Course requirements for reading teachers are not the answer

June 17, 1998|By Willis D. Hawley

THE MARYLAND Board of Education is considering a policy that would require elementary- and middle-school teacher candidates to take 12 credit hours in reading. The same requirement would apply to experienced teachers. Those who teach high school students would have to pass two reading courses.

The goal here -- ensuring that all teachers are able to teach their students to read -- is beyond dispute. For a number of reasons, however, the proposed requirements are unwise.

First, the proposed requirements conflict with state policies that focus on standards and accountability rather than on educational processes. The wisdom of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program is its emphasis on outcomes. recent years, the Maryland Higher Education Commission, the University of Maryland Board of Regents, the governor and the state school board have endorsed the idea that teachers should be licensed to teach on the basis of what they know and are able to do rather than on the basis of the number of courses they have taken. This approach to teacher licensure, known as performance-based teacher education, is endorsed by most national organizations concerned with the preparation of teachers and by Maryland's teacher educators. The proposed course requirements abandon the emphasis on performance assessment and call for practices in teacher preparation that retreat from the consensus about best practice in teacher education.

Second, while it is appropriate for the state to prescribe what teachers should know and be able to do, it is not appropriate for the state to define the curricula of universities and colleges. During the past legislative session, the state board opposed the so-called "phonics bill" on the grounds that the legislature should not prescribe the content of school courses or methods of instruction.

It is equally inappropriate for the board to prescribe curriculum content in colleges and universities. It is educationally unwise because the learning needs and abilities of prospective teachers differ, faculty expertise varies and knowledge about best practice continually changes.

Moreover, current best practice often involves the integration of the subject content. For example, research shows that students can learn to read effectively while improving their knowledge of science or social studies. Specifying the content of particular courses for teaching reading, as the board is considering, is inconsistent with effective practice.

Third, specifying reading course requirements and course content in state policy will lead to increased demands for similar action in other subjects. Maryland students are not as proficient as they need to be in mathematics. Why would one require specific courses in reading for prospective teachers and not in mathematics?

Fourth, the proposed requirements will increase the costs, in time and money, that teacher candidates must pay to become teachers. This will decrease the supply of teachers, especially among those who have limited economic resources and other opportunities. This policy would put more provisionally certified teachers in our classrooms, especially in classrooms serving low-income students. Evidence shows that such unqualified teachers put students at risk of learning failure.

Fifth, the requirement that experienced teachers take additional course work in reading, no matter what their expertise in teaching reading, is troublesome. It applies equally to excellent reading teachers and those with inadequate capabilities. It will alienate our best teachers by placing unwarranted time and financial demands on them. Our "Teachers of the Year" and national board-certified teachers of reading will be required to take courses they have the qualifications to teach.

The proposed regulations requiring all teacher candidates, as well as all current teachers, to take state-defined courses will not ensure good teaching for all students. They would set inappropriate precedents, undermine the professional development of both prospective and experienced teachers and increase the costs of becoming and being a teacher. Trying to solve educational problems by requiring all teacher candidates to take the same specific courses is not uncommon; it has not been successful in the past.

The state board should join with teacher educators and expert reading teachers to develop standards and assessments that will guarantee that all teachers are competent to teach reading.

Willis D. Hawley is dean of the college of education at the University of Maryland College Park.

Pub Date: 6/17/98

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