Urgent lesson for education schools

Trudi Reinhard is working hard to finish her two-year post-baccalaureate teaching program at Framingham State College in Massachusetts.

For her, the high stakes and tension are barely tolerable. She works two jobs, is finishing up courses, and studying for the coming state teacher test.

"I get up at six. I work two jobs. I study. I go to bed at 11," she says. "That's my life. I'm not going to fail the test. I can't afford to."

This is just the sort of urgency some hope to create among the recruits rising through the ranks of US teachers colleges.

A new wave of education reform aimed at creating better teachers is crashing onto America's once-placid education-school campuses. And in the churning that follows, education schools that can't produce graduates who read and write well - and can teach specifics like English, math, or chemistry with authority - may be swept away.

As evidence mounts that the most important factor by far in student achievement is having a good teacher, the nation's 1,200 teachers' colleges are suddenly under intense public pressure to produce much better-qualified teachers - or close their doors.

More than computers in the classroom, or parent educational background, or income, or language, or race - it is the quality of teachers that has the single biggest impact on student performance, according to a shelf-full of studies examining school districts in states including Texas, Alabama, and New York.

Parents have long known the effect a good teacher can have on education. They inevitably yearn for teachers like the ones who made history or math come alive for them - or who can at least send home a note without misspellings.

In the past year, pressure has been coming from all sides to find inspiring teachers like the ones parents remember. The nation will need 2 million new teachers in the next decade to replace those retiring. Everyone from President Clinton, to governors, to business executives is calling for a dramatic rethinking of how new teachers are produced.

In a report last month, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities said education schools should be given five years to fix their problems and meet higher state standards or be forced to close.

One way states are gauging progress is testing. Thirty-eight states now require teacher hopefuls to pass a competency test, a shift that began in the 1980s. Massachusetts has gone a step further in requiring its nearly 59 colleges that offer teacher-education programs to have 80 percent pass rates on a state competency test by 2001, or be decertified.

The first test for new teachers taken in Massachusetts last April shocked the public - and the teaching schools - when 59 percent of education graduates flunked.

"Idiots," groaned Massachusetts Speaker of the House Thomas Finneran. "An indictment of Massachusetts and an indictment of this nation."

Only three universities had overall pass rates higher than 80 percent in 1998. Scores have generally been trending up in the tests administered since last April. Not fast enough for many, however.

Take, for example, Framingham State, where teacher education in America was born. The school's long tradition of producing teachers began when education-reformer Horace Mann founded it 160 years ago. Today, more than 600 of 4,300 students at the liberal-arts college are studying to be teachers.

Framingham State's scores on the last four state tests put it about middle of the pack. Among students who took the test in January, 75.3 percent passed the reading and writing portions, but only 47.2 percent passed tests in their subject areas. The overall pass rate among 21 students who took all parts of the test was 52.4 percent.

Joseph Caruso, chairman of Framingham State's education department, says the school is raising standards and is confident it will survive. Next year it will raise the GPA requirement for those entering teacher training to 2.75 from 2.5. "Higher hurdles have been set here," he says. "Some borderline students have dropped out. In a sense, it has made our job easier. On the other hand, we've had some bright students say it's not worth the trouble."

Making teacher education a top priority on campus is high on the lists of many governors, too.

Under Jim Hunt, North Carolina's education governor, the state has imposed higher standards for entry into its education schools. It requires a year-long internship in the classroom prior to graduation. It also has among the highest score requirements using the well regarded Praxis teacher-certification exams.

Governor Hunt is encouraging more partnerships between education schools and local school districts so that majors spend much more time inside K-12 classrooms observing master teachers - and actually teaching - long before senior year.

Under that plan, Deanna Jones is thriving. A double major in mathematics education and statistics, she is just the sort of recruit the state is looking for. Even though she is only in her first year, the teaching program at North Carolina State University in Raleigh already has arranged for her to be tutoring several hours a week at a Raleigh high school.

"It may be just tutoring, but I love the feeling of being already involved in a school," she says.

Getting better, more motivated students into the classroom early is something hundreds of programs nationwide are reportedly starting to do. But for those that lag on ensuring quality, there's always the alternative: federal prodding.

The Higher Education Act of 1998 requires every state to produce "report cards" on the quality of teacher-preparation programs before the end of 1999. Under the act, states seeking federal funds for popular programs like Pell Grants must identify "low-performing" programs. These may be barred from receiving such funding.

Some reforms are needed, agrees Nell Noddings, a longtime professor of education at Stanford University and more recently at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York.

But to her, testing teachers to ensure a firm grasp of the material still won't gauge the intangibles that make a great teacher. That, she says, is fundamentally a matter of motivation - what drives a teacher.

"When teachers care deeply about the individual growth and welfare of their students, that's a big first step," she says. Many people think she means "fuzzy feelings," but she says they're wrong. Her response: "Caring implies competence."

*Send e-mail comments to claytonm@csps.com

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