Gloria Romero is the California director of Democrats for Education Reform and formerly served in the California Legislature, chairing the Senate Education Committee.

Viewpoints: Stronger teacher preparation needed to improve schools

Published: Wednesday, Jun. 19, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 11A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jun. 19, 2013 - 8:14 am

We Californians like to think our state is the national leader in policy change and innovation, that new ideas are born here and other states follow our lead.

In one area, I am sad to say, that is not the case.

California is short-selling too many of its public school students because of education programs that inadequately prepare the next generation of teachers. A new review from the National Council on Teacher Quality that evaluates educational institutions, state by state, produced some sobering results for anyone who cares about what's going on inside California schools of education.

Among the more disturbing findings from the institutions that provided data:

• Half of 72 programs for elementary school preparation failed the evaluation, a higher failure rate than programs in any other state.

• California's secondary certification structure combined with inadequate coursework requirements, particularly in the sciences and social sciences, showed that only 17 percent of programs adequately prepared secondary teaching candidates in core subjects. That compared with 34 percent nationally.

• Coursework in a majority (63 percent) of California elementary programs did not mention a single strategy for teaching reading to English language learners.

• Of the 139 elementary and secondary programs that were evaluated on a four-star rating system, 33 programs earned no stars and only three earned as many as three. Not a single program earned four stars.

These findings put California's public school academic performance in a new light, providing a plausible reason why so many kids lag behind their peers in other states and countries. We've spent decades debating one reform after another, but almost always with a focus inside pre-K-through-12 classrooms. Maybe we should be looking inside classrooms elsewhere.

The biggest problem arising from teaching institutions is that education consumers, particularly school district supervisors, have no idea whether one school is preparing teachers to be any more effective than another. In large measure, these schools interpret their missions as they choose, following no prescribed "industrywide" standards that would allow for comparison shopping. Will a novice teacher from School A do any better than a novice teacher from School B? Who knows? We have no quality control, and the institutions are accountable to no one for the context of their curricula and methods.

That does a huge disservice to public school districts, which are always eager to hire the best and the brightest, and to the parents of school-age children, who can never be sure how the skills and qualifications of one instructor might compare with another.

No magic wand is going to create an industry of teaching schools that provide every answer school districts and parents need for making informed decisions. But a market economy based on transparency would lead to consumer choices that force change.

The National Council on Teacher Quality has developed a series of strategies for policymakers that would strengthen teacher preparation schools. They are designed to draw the schools into an alignment that would provide consumers more confidence in the next generation of teachers. Among the recommendations: Raise admission standards to attract more qualified teacher candidates; raise licensing requirements so new teachers have to demonstrate higher levels of skills and knowledge; hire trained school superintendents to assess teacher prep programs through random visits; limit hiring in areas of oversupply (such as elementary school teachers); reduce tuition for teachers in areas of need (such as science, math and special needs); base state funding on the quality of the prep program.

These are common-sense, easy-to-adopt reforms that would go a long way toward standardizing the teacher prep industry with little budgetary impact. Not all teaching programs would embrace reform, but it would soon become apparent to consumers which ones have, and the market would take care of the rest. Programs eager to improve would thrive – with better applicants, better courses, a higher percentage of graduate hires. Others might merge in an effort to improve, and the resisters would be forced to shut down for a lack of applicants.

California has, by far, more kids in elementary and secondary public schools than any other state, nearly 6.2 million. Thirty-three states have fewer people than that.

So we have a huge responsibility. Our teaching schools have to be the best. Every classroom needs to be led by a teacher who has all the available tools to prepare children for the rigors of a fast-growing global marketplace where quality education is the key to job security and family stability.

We've spent lots of time trying to improve our public school classrooms. Now it's time to try to improve our teaching school classrooms. Here in California, we have too much at stake to let the opportunity pass.

Gloria Romero is the California director of Democrats for Education Reform and formerly served in the California Legislature, chairing the Senate Education Committee.

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