By Joshua Benton
Over the last decade, Texas has put enormous emphasis on improving how children learn. A new report says it should pay more attention to how teachers learn.
“Quality Counts 2001,” a state-by-state school assessment released Wednesday by Education Week, gives Texas a D in its efforts to improve the quality of its teachers. A score of 66 ranks the state 36th out of 50.
The study says Texas doesn’t do enough to help new teachers adjust to the stresses of the profession and doesn’t help veteran teachers stay at the cutting edge of educational research.
The Quality Counts report is an annual study published by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Education Week, an independent newspaper.
Dallas-area school officials acknowledged that teachers need more training, but noted an opportunity: If done right, they say, teacher education is one of the easiest ways to improve the quality of instruction that students receive.
“We’ve done a lot of teacher training with elementary reading and writing, and I can definitely see the improvements in the students,” said Becky Pitzer, coordinator of staff development for the Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD.
“A man asked me once, ‘What’s the one indicator that will tell you if a teacher education program works,'” said Robert Cooter, an associate superintendent for Dallas schools. “I told him, ‘The only indicator that matters is how well are the children doing.'”
The report gave Texas higher marks in other areas, including a B in standards and accountability and a C in school climate.
The state got a D for the second straight year in improving teacher quality because it lacks several initiatives that have been applauded elsewhere. For example, Texas is among 43 states that don’t require follow-up evaluations of new teachers’ performance in the classroom in order to maintain their certification.
Texas also doesn’t provide any financial incentives for teachers to become certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Thirty-four states provide grants for national certification, which has been shown to lead to better instruction.
Texas has only 35 nationally certified teachers, according to the study. North Carolina, which offers incentives, leads the nation with more than 2,300. The Texas Legislature is set to consider a bill in the current session that would pay nationally certified teachers an extra $7,500 a year.
“There are some gaps in Texas,” said Lori Meyer, a research associate who helped put together the study.
Other flaws the study found:
*Parents are not notified when their children are being taught by someone working outside the teacher’s specialty, such as a certified math instructor teaching English.
*Districts are not required to set aside time for professional development.
Patrick Shaughnessy, spokesman for the State Board for Educator Certification, criticized the study, saying it couldn’t accurately compare programs in all 50 states. But he said the state is working to change; a bill now before the Legislature would extend a small pilot program that helps new teachers adjust to the profession, for example.
But John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, is less optimistic. “That D is being quite generous,” he said.
Mr. Cole singled out the state’s November creation of a “transitional permit,” which would allow districts to hire college graduates with no educational training and no college coursework in their teaching field.
State officials said the move will make it easier for midcareer professionals to become teachers, bringing maturity and experience into the classroom. The new teachers would be required to pass several certification exams within three years.
But Mr. Cole said the measure will put unqualified teachers in the classroom.
“Texas is the worst state that I know of in terms of making sure that the teacher in the classroom is qualified,” he said.
Mr. Shaughnessy said the rules would give superintendents flexibility in hiring. And with Texas grappling with a teacher shortage, schools must find more teachers somewhere.
Critics of the study also noted that just because the state doesn’t sponsor certain programs doesn’t mean they don’t exist locally. Dr. Cooter leads a Dallas Independent School District reading initiative that identifies “master teachers” who are used to instruct colleagues on successful methods. About 900 teachers are enrolled in the program.
In the Richardson Independent School District, all new teachers are matched up with veteran mentors selected by principals. The mentors help prepare lesson plans and teach rookies how to control their classrooms and fill out paperwork.
Lisa Casto, who runs the Richardson program, said her files are filled with dozens of paeans to mentors who made the transition to teaching less stressful.
“She listens to me cry, she listens to me pray, she always knows what to say to make the situation less intimidating,” reads one.
“I would have drowned without my mentor,” reads another.