As we begin the new school year and, in Texas, look toward the next level of school performance accountability, I believe it is important that we look beyond the test-driven accountability system, as useful as it has been, for more instructive leading indicators of progress toward excellence in public education. As Texas Education Commissioner Felipe Alanis said in a recent appearance in Houston, “it’s not about where we are, it’s about where we are going”. And I suggest we even look past the new, more rigorous Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test as such an indicator. As anyone reasonably conversant with education performance knows, the success of the students in the classroom can be directly correlated with the quality of the teacher in the classroom. This has been confirmed by numerous studies, most particularly those that focus on value added for individual students after controlling for background characteristics like socioeconomic status. What this means for those of us who are concerned about “where we are going” is that the quality of our teacher preparation system is the absolutely critical element in the enhancement of the quality of our children’s education.
So what is the quality of our teacher preparation system? For a current status report, I recommend “Meeting the Highly Qualified Teachers Challenge: The Secretary’s Report on Teacher Quality”, recently released by Secretary of Education Rod Paige. To be blunt, it isn’t a pretty picture on a national basis, and Texas is no exception. The report describes teacher preparation generally as “a broken system” that is “failing to produce the types of highly qualified teachers that the No Child Left Behind Act demands”. There are many specific criticisms in the report, the most glaring of which are the very low academic standards for teachers. For example, on one widely used teacher certification test, only one state out of 29 set its passing score near the national average (50th percentile) in reading. This is particularly discouraging when we realize that studies have consistently documented an important correlation between a teacher’s verbal and cognitive skills and student achievement, particularly in the early formative years. In my experience with reading intervention in the Houston area, I have found that almost none of the teacher preparation programs are properly preparing their teachers to teach at-risk children how to read. Over 50% of Houston area fourth graders do not read at grade level and in 129 of the Houston ISD’s 177 elementary schools, the average third grade reading level is below the 50th percentile in national norm-referenced testing. You would think that the curriculum of area colleges of education would be highly focused on the research-based methodologies that have been proven to work with these children, but, sad to say, they remain mired in the constructivist, “reading comes natural” mindset.
The Secretary’s report is especially critical of the present system of teacher certification and the degree to which it is overly beholden to the traditional route to preparation through the colleges of education with their emphasis on pedagogical instruction versus academic content. It applauds the expansion of alternative routes to certification that bypass the traditional system, but laments the fact that often these are still loaded with too many non-academic content requirements.
The No Child Left Behind Act requires that all teachers be “highly qualified” by the end of the 2005-06 school year in order for their schools to continue to qualify for Federal Title I financial assistance. The exact definition of “highly qualified” is still being refined, but there is no doubt that the bar has been raised for teacher preparation programs and, based on the current status of these programs, there is a huge challenge ahead. As a member of the Texas State Board for Educator Certification, I have more than a passing interest in this problem, but anyone who has a stake in public education—parents, taxpayers, employers, public officials—should be asking what we are doing to meet this daunting challenge. We hear a lot about the teacher quantity problem, but not enough about the quality problem. If we fail to meet this challenge, all our progress in public education accountability will have been for naught.