Pushing to make schools better

Linking funding to teacher credentials . . . . . . could hurt the neediest the most, some say. The USA now has an official definition of ”quality teacher.” Just look in the education bill headed for a House-Senate conference committee.

The bill, considered the most sweeping blueprint for education change in 35 years, sets minimum federal standards for teachers in Title I schools — schools in high-poverty areas
that serve educationally disadvantaged students. School districts that don’t meet the standard would lose some federal funding. Both the House and Senate versions of the bill require
those teachers to:

Earn a bachelor’s degree, have a license or be certified under state law, and have an academic major in what they teach, or pass a test in their subject area if they are in high schools.

”I think it’s a good thing that there are some general criteria to say, ‘Here’s what a minimum standard for teachers should be, here’s what parents and kids should expect,’ ” says Joel Packer, lobbyist for the National Education Association. The NEA represents 2.6 million elementary and secondary teachers, college faculty, education support personnel, administrators, retired educators and students preparing to teach.

Current federal law has no requirements for teacher certification except for new teachers hired with class-size reduction funds — a program implemented under President Clinton now slated to be combined with teacher training programs.

Schools throughout the USA are struggling with a teacher shortage that has reached a crisis in many urban areas. The Department of Education projects that public schools will need 2.2 million new teachers in the next decade to offset retirements and meet the needs of a rising student population.

Compounding the teacher shortage is the inability of school leaders to find qualified replacements. For years, studies have shown that academically weak college graduates are more likely to become teachers than their higher-performing peers.

Schools of education, teachers unions, and other groups are working to reverse this trend. Meanwhile, says Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, a non-profit advocacy group for public-school children, the House version of the bill protects students and parents from poor teachers.

”If your kid is taught by a teacher who isn’t fully qualified, the school sends a note home (in the House bill). If all your kid’s teachers are fully qualified, you don’t hear from the school. That’s something I’d want to know as a parent,” Wilkins says.

The Senate version does not include such a provision. Parents would not be alerted, she notes.

Wilkins says she particularly likes the provision that teachers must have an academic major or pass a test. ”The nice thing about ‘test and major’ is that it’s some sort of outside-the school stamp of some content-area knowledge. It’s an independent endorsement of that person.”

Americans believe teacher quality is the central factor in school improvement, shows a new poll by Recruiting New Teachers Inc. and public opinion analyst Louis Harris. Eighty-nine percent of Americans rate that ensuring a well-qualified teacher in every classroom is ”very important” as a measure to lift student achievement. Teacher quality now rates statistically even with school safety (90%) as the key factor to raising performance.

”The public has no doubt about what matters most in school reform,” Harris says. ”Putting a qualified teacher in every classroom outpolls every strategy.”

Ensuring teacher quality in low-income schools is a laudable goal, but linking teacher qualifications to some federal funds may end up making it even harder to get teachers to those schools, say two members of USA TODAY’s All-USA Teacher Team who have spent most of their careers in inner-city schools.

”The premise is good, that we want only good people in classrooms. But we have to have somebody in the classroom,” says Susan Price, instructional specialist for Akron Public Schools, a district declared an ”academic emergency” by the state of Ohio.

”The government makes these demands but in some ways is creating a climate that makes it difficult to meet that demand,” says Shawn DeNight, English department chairman at Edison High, in one of Miami’s most impoverished neighborhoods. ”One day they’re going to wake up and find there’s no one teaching in their schools.”

Teacher shortages hit impoverished schools particularly hard, especially when students’ standardized test scores are used to grade or judge schools and districts, Price and DeNight say. When schools are pegged as low-achieving because of these test scores — and teachers know they’ll be judged by these scores — it gets harder to hire and keep good teachers, they say.

”Once in a while, a prospective graduate says, ‘Oh, I’d really like to work in an inner-city school.’ But the more prevalent requirement is ‘I’m not going to be stuck in a bad school,’ ” where students start out so far behind that even if they’re brought up several grade levels, they still might not pass the standardized tests, DeNight says. He had to fill a midyear English department vacancy with an uncertified substitute math teacher because no one else would take the job.

Years ago, new teachers would often start at rural or inner-city schools before slots opened up in suburban schools, DeNight says. Now, new graduates can find jobs in the suburbs or in the private sector.

”Some of these new English majors are making $30,000, and they’re weighing that against other options. Often, those other options look more and more appealing.”

Price, a former Christa McAuliffe Fellowship winner who trains entry-level teachers, sees many newcomers who are totally committed to teaching in low-income areas but quickly find themselves overwhelmed by their students’ needs. Many students bring in societal problems that teachers have no control over but have to deal with because those problems affect learning, she says.

”They work as hard as they can to make a difference. But the (standardized) scores come back, and it looks as if nothing has happened all year, when we know a lot has happened. It’s totally defeating. They’ll say, ‘I’m dying here. I can’t do it anymore.’

Both teachers compare teaching in impoverished areas to mission work. DeNight, who has a Ph.D. and certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, loves teaching at Edison and says many of his colleagues also are there because they want to be there and they believe in what they’re doing.

But even if half the staff has missionary zeal, he says, these schools need something to offer the other half. He and Price both believe improving teacher pay would help.

”So much of the legislation is more punitive than it is helpful,” DeNight says. ”It’s ‘If you don’t do this, this is what’s going to happen,’ instead of ‘How can we help you do your job better?’ ”