State credentialing leader: system ‘challenged’ not broke

State credentialing leader: system ‘challenged’ not broke

(Calif.) Just as Mark Twain famously corrected reports of his death, the head of California’s teaching certification and professional standards agency rejects the notion that the state’s once vaunted educator preparation system is in crisis.

“I know we have challenges – but I’m pleased that we are working on them,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, chair of the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, in an interview last week.

“We should not have a state where there are any low-quality training programs,” she said. “We should not have a situation like we do where there is a supply-and-demand imbalance. We do have a five-alarm fire with respect to recruiting teachers into special education, math and physical sciences. And it’s frustrating that the state isn’t yet ready to take action or put incentives in place, like service scholarships or forgivable loans, to help recruit.”

Darling-Hammond, also a professor of education at Stanford University with a national following for her research on teacher quality, equity issues and school reform, said the challenges facing the teacher preparation community are significant. “We’re going to have to face up to them,” she said. “But I think we are doing a better job than we have in the past.”

Her optimism stands somewhat in contrast to the array of troubles that appear to be plaguing the system.

Enrollment in teacher preparation programs statewide fell almost 74 percent between 2001 and 2013, while the number of teachers earning credentials during that period dropped more than 50 percent.

Although the 2008 recession played a big role in prompting the slide, state and union officials have noted a negative change in perception about the teaching profession among college-age students, prompting some calls for an end to so-called “teacher-bashing” policies that place too much of the burden for student performance on classroom instructors.

The result has been a shortage of teachers in many parts of the state – especially for special education and STEM positions (science, technology, engineering and math).

Although Darling-Hammond acknowledges a degradation in the status of teachers among the public, she said the biggest problem in getting young people to enter the profession had to do with the economy.

“Many, many more people were trained to be teachers and then couldn’t get a job,” she said. “The word went out as it does in any labor market. Now that’s changing and changing rapidly as there’s been an uptick in demand.”

Darling-Hammond said the elimination of incentive grants to help pay college tuition for incoming teachers has also played a part – something she hopes will be addressed soon by the Legislature.

“Once the economics turn around and it is clear there are jobs and there are incentives in place, history suggests that the supply of teachers can go very quickly from inadequate to adequate,” she said.

University preparation programs have also received some criticism for contributing to the decline in the professional status of teaching by not holding the line on high standards.

Darling-Hammond said that isn’t the case in California, where as many as four-fifths of graduates report being well-prepared for their first teaching assignments.

She noted that attrition has ebbed up, going from 6 percent annually just a few years ago to 9 percent.

“One reason for that is that more teachers have to go to work in low-income schools,” she said, pointing out that 60 percent of all California students qualify for free and reduced meals. “It’s hard to teach under those conditions, where more and more kids are hungry or homeless. Teachers are being asked to make up for a lot of the problems from the rest of society – there’s a burnout factor that we need to look at.”

One ambition that the commission is working on is the creation of an “advanced accreditation” that would be awarded to high-quality preparation programs – a best practices designation that would serve as an example to the rest of the community to emulate.

The CTC has also put together a new assessment tool to evaluate what school principals are able to do.

“There was a period in the 1990s where, frankly, things went to hell in a handbasket,” she said. “We had thousands of teachers on emergency credentials and lots of low-quality programs and no strategies for improving it. I don’t think we are in that place right now, but we could go back a step if we are not vigilant.”

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