Teaching the Teachers

April 09, 1995|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,Sun Staff Writer

Catching some observers by surprise with their passion, teachers and education officials wrestled in this legislative session over the proposed independence of a state teachers' board. It was a struggle over basic questions: Who is qualified to teach in Maryland's public schools? And who is qualified to make that decision?

At a time when Maryland educational reform demands of students a new way of thinking, it follows that the state's attention is turning to how the state's 45,000 teachers teach -- and to how they are prepared to teach.

"The more we concentrated on school improvement, we realized an absolutely critical part of that is the classroom teacher," said Rochelle Clemson, assistant state superintendent for certification. "What you really want is a system that attracts the best, retains the best and filters out the worst."

Before the hearings in Annapolis ended last week, legislators heard about the merits of apprenticeships vs. college classwork. Liberal-arts vs. "clinical" training. Teachers vs. others as policy-makers.

But the debate is not new. And Maryland is hardly alone.

In school circles nationally, the buzzwords for this debate are "professional standards." The issue is quality control. It is the topic of the times for teacher unions, universities, boards of education and legislatures.

"The entire state of what we refer to as 'teacher development' is in flux," said Susan Carmon, senior policy analyst for the National Education Association.


Can good teacher training be boiled down to a recipe -- say, two parts technique, two parts academics, add dedication liberally? How much training is enough for career-changers seeking alternative routes to jobs in the classroom? Who decides?

In Maryland, teacher development decisions have been made by the state Board of Education, which is appointed by the governor and approved by the legislature. The education board is advised by a 25-member professional standards board; members are appointed by unions, education groups and politicians. Most states have a similar arrangement, but the powers of regulatory boards and the standards they set differ broadly.

For NEA members, the focus is not just on what policies are best for career development, but on who sets policies.

NEA members' goal is to nudge policy-makers toward putting greater control over standards in the hands of teachers. They are using political clout to wrest control over standards from state boards of education. State policy-makers who must share or lose those powers have proved to be formidable obstacles.

Teachers' attempts to win greater powers for Maryland's advisory board -- the Professional Standards and Teacher Education Board -- date back at least 20 years, according to the Maryland State Teachers Association, an NEA chapter.

Four years ago, a compromise was forged, with Maryland's standards board and state school board sharing decision-making. However, the school board retained -- and began using -- its veto power.

Since then, the school board has passed significant changes for licensing and training. For example, last year it required teachers to earn satisfactory work evaluations three out of every five years order to renew their licenses. The MSTA opposed that requirement, calling it a step backward. Previously, the only requirements for recertification were to pay a $10 fee and complete several hours of course work.

The state board heeded some of the standards boards' suggestions in this and other matters, but tussles continued. The old wound festered as the union again asked legislators for separate powers for the standards board.

What made 1995 different for the union was the narrow victory in November of Gov. Parris N. Glendening. The MSTA supported Mr. Glendening, a college professor who published his views in a widely distributed campaign pamphlet:

"Teachers agree that we must have standards of performance )) and responsibility. But it is education professionals -- not bureaucrats -- who can best develop these standards and demand excellence from their peers."

He backtracked for a time publicly, calling for a compromise between the union and his education department. Privately, school board and union members said, his support for the autonomous standards board never flagged.

In this year's heated debate, each board's supporters would claim that it was the more reform-minded.

Turning policy-making power over to a board influenced by the teachers' union "would seriously undermine five years of progress in school reform," Christopher T. Cross, state school board president wrote in a letter to state delegates. The power to regulate licenses and to mandate reform should be linked, not separated, he said.

"I do not consider the purpose of this board to roll back regulations," said Karl Pence, MSTA's president. He added, "The state Board of Education would do well to revisit many of the regulations it has passed."

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