all New Jersey college-bound students. We cannot allow the academically deficient to teach our children."
New Jersey officials make it clear they are not trying to close down teacher-training programs. They see salary improvements, maintenance of professional morale, and training of teachers, once they are on the job, as important as alternative certification.
"Certified is not synonymous with qualified," says Leo Klagholz, director of teacher preparation and certification for the New Jersey Department of Education. "Why can't the local school district, rather than the teacher college, provide the initial contact?" he asks. In New Jersey, the local district now can.
Two other states, California and Virginia, have also recently passed legislation allowing alternative teacher certification.
In California, a law similar to the New Jersey statute gives local school districts the right to fill empty positions in subject areas where a shortage of certified teachers exists -- especially math and science -- with instructors who have not yet taken education courses. For permanent certification, these teachers must take education courses from an accredited college or university within three years of securing a teaching position.
"We would rather have somebody who knows the subject of math very well than have a certified PE [physical education] teacher retreaded to meet a certification requirement," says California state Sen. Gary K. Hart (D), a proponent of the legislation.
New Jersey has formed a panel of 11 nationally known educators who will meet Jan. 10-11 to answer two questions: What is essential for beginning teachers to know? And how do effective teachers teach? Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, will head the panel and write its final report. The state is seeking' guidelines to ensure that its efforts to expand the pool of teacher candidates do not, in effect, simply lower existing entrance standards.
The policy statement adopted by the chief school officers put on alert the some 1,330 college and university teacher-training programs around the US to improve the quality of their graduates. It also recognized that in most states it would take major changes in statutes and regulations to open the classroom to a wider range of teacher candidates.
The commitment to quality education is by no means dormant in colleges of teacher education. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has reported that 94 percent of the schools of education in the United States implemented one or more measures to improve the quality of teacher candidates during the past five years. Among the improvements have been raising entry requirements and making the curriculum more rigorous.
The major concern about alternative certification from those who run teacher-training programs is that the new candidates will be too narrow. "The state has a compelling interest to maintain quality in the teaching profession," says Ron Joekel, associate dean of education at the University of Nebraska. Can you have good teachers by just showing them the one, two, or three best ways to teach a subject or handle a disruptive student? "Not likely," says Dr. Joekel.
The emergency shortage of qualified math and science teachers in large part prompted the actions of New Jersey and California. The shortage, in turn, is exacerbated by the severe salary differentials between the teaching profession and business and industry for recent college graduates with math and science degrees. Without better pay, this supply-and-demand pinch, says Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, "is not going to go away, whether or not districts or university education departments give certification."