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Education Courses Are Not Enough

Diane Ravitch Special To The Washington Post

Last summer, a suburban school district in New York advertised for 35 new teachers and received nearly 800 applications. Officials decided to narrow the pool by requiring applicants to take the 11th grade state examination in English. Only about one-quarter of the would-be teachers answered 40 of the 50 multiple-choice questions correctly.

As Congress considers reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, teacher education has emerged as a major issue. Many states - and now President Clinton - are clamoring to reduce class size but few are grappling with the most important questions: If we are raising standards for students, don’t we also need to raise standards for teachers? Shouldn’t state and local officials make sure that teachers know whatever they are supposed to teach students?

Almost every state claims that it is strengthening standards for students but the states have been strangely silent when it comes to ensuring that teachers know what they are supposed to teach. Most instead certify anyone with the right combination of education courses, regardless of their command of the subject they expect to teach, and many states require future teachers to pass only a basic skills test.

Today, in some states, it may be harder to graduate from high school than to become a certified teacher. Something is wrong with this picture.

Last summer, the U.S. Department of Education reported that approximately one-third of the nation’s public school teachers of academic subjects in middle school and high school were teaching “out of field,” which means that they had earned neither an undergraduate major nor a minor in their main teaching field.

Fully 39.5 percent of science teachers had not studied science as a major or minor; 34 percent of mathematics teachers and 25 percent of English teachers were similarly teaching “out of field.” The problem of unqualified teachers was particularly acute in schools where 40 percent or more of the students were from low-income homes. In these schools, nearly half the teaching staff was teaching “out of field.”

Many states now routinely certify people who do not know what they are supposed to teach. No one should get a license to teach science, reading, mathematics or anything else unless he or she has demonstrated a knowledge of what students are expected to learn.

A majority of the nation’s teachers majored in education rather than an academic subject. This is troubling, even though most of those who majored in education are elementary teachers. There is a widely accepted notion that people who teach little children don’t need to know much other than pedagogical methods and child psychology; that is wrong. Teachers of little children need to be well-educated and should love learning as much as they love children. Yes, even elementary school teachers should have an academic major.

The field of history has the largest percentage of unqualified teachers. The Department of Education found that 55 percent of history teachers are “out of field,” and that 43 percent of high school students are studying history with a teacher who did not earn either a major or minor in history.

This may explain why nearly 60 percent of our 17-year-olds scored “below basic” (the lowest possible rating) on the most recent test of U.S. history administered by the federally funded National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Is it any wonder that today’s children have no idea when the Civil War occurred, what Reconstruction was, what happened during the progressive era, who FDR was, what the Brown decision decided or what Stalin did? Many of their teachers don’t know those things, either.

Many state officials say that they have an abundance of people who want to teach and that this is an excellent time to raise standards. For career-changers with a wealth of experience in business or the military, however, obsolete certification requirements get in the way.

Instead of requiring irrelevant education courses, states should examine prospective teachers for their knowledge of their academic field and then give them a chance to work in the schools as apprentice teachers.

At the nation’s colleges, education faculty should sit down with faculty from other departments, study state academic standards and figure out how to prepare teachers who know both their subject and how to teach it well. Teachers need a strong academic preparation as well as practical classroom experience to qualify for one of the toughest jobs in America.

Every classroom should have a well-educated, knowledgeable teacher. We are far from that goal today.

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