The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Benevolence alone will not make a teacher, nor will learning alone do it.  The gift of teaching is a peculiar talent, and implies a need and a craving in the teacher himself."... ...John Jay Chapman.

Commentary of the Day - May 6, 2003:  A Reply to "Yet Another Attempt to Lower Teacher Preparation Standards in California".  Guest commentary by Perry Marker.

Why is it that when it comes to teacher education everyone is an "expert?"  I read Dr. Shapiro's comments on the "lowering teacher preparation standards", and frankly I was left, to quote our current President, in  "shock and awe."

I was shocked by the fallacious assumption Dr. Shapiro makes in his article "the Ryan Act helped to ensure that most new California teachers were reasonably well prepared."  The fact is, the Ryan Act has cleared the way for thousands of teachers to enter the classroom with very little, if any courseware preparation in their major field of study.  Under the Ryan Act and the subsequent legislation that has followed in its wake, if a person wants to be credentialed to teach history in a California high school but has an undergraduate degree in business, a teacher candidate need not take any or in many cases a very small amount of course work, far short of a major in history.

Rather, they simply need to pass a standardized subject matter test - California Subject Examination Test (CSET).  This test supposedly addresses subject matter competency in history and the social sciences (currently there are CSET exams in math, science, English and soon, in every subject area taught in middle and high schools).  If teacher candidates pass the CSET and successfully complete a single subject teacher credential program, they can be qualified to teach the social sciences or any other subject area in which they pass the CSET.  While these tests are not easy to pass, the fact remains that there is a significant percentage of teachers credentialed in math. science, English, and the social sciences each year in California who have taken only a few, if any, courses in the subjects they teach (at some institutions as many as 33% of the students take the CSET examination in their subject area).  As is true with all standardized tests that purport to be global measures, there are serious questions about the validity and reliability of a test as a singular and accurate measure of the knowledge teachers need to teach their subject area.  I have known many students to pass a subject area examination who have taken the equivalent of 2 or 3 courses in the subject they wish to teach, and some who passed the examination who taken no substantial courses in their chosen area to teaching.  As teacher educators, we are defenseless against these injustices that the standardized tests, supported by the Ryan Act, supports.  Where is the concern over this issue?

My awe quickly turned to astonishment as I read Dr. Shapiro's claim that "the California teacher shortage is over."  Recent figures from the California State Department of Education indicate that in the next decade, we will need 300,000 new teachers in California.  And, demographers are projecting that the population of California will increase from its current 31 million to over 50 million by 2021.  This means more children will need to be educated and more teachers will be needed to do the job. It is estimated that in less than five years time we will need to build the equivalent of one school per week to address the future demand for education in California. Rather than being over, the shortage of teachers in California is just beginning. The current budget crisis that has resulted in "pink slipping" tens of thousands of teachers is not an indicator of the end to the teacher shortage, rather, it is an indicative of California's and our larger society's misplaced priorities. In California, we are currently spending more money per year on prisons than on higher education, and our national government is spending over 100 billion on a war of aggression; all this while teachers in public schools and universities throughout California and the country are being laid off and their students are being denied their fundamental right to a high quality education.

SB81 is important legislation that seeks to improve the quality of our future teachers, while at the same time providing students who are seeking a teaching credential and a college degree to do so concurrently. It provides a unique opportunity for professors in teacher education and the academic majors to work collaboratively toward providing prospective teachers with a first-class education in their subject area, as well as in the essential courses in teaching pedagogy.  States all over our country have had similar programs in place for decades and have not reported lower standards in teacher preparation as a result of such programs.  While SB81 is not perfect, it does address the urgent need for well-educated, committed students, who as they enter higher education, have decided that they wish to dedicate their lives to a career in teaching.

If Dr. Shapiro has concerns regarding improving teacher preparation in California, I suggest he stop placing obstacles in the way of genuine reform and focus on the following:

  • eliminating all standardized subject matter preparation examinations such as CSET.  Not only are these examinations questionable as to their content and validity, the examinations are providing significant barriers to teacher credential candidates who are not skilled test takers.
  • requiring secondary teachers who wish to teach a subject to have completed course work that is the equivalent of a major in their subject area.
  • working with teacher educators to provide a high quality program for prospective elementary and secondary teachers to earn a bachelor's degree and a teaching credential concurrently.
Instead of sniping at teacher educators, all of us in higher education need to work together toward preparing the best possible teachers’ California.  Our children deserve no less.

©2003, Perry Marker
Perry M. Marker is Professor and Chair of the Department of Curriculum Studies and Secondary Education, in the School of Education at Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California.

