There is a lot of talk these
days about "highly qualified teachers." One of the goals of the federal No Child
Left Behind legislation is that every class be led by a highly qualified
teacher. It is possible to argue about how that portion of the act has been
implemented, but I do not think anyone would argue with the basic premise that
our nation’s young people need good teachers.
So, the real question is, How
do we get more of them? How does a teacher become highly qualified? The federal
government has defined a highly qualified teacher as one who has a bachelor’s
degree; full state certification or licensure; and proven knowledge of each
subject they teach. Teachers in middle and high school must prove that they know
the subject they teach with credits equivalent to a major or passing a state
My personal definition differs
a bit from the federal definition in that I would specify that for highly
qualified teachers, the "full state certification" must include rigorous content
preparation; equally rigorous preparation in learning theory and pedagogy; and
in-depth field experiences, all provided by an accredited institution.
Institutions accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher
Education must demonstrate that their students are accomplished in all of these
areas, as well as demonstrate that their graduates positively impact student
learning. Institutions purporting to prepare teachers but lacking any of these
key components do not pass muster among their peers.
In my childhood, my mother
looked for the Good Housekeeping Seal as a signal of quality in household
products. A variety of studies show teacher preparation that occurs in
accredited programs brings similar assurance.
definitional specificity is necessary because of the movement afoot to "remove
barriers to teaching," and to consider individuals certified whose only
preparation is the ability to pass a multiple-choice test on content and
teaching methods. This is akin to asking me to study for a multiple-choice test
on biology and types of medical equipment, then sending me off to the emergency
room to learn nursing on the job. I might be able to be helpful in handing out
supplies, but I would hardly be considered a "highly qualified" nurse.
However, I might attend a
high-quality nursing program that takes a form different from traditional
programs. Perhaps I might attend night classes and spend my weekends in
supervised activities in the emergency room. When I graduated from such a
program, I could be a well-qualified professional.
Similarly, some individuals
prepared in so-called alternative programs are highly qualified, and some are
not. When those programs are associated with accredited teacher preparation
programs, we have quality control. At Eastern Michigan University, our
post-baccalaureate certification students follow requirements equal in rigor to
our undergraduates. Other rigorous alternative programs prepare similarly
qualified teachers who earn bona fide teaching credentials. In fact, one study
of Teach for America graduates that has been cited as evidence supporting
minimizing teacher preparation can be seen to do the opposite. In that study, a
majority of the TFA candidates had gone on to complete full certification
requirements. It is a tragic truth that they had a higher rate of certification
than the novice "teachers" to whom they were compared. According to the study by
Decker and Glazerman, it’s not surprising that those who had more preparation to
be teachers were more effective in their classrooms.
High quality alternative
preparation can be a good thing. However, not all alternative programs are
created equal. I do not believe that an individual who has a few weeks of
preparation — or worse yet, no preparation beyond taking a test — can be called
highly qualified by any reasonable observer. Preparation in one facet — content
without pedagogy, pedagogy without content, or either of these without field
experiences — is "partially qualified," rather than "highly qualified."
Why, then, if schools of
education are preparing highly qualified teachers, do we continue to have
students who fail in schools? While it would be nice to have a simple one-reason
answer to that question, the truth is more complex. Students fail in schools for
a host of reasons. One of them is that the students most in need of highly
qualified teachers are least likely to get them. We do not have a crisis in
teacher preparation in this country; we have twin crises of teacher distribution
and retention. We are not preparing sufficient teachers to meet the needs in
high-demand areas such as math, science and special education. In many cases,
these shortages occur because individuals with skills in shortage areas have
many other employment options, which typically include higher pay and more
respect. In many institutions, including my own, high-quality post-baccalaureate
programs are helping to ease some of those shortages by giving math and science
professionals the preparation needed to succeed at teaching.
We also have terrible
distribution problems across districts and buildings. Our neediest schools
sometimes serve as de facto training grounds for teachers who put in a few years
and then move on to schools with better facilities, better pay and fewer
challenges. Worse yet, our most challenging schools are those most likely to be
staffed by those teachers with little or no preparation. Addressing these issues
will require a concerted national effort, resources and will. They will not be
solved by minimizing the criteria for becoming a teacher, but rather by ensuring
substance and rigor across both traditional and alternative preparation options.
As I contemplate the expertise
our new teachers bring to the field, I often think, as the old television ads
might state, "This is not your mother’s teacher preparation program." Education
classes today are not those remembered by my Baby Boomer colleagues. In my own
preparation, long ago and far away, I experienced one of the best programs
available at the time. But I did not major in a content area, as students do
today. And when I was learning to be a teacher, our knowledge of teaching and
learning was more limited. Our students of education are more knowledgeable than
I was about learning theory and motivation, lesson strategies that maximize
understanding and assessing student learning in ways that support instruction.
While no human being can be prepared for every need in today’s complex
classrooms, Eastern Michigan University graduates — undergraduate and
post-baccalaureate — by any definition, are highly qualified. I am proud to send
them out to our nation’s schools.
Alane J. Starko, Ph.D. is interim dean of the College of Education at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Mich.