NJ Raises Standards for Teacher Training and Certification
Peggy McGlone | The Star-Ledger
If teachers are the most important drivers of student success, then putting high quality candidates to work in the state’s classrooms should be a top priority, state educators say.
Earlier this month, New Jersey education officials took an important step toward that goal by raising the standards for both entry into teacher training programs and professional certification upon graduation. Students must have a minimum grade point average of a B to begin a training program, and have a minimum GPA of a B to receive certification, according to new rules adopted by the state Board of Education. Students must also pass basic skills and performance tests to be certified.
The changes reflect a comprehensive approach to teacher development, according to Assistant Education Commissioner of Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Peter Shulman.
"There is research and anecdotal evidence that the teacher in the classroom is the most important in-school factor for pushing academic achievement for students," Shulman said.
"Physics teachers should know physics," he said, but they should also have a "foundational knowledge in language arts and math. If I’m teaching phys ed or physics, there’s a level of my work that will require some writing and math."
And the final performance test — which has yet to be selected — will ensure that candidates can translate their knowledge to students. "I might have a high GPA and command of my subject, but that doesn’t mean I can teach," Shulman said.
The College of New Jersey junior Julia Albretsen said the changes are reasonable. "The big goal is to provide the most qualified, highly prepared teachers for our students," she said. "However, as the state sets higher standards, they need to meet those standards with a level of respect. It’s difficult to seek the best and brightest but then not value them."
Officials from the state’s teacher training programs said they applaud the department’s goal, although they have reservations about the path they chose.
"It’s a good idea because we need to make sure the teachers we are putting in the classroom are the best and brightest," said Susan Polirstok, dean of the College of Education at Kean University in Union, which raised its GPA requirement in 2010. "I think it’s reasonable to ask for an appropriate GPA, it’s reasonable to ask that students have basic level of skills in reading writing and mathematics."
But Polirstok is among those concerned about the added cost of the new tests. Students already spend several hundred dollars for certification.
"We could go from $300 to $1,200 to $1,500 because of all the test fees associated now with certification. That’s a big concern," said Joelle Tutela, president of the New Jersey Association of Colleges for Teacher Education and the director of teacher education at Rutgers-Newark.
Previously, individuals could have a 2.5 GPA to enter a training program. The new rules require the school’s average be a 3.0, with no individual student below a 2.75. The changes go into effect Sept. 1, 2015. The new rules for certification go into effect the next year.
The new rules would exempt students from taking the basic skills test if they have combined SAT scores of 1660, an ACT score of 23 or a combined GRE (the graduate school entrance exam) of 310. Tutela questioned the fairness of this rule, noting that many low-income high school students don’t even take the SAT, and those who do take it in eleventh grade.
"And now this score is used three or four years later?" she asked.
New Jersey’s move is part of a national trend. Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said many states are raising standards for teacher preparation, and she praised New Jersey officials for taking steps in this direction.
But she said the details of the regulations need further study. The exit performance assessment, for example, is problematic.
"There’s an overpromise on what it’s going to do," she said about the commonly used Pearson exam edTPA, developed by Stanford University.
"A common framework is wonderful. It’s a good thing to adopt, but you cannot use it as the only indicator of whether a teacher is ready for the classroom," she said.
Walsh also questioned the state’s choice of its basic skills test. "That test is really really easy," she said. "The signal it sends off about the rigor of the program is terrible."
Hannah Pawlak of South Brunswick, a senior at The College of New Jersey, cautioned about the over-reliance on numerical ratings. While a B average is "not necessarily a bad idea," Pawlak said it should be restricted to education courses. For example, she said a student might not enroll in a challenging science class for fear of not doing well.
It’s going to prohibit students from taking risks. If (a course) is going to hinder your chances to get a job, people won’t take it," she said.
Others believe that the new standards should focus on outcomes rather than entrance into programs.
"You can raise the standards, but you also want to make sure individuals have the opportunity to meet those standards," Jennifer Robinson, director of the Center of Pedagogy at Montclair State University, said. A student might have a lower GPA because he needs to work, or take care of a family member or overcome a language barrier, she said.
"We’re not just admitting everybody," she said, noting that Montclair already raised it GPA requirement to 3.0. "But it’s a lot more complex than looking at GPA and standardized test scores and saying ‘This student will be a good teacher.’"