Education is a hot topic and a constant focus for both political speeches and editorials.
Students' poor performance on standardized tests of reading and math is of great concern throughout the state. For example, we regularly see articles featuring the average scores of schools in our county, comparing them to each other, to the rest of California and to the nation. Among the hypotheses suggested for students' difficulties is poor preparation and inadequate training of many classroom teachers.
Proponents of this theory see more testing and tougher course requirements as the solution. But is teacher education inadequate?
In California, most new teachers are required to pass several state-mandated exams. The best known, the California Basic Educational Skills Test (CBEST), is only the first (and simplest) of these. The Multiple Subject Assessment Test (MSAT), remarkable for the breadth of material included, is the most difficult examination given to prospective elementary school teachers. Five hours long, it uses both multiple choice and "short constructed response" (essay) questions to cover English and literature, math, social studies, physical education, human growth and development, the arts and all areas of science.
Multiple subject credential candidates must also pass Reading Instruction Competence Assessment (RICA), a test of the ability to teach reading. Its focus is on phonics, other basic strategies and the understanding of how to support literacy in all students.
Along with the CBEST, secondary teachers take exams in their subject area. This usually involves two separate tests; formats vary depending on the subject. Teachers already holding a multiple subject credential may take a specialty exam to teach in a secondary classroom.
California credential candidates are also required to take more post-baccalaureate courses than are teachers in many other states. The subject matter includes teaching methods, psychology, language acquisition, computers, special education, health and educating students from multicultural backgrounds. Additionally, except for those working on an emergency credential, prospective teachers do two semesters of student teaching during which they are placed in classrooms with respected, experienced educators. Under supervision, the student teacher gradually assumes responsibility for the class. Performances are critiqued by the master teacher as well as a university supervisor and a final evaluation is given.
Teachers on emergency credentials are supervised by their principal and at some point receive visits from a university teaching advisor. Although they may begin their careers with only a bachelor's degree and CBEST, these teachers have a limited time in which to complete all other tests and course requirements.
But teaching is not easy and today's schools present ever increasing challenges. Editorials have claimed that the classroom teacher has the most influence on education. However, much that happens outside the school plays a major role in a child's readiness to learn.
Parents' attitudes are reflected in the student's level of application. Society's messages also come through in television, movies and music. Often, an "I don't care" attitude is seen as "cool" and teachers are portrayed as objects of derision.
Parents need to be aware of this and do what they can to counteract it, a task that becomes increasingly difficult as children grow older and more independent. Positive attitudes must be formed early while parents (and teachers) still have the greatest influence.
New teachers, after a rigorous schedule of courses and testing, enter the classroom wanting to be the best educators possible, although the challenges can sometimes seem overwhelming. It is not unusual to have students from several different language backgrounds, all with limited knowledge of English. Many children come from chaotic homes: a first-grader whose mother cannot find the time to give her breakfast or get her to school early enough to eat the meal offered at the cafeteria; a 6-year-old boy with a violent father; a fifth-grader in makeup and miniskirts who draws explicit pictures on her folders.
Imagine an elementary school in which the psychologist must send home a note requesting that parents not allow their primary age children to watch slasher movies!
No amount of preparation can guarantee that one will overcome all the obstacles encountered in today's classrooms. Undoubtedly, there are inadequate teachers, but most are dedicated to helping their students excel. For California's students to succeed, teachers need support from parents and society as a whole.