Teacher training comes under scrutiny Criticism: Reading is far from fundamental in schools that educate would-be educators.

August 23, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IT'S BEEN A LOUSY summer for the nation's teacher-education schools.

One report after another describes their failure to teach the critical skills of reading. The reading professors feel besieged and unfairly criticized.

It's so bad that both sides in the Great Reading Wars agree on one thing: Teacher preparation in reading is a failure. Too much phonics, say whole language proponents. No, far too little, say phonics advocates.

Nor did it help when half of the aspiring teachers in Massachusetts this summer flunked a certification exam not once, but twice.

The astonishing fact is that many schools require no more than a single three-credit course in reading instruction for would-be teachers, and some states, including Maryland, require but one reading course for teacher licensing. Sending a new teacher into a school with so little knowledge of reading is like sending a new physician into a clinic with no idea of how the heart works.

So now, all over the map, we see colleges and states stiffening requirements.

Prompted by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland took a number of steps last month to reform reading instruction. Among other actions, the State Board of Education increased from one to four the number of reading courses required of aspiring elementary teachers.

In the long run, state officials will develop "performance tests" that would leave course work up to the colleges but hold them accountable for their graduates' competency. And experienced teachers, to be recertified, will have to prove through these tests they've mastered the teaching of reading.

Such "performance assessment" is the buzz-phrase in education these days. The education schools and Maryland State Teachers Association wanted Maryland to take that route immediately. But Maryland has been sputtering along on the road to teacher-education reform for years, and more years will go by before a genuine performance program is in place.

Counting credits, which is what Maryland is doing by increasing course requirements, is easy, but will it produce better reading teachers? Many good teachers will be just as good with one course as with four, and many bad teachers will be just as incompetent with four (assuming they can pass them) as with one.

But it stands to reason that under the tougher requirements, fewer teachers will enter classrooms with little exposure to the information they need to teach reading. The need to act now is urgent, Grasmick said. The only question is why it took so long, why the status quo was so sacred for so many years.

Texas, where Gov. George W. Bush is earning a solid reputation in education, is further along the road. Not only is the state increasing the number of courses in reading required of aspiring teachers, it also is clamping down on future reading teachers and those who educate them.

In Texas, teacher licensing exams will have to focus more on reading instruction, and schools that lag behind will be disciplined in an approach not unlike Maryland's school "reconstitution" process.

Starting next month, all teacher-education schools in Texas that do not have a 70 percent passing rate on the licensing exam will be put on probation. After three years of poor performance, a college or university loses the right to certify teachers. A recent report said at least 19 teacher-education programs in Texas were in the category of having three years of poor performance.

Even now, Maryland's showing would be not nearly so bad. Most of the state's schools required more than one reading course of elementary education majors before the state board acted. The state's education colleges are innovating with "professional development schools," where aspiring teachers and their professors work side by side in real classrooms.

But there's much work to be done before Maryland can claim bragging rights in reading education.

Pub Date: 8/23/98

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