The state Board of Regents Friday approved a plan that will require teachers to have more expertise in their classroom subjects and place higher burdens on colleges to turn out better-prepared teachers.
With New York students facing tougher graduation requirements in the coming years, it is now up to teachers to grapple with a set of stronger standards if they are to enter and stay in the classrooms.
After more than a year of discussion, and fierce lobbying by teachers unions and some colleges to weaken the new requirements, the Board of Regents adopted the measures that also require teachers to take more on-the-job training to keep their skills sharpened, have a deeper background in liberal arts and the sciences and score higher on state tests to get their teaching licenses.
"The public wants to make sure that teachers can teach, and that the students who are held to high standards will face teachers who are well-educated themselves," said state Education Commissioner Richard Mills.
The new rules, however, are weaker than the first set of plans talked about by education officials more than a year ago. Under pressure from powerful teachers unions, a new rule requiring 175 hours every five years of on-the-job training will apply only to new teachers entering the profession in 2004. Earlier efforts by some Regents to make it easier for districts to take away the licenses of poor teachers fell by the wayside months ago. And the starting date for many of these new rules have been pushed back a year -- even though the Regents have refused to delay the tougher student requirements.
Regents Chancellor Carl Hayden called the new standards "an indispensable plank" in efforts to improve school performance. With half the state's public school teachers set to retire in the next decade, the new rules will create a "profession in the better sense of the word."
The new plan requires undergraduates who want to teach in middle or high school to major in the subject that they will teach. Officials said that requirement will end the present situation in which 25 percent of the state's math teachers don't have math degrees. Teachers getting their master's degree must also concentrate more in areas in which they will teach.
Beginning next fall, all undergraduates wishing to be teachers also must take courses in liberal arts and sciences, from history and a second language to mathematics. The rules also apply to special education teachers. At the same time, the Regents are making it easier for experts in other professions to change careers and become a teacher in New York.
The board put off until December action on a plan to require all new teachers to get their master's degree within three years of entering a school system. Currently such degrees must be achieved within five years.
The new package includes tougher requirements on teachers colleges. For instance, 80 percent of a teaching college's graduates must pass a state certification exam or the school faces the loss of its program. Also, colleges must rely more on full-time faculty to instruct prospective teachers instead of part-timers. The state's 110 teachers colleges must also become accredited; currently, only a half-dozen teaching colleges, including Buffalo State College and Niagara University, are accredited by a national group recognized by the new Regents plan.
"This will certainly squeeze out low-quality programs," Mills said of the tougher teachers college rules.
Not all education groups are satisfied with the new standards. The State School Boards Association said the on-the-job training requirements should have applied to all teachers, not just new ones. Moreover, according to the group's spokesman David Ernst, the Regents board was wrong to put teachers, instead of administrators, in charge of the local panels that will come up with plans for the 175 hours of on-the-job training.
"More could have been done, but to the extent (the new rules) improve professionalism and classroom performance we applaud them," Ernst said.
Teachers unions also had mixed reactions. Robin Rapaport, vice president of the National Education Association of New York, which represents Buffalo teachers, said the union is concerned that future state budgets will not include money for some of the new requirements. Officials have been vague about a total price tag for the program. And he said the plan does little to encourage better-trained teachers to locate in mostly poor, urban and rural districts.
Private colleges that educate teachers, meanwhile, say the plan is unfair because it forces them to change entire curriculums by next fall. "You can't change a curriculum on a college campus in one year," said James Ross, president of the state Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities. "They do not provide the flexibility we believe we need to accommodate the changes they are requiring," he added.
But Dan King, dean of applied science and education at Buffalo State College, said the school has been working on complying with the Regents plan since it surfaced a year ago. And Buffalo State is expanding its curriculum beyond some of the Regents requirements.