BOSTON, Aug. 19 -- A growing number of states and school districts are short-circuiting the usual route to teacher certification with their own crash courses that put new teachers in the classroom after as little as three weeks.
Officials say they are driven by a severe teacher shortage, the demands of higher standards and, increasingly, concerns that traditional teacher education programs are failing and deterring talented candidates from entering the profession.
The new programs run counter to the years of course work and practice under which teachers have long been trained. In essence, they adopt the model created by Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that a decade ago bucked the education establishment by putting fresh graduates of the nation's top colleges into classrooms after brief summer training. And they have run into the same criticism among educators who say the programs gamble with the future of the poorest and most vulnerable students by giving them teachers who lack the necessary training.
The new programs are forcing a struggle over fundamental questions about what makes a good teacher, and how much of that can be taught.
The timing is both fortuitous and risky. With retirements, growing enrollments and reductions in class size, the nation's public schools will have to hire 2.5 million teachers over the next decade, about the same number of teachers now working (2.8 million). With educational options like vouchers and charter schools growing nationally, officials say there is also an increased willingness to experiment with teacher education. "The teacher education people just can't escape the idea that the college or university experience is what it takes for teachers to be successful," said Clayton Wilcox, deputy superintendent for hiring in the East Baton Rouge Parish school district, which includes the Louisiana capital. "We think we can do it better, and faster."
States have created other quick credentialing programs as emergency responses to teacher shortages. But the new programs emerge from concerns as much about quality as quantity. In some cases, policy makers express near hostility to teacher education schools and note that the best private schools do not require teacher certification.
The new shortcuts, the officials say, attract better candidates and those who are traditionally hard to recruit: men, scientists, members of minorities, those willing to teach in middle schools and high schools.
The states of Kentucky, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania and the cities of Baton Rouge, La.; Kansas City, Mo.; Kansas City, Kan.; Los Angeles and New York City have all recently started their own teacher-training programs, and legislatures in other states are considering bills that would allow them to do the same.
Schools of education have long had a reputation as the least rigorous branch of undergraduate education, with lower admissions standards and fewer graduation requirements than other professional schools. Critics say the courses spend too much time on pedagogy and not enough on content -- that is, too much on how to teach without enough on what to teach. A math major, for example, would be required to take more math courses than a math education major, whose course load might include sociology of education or theory of curriculum design.
Courses in methods of teaching might be useful for those who want to teach in elementary schools, critics say, where the focus is on teaching students to read and do basic arithmetic. But in the higher grades, teachers need to know more about the subjects they are teaching, especially since most states now require students to pass demanding tests to graduate from high school. "When teachers come through the classroom," said Michael Lane, a former Teach for America teacher who is coordinating the Massachusetts program for the Boston public schools, "a lot of it is trial by fire, and an intelligent self-reflective person can handle that. Our people are coming through with the content area expertise. You don't get that in education school."
Some education theorists, though, say it takes more than content to be a good teacher.
"People who go through teacher education learn how to look at kids, how to understand what's going to be appropriate for different kids at different ages, how people learn and how to instruct a curriculum that builds on the way people learn well and easily," said Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University and the head of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. "They learn about what's going to give kids problems and what you do about those problems."
Michael Allen, who as assistant headmaster at Hyde Park High School in Boston has overseen the prospective teachers in the shortcut program this summer, said his own time in education school gave him invaluable common sense experience. It taught him how to break down complex math concepts into lessons that students would understand, Mr. Allen said, how to talk about fractions in a way that would not make fourth graders' eyes glaze.
Nearly every state has established some alternative route to teacher certification, allowing those who do not have an undergraduate education degree to enter the profession. The first to do so, New Jersey, has trained almost 10,000 teachers over the past 15 years in a yearlong program run by local school districts. But most of those programs, like a longstanding one in Connecticut, have required prospective teachers -- anyone from a recent college graduate to a physicist with 15 years in industry -- to complete a heavy load of courses at schools of education at nights or on weekends.
Those options failed to attract significant numbers, education officials said, because the path to teaching still seemed cumbersome, many of the courses mind-numbing.
"I don't know whether I would have found the same level of professionalism, energy and maturity in a regular education school," said Diane Brancazio, a mechanical engineer who is training in the Massachusetts Institute for New Teachers, or MINT, this summer.
Another new MINT teacher, Kira Sherwood, taught in a private school where a teacher who had gone to education school, she said, told her, " 'Thank God, they didn't get you.' "
"He really felt it had done more harm than good," said Ms. Sherwood, who will teach in Boston this fall.
Teacher education programs in Massachusetts suffered a harsh blow to their reputation when 59 percent of prospective teachers failed a basic test for certification when it was first given two years ago. MINT was born out of that debacle. While it first enrolled only elite students who had won $20,000 signing bonuses, the state found that so many people were interested in a faster route to certification that it opened the program up to others, including some willing to pay to attend the summer institute.
"This will become a major source of classroom teachers for Massachusetts schools, and a source of competition with the schools of education," said Alan Safran, deputy commissioner of education for the state, where officials say MINT will train 1,000 teachers a year by 2003. "We are not shy about that, because competition will improve both the higher ed programs and the MINT program."
In most cases, the prospective teachers teach summer school in the morning, and attend class into the evening. There, they give demonstration lessons that are critiqued by other candidates, ask questions about problems they had in class, and discuss readings on theories about effective schools. At the end of the candidates' first year in the classroom, the principal of the school or a state official decides whether they have earned full certification.
"The larger issue is that this kind of power ought to be at the school level, the principals ought to be deciding who teaches well and who doesn't," said Gary Huggins, executive director of the Education Leaders Council, a group of eight aggressively reform-minded state education leaders, several of whom are looking to start state teacher education programs. "With all the talk you hear about shortages to be or shortages that exist, it's exactly the wrong time to cut off the market with overregulation that's going to block people who have no incentive to go into teaching."
The commission on teaching says, however, that its research shows that those who go through longer programs in education schools -- five years in all -- stay in the profession longer.
"You end up fooling the public that you've actually solved the teaching crisis, when in fact you've only exacerbated it," said Barnett Berry, director of state policy and partnership for the commission. "Those folks are far, far more likely to leave the classroom, and in a hurry, creating a constant revolving door for inexperienced teachers who are, according to the evidence, ending up in front of the kids who most need the best teachers."
To supporters of the new programs, length of time in the classroom is just one more element of what defines a good teacher that should be open to change.
"We've got to stop saying that this person needs to be here 30 years to make it a success," said Mr. Huggins, at the Education Leaders Council. "We should take advantage of people who say, 'I'd love to do this for four or five years and I have the heart and the ability,' and see that as a success, too."
The states and districts say they will rely more heavily on tests -- for teacher certification, and student performance -- to judge whether the new teachers succeed. But in states that are in the second year of the new programs, officials say principals are calling for more of the new recruits, which suggests they like the quality they are seeing.
Texas used to allow teachers to enter through the shortcut method only in districts where there was a shortage of teachers, but now allows them in any district. Pennsylvania also approved the program despite a glut of teacher education school candidates.
In Pennsylvania, the teachers union is suing to block the program. But in other states, the unions welcome the programs as soon as they see that the new recruits join their ranks. *********************************************** -- Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O] (618) 457-8903 [H] Fax: (618) 453-4244 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org