Make the Grade? Educators Recommend
by Jane Elizabeth, Post-Gazette Education Writer, Sunday,
February 09, 2003
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A group of Pennsylvania's top education leaders will release a
report next week calling for significant changes in state laws
and school district practices to improve the quality of
teachers in the state's public schools.
Among their recommendations: Get rid of the controversial
tests that assess teachers' skills in basic math and reading,
force school districts to come up with rigorous hiring
policies that ensure the best teachers are being hired and
raise the minimum pay for new teachers.
The committee, directed by the Harrisburg-based Education
Policy and Leadership Center, will release its "Teacher
Quality and Supply Project" recommendations Tuesday. The
27-member group was led by former Pittsburgh superintendent
Helen S. Faison, now the director of the Pittsburgh Teachers
Institute, based at Chatham College.
The report makes the "perhaps obvious conclusion that the
ultimate key to student achievement is quality teaching," EPLC
president and former state legislator Ronald R. Cowell said.
Even so, the quality of teachers in district schools has
rarely been examined in Pennsylvania and is just beginning to
be a popular research topic nationally, Cowell said.
There has been "an absence of attention" to the issue, he
said. "But research is showing that good teaching is not just
helpful, it is vital" to student learning.
The project, which included a survey of Pennsylvania's school
superintendents and education deans at colleges and
universities, was funded through EPLC's grants from The Grable
Foundation, the Heinz Endowments and the Pittsburgh
Only about a quarter of the state's 500 superintendents and 93
deans responded to the questionnaire. That didn't particularly
surprise Robert Feir, a senior fellow at EPLC who directed the
"Quality has not been a topic of conversation," said Feir, a
former school superintendent and former executive director of
the Pennsylvania Business Education Partnership. The topic
"obviously is potentially politically dangerous."
He noted that the state Board of Education had recently raised
the bar for teachers by requiring, for instance, that aspiring
teachers have at least a 3.0 grade point average before
entering a teacher education program in Pennsylvania's
colleges and universities. And the state now requires teachers
to have 180 hours of continuing education every five years to
keep their teaching licenses.
"It's easy for the state board to say you have to have a 3.0
GPA," he said. "But it's more difficult to define the other
qualities for good teaching."
Teacher quality was the topic of a five-part Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette series that ended Thursday. The discussion will
be continued in a town meeting hosted by the Post-Gazette and
presented by Duquesne Light Co. from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday,
at McConomy Auditorium at Carnegie Mellon University.
The purpose of EPLC's teacher quality and supply project,
Cowell said, was to change or enforce state polices "to
promote the presence of a qualified teacher in every
Pennsylvania K-12 classroom at all times."
While the state has some new regulations aimed at making
teachers better, other states do more, the report notes.
For instance, Pennsylvania is one of 11 states that doesn't
give financial support to teachers who want to become
nationally certified. The state also doesn't help pay for
"induction" programs for teachers new to the profession.
The committee recommended state funding for those programs.
Other recommendations included:
Better evaluation of teachers. While the state recently
updated its teacher evaluation forms, school districts aren't
obligated to use them. In fact, they can create their own
forms. The report calls for districts to use the state forms,
or to create similar forms that are approved by the state, and
also calls for the state to provide training to school
administrators on how to use those evaluation forms.
Abolish the PDAP test for teachers. The state's Professional
Development Assistance Program, a $1.5 million-per-year test
to see if teachers can answer basic math and reading
questions, has been criticized by teachers unions and some
educators. The report recommends using the funds allocated to
PDAP to instead pay for training administrators to use teacher
More help for new teachers. The state-mandated induction
programs for new teachers now cover only the teacher's first
year. The report calls for legislators to extend that to two
Higher salaries for new teachers. State law sets the minimum
teacher salary at $18,500 per year, a level that was
established in 1988. That amount should be "considered for
adjustment" by the state Legislature, the report recommends.
End pointless professional development programs. While state
law mandates that teachers continue their education through
these programs, "Anecdotal evidence suggests there is close to
an 'anything goes' attitude in some districts," according to
the report. District officials should be held to state policy
that says professional development programs must be of high
quality and address the needs of the school district.
Create hiring plans. Many school districts use a
seat-of-the-pants approach to filling vacancies that sometimes
leads to nepotism and other poor hiring practices. The
committee recommends that the state withhold local funding if
districts don't come up with hiring and recruitment plans
"that commit them to actively seeking and supporting qualified
Other committee members included Linda Croushore, executive
director of the Mon Valley Education Consortium; Jay Hertzog,
dean of the College of Education at Slippery Rock University;
John Tarka, executive director of the Pennsylvania Federation
of Teachers; and Caroline Allen, an official with the
The full EPLC report will be available Tuesday on the
Education Policy and Leadership Center's Web site,
To register for the town meeting, "Do Teachers Make the
Grade?," call 412-263-1541. The event is free.