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Sunday, September 10, 1998

Teacher Competency Challenged
Applicants for new teaching jobs are being tested
for basic competence in reading, writing and a subject area.

By Howard Hobbs, Editors' Desk

WASHINGTON - The new crop of teachers from the nation's schools of education appear to be lacking sufficient basic skills. Robert J. Samuelson told us this Fall, "The United States spent $530 billion in the 1995-96 school year, counting everything from elementary to graduate school. We waste a lot of that. The latest evidence comes from Massachusetts, where, for the first time, applicants for new teaching jobs are being tested for basic competence in reading, writing and a subject area. The first test was given in April to 1,795 recent or soon-to-be college graduates. The results were disappointing ..." as 59% of the prospective teachers failed.

      "John Silber, chairman of the state Board of Education and chancellor of Boston University, told me he was disgusted at the scores. One of the question on the test asked the new teachers to listen to a short passage and write what they had heard. 'Scores of applicants, misspelled common words with the following types of errors."improbally," "corupt," and "integraty" .

      Public school teaching continues to have a hard time attracting good students. Teachers' colleges, a source of most of the test candidates, are often mediocre. By this, I do not mean to stigmatize all teachers or overlook the special talent, different from raw intelligence, required to organize a classroom in the public schools. As it happens, my wife is a public-school elementary teacher. She's bright and works hard. I recognize the stiff demands of good teaching. Still, the Massachusetts test of new teachers suggests that many of this nation's three million public school teachers might be more successful in another line of work.

     Jerome Murphy, dean of Harvard's School of Education, told us, " ... that even a college degree has been devalued, because many students who get degrees lack fundamental literacy skills. When Massachusetts released test results for candidates from 56 institutions, only two (Harvard and Wellesley) had perfect pass records. Some well-known schools had fairly high failure rates - Brandeis, 47%, Boston University, 34%, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 45%, and Simmons College, 60%.

      The main reason that college degrees have cheapened is that, except at elite institutions, admissions standards barely exist. We've over subsidized the expansion of higher education through federal student grants and loans and state university systems. The central problem of higher education is not too little money; it's too much. Too many colleges chase too few good students.

      "To survive, colleges scramble to get bad students (and their tuition). If you have a high school diploma and tuition and can walk and talk, you can graduate from college ... There are a lot of empty seats," says Harvard Dean, Murphy.

      "The glut of bad students means many need remedial courses - 36 percent of freshmen in New York's university system, 48 percent in Kentucky's and 39 percent in Georgia's, reports a study for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. (The figures are for 1995.) Once in college, unqualified students further corrode academic standards. Faculty members are under pressure to lower course demands 'to maintain [their] department's enrollment and claim on university resources,' economist Robert Costrell of UMass says.

      We have also been told if we paid teachers more, or had more choice in the public schools our children attend we'd get better college students to go into teaching. But what do you suppose it will take to get subject matter scholars to become professors in our public university schools of education?

     Popular wisdom these days is rediscovering a basic truth, "The nation gets the kind of government, press, and teachers it deserves."

[Editor's Note: Howard Hobbs is editor & chief of The Daily Republican Newspaper Co. He holds a doctorate from the University of Southern California in economics education and is the former chief economist at the Washington D.C. based, Economics Institute.]

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