Reading requirements for teachers make sense We do not have to become embroiled in ideological debates about the merits of courses vs. performance-based approaches to teacher education.

June 23, 1998|By Ralph Fessler

THE MARYLAND State Board of Education will vote tomorrow on a policy that would require elementary teachers to have 12 credits of course work in reading instruction and secondary teachers to have six. This change is a step in the right direction and should be approved.

The proposed changes were derived through careful research. The state is acting responsibly by raising standards for teachers' preparation.

Increasing the course requirements focuses on the importance of teaching reading for beginning and experienced teachers. The message to teacher education programs and school systems becomes clear: We must place greater emphasis on preparing and supporting teachers so that they are able to meet students' reading needs.

Reading is the cornerstone of all school subjects, and ample evidence shows that we must do a better job in preparing children with essential decoding, comprehension and analysis skills.

Critics of the state's proposal support a performance-based approach to the teaching of reading rather than mandatory course work. But individual courses can and should be offered in a performance-based format.

Indeed, the Maryland Redesign of Teacher Education, which is state policy, calls for a yearlong internship for aspiring teachers in which the theory and practice of teaching are merged in school settings. This is an ideal framework for the new required reading courses; they can be taught in the context of real classrooms that support application and assessment of teachers' knowledge and skills. This is happening now in a number of professional development school settings. We do not have to become embroiled in ideological debates about the merits of courses vs. performance-based approaches to teacher education.

Will requiring reading courses lead to similar requests to increase requirements for teaching other subjects? Perhaps. Such requests must be reviewed on their own merits. Mathematics and technology are prime targets for future reviews.

Opponents of the new reading requirements argue, too, that these changes will increase the cost of becoming a teacher and open the floodgates for uncertified teachers. But the proposed changes in the teacher education curriculum do not necessarily mean a longer program. All teacher education institutions will have to assess the impact of these changes on their curriculum. In many cases, the changes can be accommodated within existing degrees and structures. The key difference is that reading will have greater prominence in prospective teachers' preparation.

Employment of uncertified teachers is a growing problem. But rather than contribute to this problem, the proposed reading requirements confront it by specifying training expectations.

The requirement for experienced teachers is particularly important. Most secondary teachers have had little preparation in the teaching of reading, and elementary teachers need to be updated on recent research and practices. Courses for experienced teachers should complement their knowledge, skills and expertise.

Will this solve the reading problem in our schools? Not by itself. We need to make wise curricular choices, involve parents, expand our understanding of the reading process through research, support teachers in the workplace and address the needs of all children with appropriate instruction.

But teachers are key. We teacher educators have a professional and moral requirement to provide them with the knowledge and skills they need. Let's not get locked into an obscure debate about the merits of performance-based vs. course-based programs. The two approaches are compatible.

We need to get on with the business of improving reading instruction. The proposed changes in Maryland are an important step in that direction.

Ralph Fessler is director of the division of education at the Johns Hopkins University.

Pub Date: 6/23/98

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