A national push for teaching standards

Clinton plan: Improving the quality of classroom teachers through voluntary licensing.

February 22, 1999

POLLS SHOW the public wants the federal government to help improve the quality of public schools. Yet each time the Clinton administration suggests an initiative, crit- ics issue warnings about the loss of local control.

The familiar drama was played out last week after Education Secretary Richard W. Riley proposed a uniform system for qualifying teachers nationwide.

The idea is a good one. Research shows teacher quality varies dramatically between states and even school districts. In Baltimore, for instance, 17 percent of teachers are not certified compared with 6 percent statewide.

Thirty-eight states, including Maryland, require teachers to pass a test or performance review to obtain state certification. But while some licensing requirements are stringent, others are lax. For example, Maryland is one of the few states requiring its teachers to take reading courses.

Yet state tests and licensing requirements offer little protection against unqualified teachers. Several states routinely change the required "pass rate" to guarantee that an adequate supply of teachers qualify. And school districts frequently get around licensing requirements by hiring uncertified teachers.

The Clinton plan calls for phasing out the use of uncertified teachers by 2004. It would set up a three-tier system for licensing teachers with compensation tied to each educator's license, skills and experience. New teachers determined to be unsuitable would be advised early on.

At a time when students are asked to meet tough new performance standards, we must ensure their teachers are competent. By setting voluntary national standards, the federal government can help articulate what is expected of teachers.

Unfortunately, that's not the way Mr. Clinton's critics see it. They question why teachers from California to Maryland should be encouraged to meet the same qualifications.

Two obvious answers: In today's mobile society, teachers -- like students -- frequently cross state lines. States including Maryland don't know precisely what they are getting when they accept other states' certifications for relocating teachers. National licensing standards would clear up the confusion.

Additionally, standard licensing requirements would send a clear message about the training needed from the colleges that educate future teachers.

No one expects Mr. Clinton's proposal to pass this year. But it is igniting a valuable national debate about what makes a good teacher -- and whether those qualities vary from state to state.

Pub Date: 2/22/99

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