"More than any other variable in education - more than schools or curriculum - teachers matter."
The Atlantic magazine, "What Makes a Great Teacher," January/February 2010
While most proposals to improve public education are debatable, on one point there is universal agreement: A high-quality teacher offers a sure path to improving student achievement. Good teachers make a positive and measurable difference in student outcomes. Poor teachers, particularly when one follows another, are devastating to learning.
It is precisely because teachers matter so much that we need to make sure that Maryland's established rules for deciding who can teach in our state are the right ones - that the state presents no unnecessary obstacles to attracting the most talented teachers in the country, particularly to Baltimore City and other high-needs districts.
Unfortunately - and notwithstanding state schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick's well-taken suggestion that the only effective way to determine a teacher's competency is to evaluate his or her performance - Maryland's teacher licensing rules remain among the most cumbersome in the nation. And its policy interpretations impede our ability to compete for great teachers.
Case in point: More than 75 percent of Teach for America applicants were turned away from teaching in Maryland through the state's alternative teaching program. The nation's leading recruiter of non-traditionally trained teachers for high-needs schools, TFA reports that Maryland's rejection rate is the highest of any of its 29 partnering states. Other Maryland alternative programs, such as the New Teacher Project, encounter similar barriers.
Why is it so hard to get a teaching position in this state? Maryland is one of only a few states that still insist on conducting a review of every teacher's college transcript, looking for evidence that specific courses have been taken. Rather than identifying the specific knowledge that teachers need and then testing them on that knowledge (as more progressive states do), Maryland's policies under its alternative teaching program, the Resident Teachers Certificate, require increasingly more specific course work. For example, Maryland requires elementary teacher candidates to have taken 36 semester hours of course work in general subject matter, including six in English, six in math, six in natural science, six in history and 12 additional in any of the above, plus fine arts and foreign languages. Clearly, the typical college student who did not major in elementary education - no matter what he or she might know - would be highly unlikely to meet such a requirement.
More alarming, in the high-need S.T.E.M fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), Maryland State Department of Education policies denied 80 percent of prospective math, biology and chemistry candidates that came through Teach For America. Other Maryland alternative programs, such as the New Teacher Project, encounter similar barriers.
Why is this? Because the department requires that these candidates must have a major or 30 semester hours in the subject they plan to teach. This means that, based on course work alone, Maryland can bar an engineering or computer science major from teaching math in public schools - and unlike most other states, ours does not have a test option for the engineer to prove his or her competency in math in lieu of course work.
The problems resulting from these excessively prescriptive requirements are particularly disturbing because the rules that the Maryland State Department of Education is using to deny talented teachers a license to teach cannot be found in any law or regulation. Maryland's regulation states only that these "Resident Teachers" must have a college degree and pass the state's licensing exams to enter an approved alternative program. The department, acting without the approval of the current state school board and without a chance for public comment, has instead issued a series of "policy memos" to its school districts, throwing up unnecessary roadblocks for those who want to teach in Maryland's schools.
Maryland's policymakers need to make it easier, not harder, to identify and recruit qualified teacher candidates. Revising the Resident Teachers Certificate process and the teacher licensing process overall would also position Maryland as more competitive for federal Race to the Top funding aimed at improving teacher quality.
While much of the work that Maryland needs to do for its Race to the Top application will not be easy, this particular solution is simple: Rip up the policy memos. Return to the flexible regulatory language that already exists to attract good teachers. Any additional requirement for prospective teachers should be discussed, debated and voted upon in public after evidence demonstrates that the proposed requirements will produce more effective teachers.
Robert C. Embry Jr. is president of the Abell Foundation. He is the former president of the Maryland State Board of Education and former president of the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners. His e-mail is email@example.com.
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