The IP replies:  Professor Marker makes some interesting and important points.  In fact the IP agrees with many of them; however, it appears that he has missed the thrust of both SB 81 and the IP's article.  SB 81 addresses the so-called "Blended Teacher Education Programs" that are designed to allow prospective elementary school teachers to obtain both a bachelor's degree and a preliminary California "multiple subjects teaching credential" in four years.  (These are intended to be a quicker path to the credential than obtain an undergraduate degree first, then completing a credential program as a post-graduate.)  The thrust of the legislation is to mandate that these programs must offer no fewer than 120 semester units, and no more than 135 semester units.  The problem is that many of the "blended" programs, which have been worked out carefully to meet all the requirements of an academic major in liberal studies or child development, all the required general education provisions, all the required pedagogical courses, and all the additional subject matter requirements imposed by the California Teacher Credentialing Commission require more than 135 semester units.  They can be completed in four years, but they are sufficiently challenging that many students opt to take the more traditional route.

The thrust of the IP's argument is that elementary school teachers need to be both well educated and well trained to teach.  In the IP's view this means a solid education in a relevant subject matter major, solid training in pedagogical techniques, and substantial practice teaching under the supervision of skilled practitioners.  Blended programs have the advantage that they don't compartmentalize these tasks. However, by mandating (as SB 81 does) that they be completed within a 135 semester unit cap and a four year time frame some important component is likely to be short changed.

Some of Professor Marker's remarks with regard to the California Subject Examination Test requirements may be misleading.  Elementary credential candidates in California have the option of taking either the CSET multiple subjects examination or completing a multiple subjects preparation program (secondary credential candidates have a similar option to take either one of the CSET exams or a single subject preparation program).  The multiple subjects preparation program includes courses in language arts (18 semester units); literature, ethics, and classics (9 semester units); mathematics (9 semester units); science (12 semester units); social science (21 semester units); arts (9-12 semester units); physical education (3 semester units); and human development (3 semester units).  While a final assessment is required, that generally is a portfolio type assessment -- not an examination.

All credential candidates are required to pass the California Basic Education Skills Test (CBEST), which is a test of basic reading, writing, critical thinking, and mathematics skills.  However, this is not the CSET exam that Marker refers to.  Although the IP shares some of Professor Marker's concerns about standardized tests, he would have an even greater concern about putting anyone into a classroom who could not pass this very basic test.

With regard to our comments about the end of the teacher shortage in California, the sad fact is that teacher layoffs now are a reality.  We can bemoan the fact that the unfortunate confluence of a weak economy and structural changes in California's budgeting process that led to deficits of historic proportions essentially has ended class size reduction programs; however, the truth is that these changes together with the success of programs that have reduced the number of teachers who leave the profession early has lowered the demand for new teachers.  This situation is likely to prevail for several years.  SB 81 and similar proposals by Senator Alpert were intended to produce large numbers of new teachers quickly -- not to produce better teachers.  Their net effect would be to weaken the academic component of teacher preparation.  They are not needed at present.  The population growth figures cited by Marker appear to be grossly inflated.  This past year the population of California grew by 500,000.  So long as the California economy remains weak, this relatively slow growth rate is likely to continue.  A population increase of 5 million over the next decade would suggest that something less than 100,000 additional teachers would be needed to cope with population growth.

The last three points that Professor Marker makes are somewhat confusing.  I agree with his remark that the validity of the CSET tests may be questioned, although it should be noted that the CSET tests are recent replacements for earlier tests so it is not clear how well they do their job.  What I find most confusing is the argument that these present an obstacle for credential candidates.  In fact no credential candidate is required to take a CSET exam.  The candidate always has the option of completing the corresponding subject matter course requirements.  I agree with Marker that taking the subject matter preparation program is the preferred alternative.  However, I would retain the option for candidates to take the test, since it provides a path to a credential for those candidates whose course preparation may not align exactly with the multiple or single subject requirements but is substantially equivalent.  If the tests are properly structured, there should be very few cases of, say, a business major obtaining a single subject credential in history with no substantial preparation in the subject.

The IP is in substantial agreement with Marker's suggestion that candidates have a major in the subject area, although at present some of the subject areas don't align exactly with traditional majors.  For example, previously candidates could obtain a single subject credential in either biological sciences or physical sciences.  Now the two areas have been combined, so the subject area does not align exactly with a traditional major area but this is a minor problem that probably will be corrected soon.

The IP also has no objection to Marker's final point, only to the notion that these "blended programs" have to be done in a 135 unit, four-year program.

With regard to Marker's remark about "sniping" at teacher educators, one person's "constructive criticism" may well be interpreted as another's sniping.

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