An estimated 52.2 million students are returning to American public and private schools this fall. And, as they do, increasing attention is being paid to their 3.1 million teachers.
It may seem like common sense, but researchers are finding that good teaching is the most significant factor in how well students learn. That's good news, because it means schools can do something about it--by hiring talented people and helping them develop top-flight skills.
But that doesn't mean it will be easy. The nation's schools may need to hire 2 million new teachers over the next decade because of retirement and growing enrollment.
The colleges that will be counted on to produce those 2 million teachers are under fire these days for turning out poorly trained graduates. Congress is expected this month to pass legislation that will add to that pressure.
The proposal would require colleges to report the percentage of graduates who pass teacher certification tests. Poor performers could then lose federal aid.
Higher education is "kicking and screaming and fighting this like crazy," said Amy Wilkens, an analyst for the Education Trust, a public interest group that supports the amendments. The teachers colleges say the provisions represent unwarranted federal intrusion and would discourage them from recruiting minority students who might score poorly.
But the amendment has gained momentum from embarrassing test results in Massachusetts, where 60% of the teacher candidates failed to pass an exam that included tasks and questions such as "Define abolish" and "What is a preposition?"
"No responsible person would subject anyone's children, much less his own, to such teachers," wrote John Silber, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education.
Wilkens said the state should be applauded on one count, though: "At least they've come clean with their data."
Aspiring Teachers Score Below Average on SAT
If schools of education try to improve their track record by raising their entrance requirements, they may have trouble filling classes.
Tuesday's report from the College Board on SAT scores showed that high school students interested in becoming teachers scored lower than those interested in most other professions.
High school seniors wanting to be teachers averaged 483 on the verbal part of the college entrance exam, 22 points below the average for all seniors. The teacher-hopefuls were 32 points behind the pack in math.
Only those interested in the fields of home economics, technical careers or public affairs trailed.
Permits for Unqualified Elementary Teachers Up 31%
When it comes to having licensed, fully trained teachers in every classroom, there's rhetoric and then there's reality. California, for example, has some of the stiffest requirements for teachers around--at least on paper.
But it also has a tremendous shortage of trained teachers--meaning that in large urban districts such as Los Angeles, it's possible to get a job with no background in education whatsoever.
Enrollments are soaring but that's only part of the problem. The biggest source of the demand for new teachers is the state's massive program to limit class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to no more than 20 students. For every two classes that shrink, a new one has to be created and a teacher hired.
The impact of that program on the teacher shortage is outlined in a report just out from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
It says that the number of emergency permits issued by the commission for unqualified teachers in elementary school rose 31% in 1997-98 from the previous year. The commission handed out 17,625 such permits, nearly triple the number it issued the year before the class size reduction effort.
It's too soon to tell whether reducing the ratio of students to teachers is helping to improve math and reading scores; a glitch in the state's testing program is holding up that analysis. But staffing such classes with rookie teachers who are themselves scrambling to figure out their job can't be helping.