New teachers’ grasp of material criticized; Federal report stresses subject mastery over classroom technique

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Too many teachers make it into American classrooms without knowing the material they’re teaching, according to a new report issued by the U.S. Department of Education.

“Smart teachers with solid content knowledge have the greatest effect on student achievement,” said Rod Paige, the secretary of education and former Houston superintendent. “States and universities must take heed and act now to bring more of these people into our nation’s classrooms.”

The 78-page report on raising teacher quality neatly summarizes one side of a long-standing debate that is likely to grow louder in coming years as states try to fill thousands of teaching vacancies. The central question: How much does the traditional way of training teachers help children learn?

Mr. Paige and his supporters believe that colleges of education spend too much time on classroom management and teaching techniques and not enough on things such as math, literature and science.

“Too many education programs require too much focus on theory,” Mr. Paige said.

Tuesday’s report criticizes states for setting low standards for new teachers on how much they know of the subject they’ll be teaching. In Maine, for example, prospective teachers can score worse than 93 percent of test-takers on a basic reading exam and still be certified to teach.

A corollary to Mr. Paige’s belief holds that if an average adult knows a subject well, he can be made into a successful teacher with a relatively brief training course, not the standard four or five years at a traditional college of education.

The report calls for states to make it easier for professionals to switch to a career in education through alternative certification programs.

“We must tear down barriers preventing talented men and women from entering the teaching profession,” Mr. Paige said.

The other side of the debate, led by national teachers organizations, says that promoting the traditional path for teachers is essential for students to learn. Teachers put into a classroom after only a couple of months of training can never match someone with a full background in pedagogy and classroom methods, teachers groups say.

“Claims that inexperienced college grads can be as successful as formally trained teachers are insulting and demeaning to qualified members of the teaching profession,” said Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, in response to Tuesday’s report.

Both sides cite research to support their contradictory positions.

In Texas, the report’s recommendations have been in place to varying degrees for some time. That’s not surprising because many of the most prominent leaders of federal education policy – President Bush, Mr. Paige, Bush adviser and former Dallas school board President Sandy Kress – are Texans.

“Basically, what the report recommends are all the programs Texas has already adopted,” said Pat Porter, director of the office of accountability at the State Board for Educator Certification.

To ensure that teachers know their subject areas, Texas requires high school teachers to have majored in the subjects they plan to teach to be certified.

“If your child’s teacher graduated from a Texas university and is certified, I’d feel very confident he or she knows enough about the subject to be an effective teacher,” said Jean Keller, dean of the college of education at the University of North Texas.

She said state regulations limit the amount of a future teacher’s college education that can be spent in educational theory classes so that more time can be spent in academic subjects.

Most alternative certification programs pre-test teaching candidates in their subjects. And all new teachers, no matter what path they’ve chosen, must take the ExCET, the state’s standardized test for teachers. It covers the subjects that teachers plan to teach.

“It’s a rigorous test,” said Betty Wheeler, coordinator of teacher preparation and certification at the Region 10 Education Service Center in Richardson. “If they can pass that, along with the other requirements we have in place, these teachers know the material.”

It’s about to get more rigorous: This fall, the State Board for Educator Certification will introduce the successor test to the ExCET, the Texas Examinations of Educator Standards.

That test will closely follow the new curriculum standards set for Texas schoolchildren, in theory assuring that the material that students will be expected to learn will match what teachers will know how to teach.

“We’re expecting a drop in passing rates because it will be harder,” Ms. Porter said.

Texas was one of the first states to adopt an alternative certification program, in 1985. Sixteen percent of the state’s new teachers reach the profession through alternative certification, one of the nation’s highest rates.

And unlike many alternative certification programs, which can still take several years, Texas programs are generally quite speedy. A Texan can be in charge of a classroom three or four months after expressing interest in becoming a teacher.

“If a person has the content, we can usually teach the pedagogy for them to be successful in the classroom,” said Kathy Loonam, director of Region 11’s teacher preparation program in Fort Worth and an employee of Mr. Paige’s alternative certification program when he was Houston superintendent.