Can Little Mary Learn if Teacher’s in the Dark?

Since 1970, California’s teacher-preparation programs have been shaped by the Ryan Act, which mandates that would-be schoolteachers must first earn a bachelor’s degree before taking courses in how to teach in a “fifth year” of credential study in schools of education. As undergraduates, most future elementary school teachers, for example, major in liberal studies -- a general program that includes classes in English, math, science, history, social sciences, physical education and the arts.

The thinking behind the Ryan Act was simple: Teachers need to know something before they learn how to teach. And this common-sense California idea proved a model for educational programs in other states.

But the Ryan Act has recently come under attack. Some critics say future grade-school teachers, for example, shouldn’t have to pass undergraduate math or science classes to teach at elementary and middle schools, and they needn’t take English classes in order to lead a story hour. “Content” classes, critics say, needlessly prolong teacher training and should be dropped or shortened. Instead, emphasis should be given to practical classes on how to teach.

The Ryan Act’s challengers are well- intentioned politicians seeking to remedy teacher shortages. In the 1990s, burgeoning student populations and a drive to reduce class sizes created shortages, and education schools offered everything from fast-track programs to “blended” undergraduate and credentialing classes to increase the numbers of teachers.


But today, that shortage no longer exists. Now, with a fiscal crisis and a glut of teachers, many newly trained educators can’t find jobs, and school districts across the state are laying off those already employed. Nonetheless, that news apparently hasn’t reached Sacramento, and a misguided movement to speed up California’s teacher-prep programs continues unabated.

The most recent assault on the Ryan Act is SB 81, a bill that passed the state Legislature and was signed recently by outgoing Gov. Gray Davis. The new law reduces requirements, mandating that universities create programs in which the total of undergraduate and credentialing classes fall somewhere between 120 and 135 units. Since the former system required 124 units for a bachelor’s degree and an additional 30 units in teacher education, the question is what gets cut.

Mark Shapiro, an emeritus Cal State Fullerton physics professor who writes commentary on higher education issues, predicts that content courses -- not education courses -- will be jettisoned. At Fullerton, for example, he sees as likely cuts seven classes that future teachers now take in English, math, science and the arts. Another scenario, however, is the continuation of “blended” curriculums in which content is reduced to make room for instruction in pedagogy. Either way, future teachers will spend less time learning about the subjects they are supposed to teach.

What happens when content classes get eliminated or watered down? Consider literature. Teachers who haven’t been required to read and study a rich range of writers are not likely to introduce your kids to socially significant books and classic masterpieces. Forget “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Charlotte’s Web” -- for these kinds of teachers, selecting class reading material gets narrowed to ransacking the library shelves for, say, Halloween-themed books. Even in school districts that require the use of quality literature, if future teachers aren’t taught to recognize the meanings of stories, they will perpetuate superficial reading in their students. And poor reading skills mean poor performance on state and national exams.

The reduction of units required for a teaching credential is also likely to engender turf wars between professors in sciences and the humanities and those in education about what the new teacher- preparation programs should include. The wrong kinds of questions are already being debated: “Should Johnny’s teacher know math or know how to teach math?” “Should Juanita’s teacher actually have read children’s literature or only learn how to use it?”

That these mistaken either/or questions are on the table is an immediate tragedy of the gutting of the Ryan Act. But the greater tragedy is yet to come. Though the new requirements will no doubt speed up the production of teachers, they also guarantee that the state’s next generation of teachers will know less than their predecessors. Whatever the problems of California’s schools, they won’t be solved by putting less educated teachers in the classroom.

Jerry Griswold teaches children’s literature to would-be teachers at San Diego State University and volunteers at a dual-language elementary school in Chula Vista.