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California and the West

Plan to Aid Teachers Unveiled

January 09, 1998|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Seeking to address the shortage of qualified teachers in the state's public schools, Gov. Pete Wilson on Thursday detailed a $125-million plan to widen nontraditional pathways into the profession, sharpen the skills of veterans and give rookies a shoulder to lean on during their first year on the job.

Wilson in recent days has announced a series of education proposals, including one to provide $350 million to pay for seven more days of instruction a year and another to end the "social promotion" of failing students to the next grade.

Other education initiatives--including unrestricted grants of $10,000 to $40,000 to every school--will be spotlighted in a new budget he is to propose today.

But Wilson said the education reforms he champions will have little impact if teachers are ineffective.

"You can do all of these other things, but the quality of education is still going to depend . . . on the quality of teaching," he said in calling for programs both to train teachers and to require them to demonstrate their competence "before they go into the classroom."

About 29,000 of the state's 240,000 teachers are working without credentials, including more than 6,000 who may not even have passed a basic skills test or completed a college education. Numbers such as those have won California poor marks in comparison to other states.

Teacher shortages have been part of the state's educational landscape, particularly in urban districts, for decades. But during the past two years the problem has emerged in suburban areas as schools competed to hire teachers to staff additional classrooms created to reduce class size from around 30 to 20 through third grade.

The most expensive of Wilson's teacher training proposals, which he detailed during an appearance at El Segundo High School and in an interview with The Times, seeks to improve the skills of veteran teachers, particularly in reading and math. Citing a "dire need," he proposed spending $40 million to prepare the state's math teachers--half of whom did not major or minor in math in college--to implement rigorous standards recently adopted for all grades. They call for every California student to complete two years of algebra and one year of geometry.

Wilson also proposed doubling the Beginning Teachers Support and Assessment program to cover half the approximately 20,000 new teachers expected to be hired next year. The program has achieved dramatic success in helping newcomers last beyond the often-rocky first years in the classroom.

In some urban and rural districts as many as half the new teachers quit within the first three years. The program, which already has expanded dramatically in the last two years, has cut that attrition rate to less than 10% by arranging for new teachers to have a mentor who provides a sympathetic ear and helps them master essential classroom skills.

"What we are doing is not only retaining teachers . . . but we're also significantly increasing the quality of teachers at the entry level," said Sue Garmstone, a consultant on professional development for the state Department of Education.

Among Wilson's other initiatives are ones that would expand on-the-job training for those assuming teaching positions in the state right out of college--or coming from other professions--and another that would require student teachers to "demonstrate" their competence before obtaining a credential.

Instead of having to pass a pencil-and-paper test of theory, prospective teachers would have to show that they can "perform in a classroom setting," said Linda Bond, governmental affairs director of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which suggested many of the proposals that Wilson announced. "Can you engage kids, organize a classroom and have a variety of ways to explain things so students can understand what is being said?"

Wilson's proposals were greeted warmly by educators.

Ruben Zacarias, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the state's largest, noted that the district last year hired 4,500 new teachers and only 2,700 came in with a license to teach. Zacarias said the need for teacher training is so great that the state ought to set aside even more resources for urban districts like his, which find it hard to staff their classrooms.

"If you have a choice of going into an urban district to teach or into a suburb, where would you go?" Zacarias asked.

Elaine Johnson, who works on teacher training issues for the California Federation of Teachers, said union officials endorsed the latest Wilson measures.

"We are in 100% support and we feel these are the right directions we need to go in," she said. "They are supported by research, they are supported by the field. Hurray."

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