Bill would open the door to undergraduate teaching credentials

  • February 25, 2013

By John Fensterwald

For the first time in decades, aspiring teachers in California would be able to major in education as undergraduates and get both a preliminary teaching credential and a baccalaureate degree in four years if a bill in the Legislature becomes law.

Teachers in California must major in a subject other than education. Then, to get a teaching credential, they must  pass a test of their knowledge of the subject or subjects they plan to teach, and spend a year taking courses on instruction techniques and interning in a classroom.

Senate Bill 5, sponsored by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, could result in a dramatic shift

Senate Bill 5 would  remove two key restrictions that have been in effect in California for 40 years:

  • Aspiring teachers have been required to major in a specific academic subject, like math or English, as an undergraduate. Education as a major, which would emphasize how to teach subject matter, was not accepted. That ban would be lifted, enabling students to study for a preliminary teaching credential and a BA degree in education at the same time.
  • Teacher preparation programs currently must be able to offer all courses and requirements leading to a credential within one year. That requirement would be expanded under SB 5 to two years.

“SB 5 will provide aspiring teachers more time to develop effective teaching skills,” said Padilla in a statement last week announcing the legislation.

There are already a handful of private colleges in California that offer four-year programs leading to an undergraduate degree and a preliminary credential to teach in elementary grades. This “blended” model would likely be expanded to state universities if an undergraduate education major were permitted.

Padilla’s bill would implement some of the recommendations of “Greatness by Design,” the report released last fall by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s Task Force on Education Excellence. Darling-Hammond, a Stanford Graduate School of Education professor, also co-chaired the task force, and has been an advocate for allowing teacher preparation programs at the undergraduate level and removing the one-year time limit  on courses and credits for teacher preparation.

The balance between how to teach and what to teach

Darling-Hammond and others argue that teaching now demands a vaster set of classroom skills than five decades ago. Teachers must know how to integrate technology, deal with increasingly challenging discipline issues in the classroom and  implement complex strategies for teaching English learners and students with learning disabilities. Restricted by the one-year cap, the credentialing commission is faced with overseeing a system challenged by having to cram additional requirements into an already intensive curriculum.

The bill, by loosening the time limits for getting a teaching credential, could encourage the credentialing commission to beef up the components for teaching English learners. Or teacher preparation programs could do this on their own.

Also, as the “Greater by Design” report notes, California also may be the only state without a specific requirement for supervised student teaching. Some candidates get several months of supervision in the field, while others get a few weeks. Opening up the one-year cap could encourage programs with a short student teaching component to add weeks or a semester to their requirements.

“California’s antiquated policy also introduces inefficiencies in the preparation system that the state cannot now afford,” the “Greater By Design” report concluded. “Instead of capitalizing on the opportunities to learn to teach presented in students’ undergraduate years, students must often undergo additional expense to pursue a credential after they have graduated, without sufficient time to learn all they need to succeed in an increasingly challenging job.”

Carolyn Nelson, dean of the College of Education and Allied Studies at California State University, East Bay, said that loosening time constraints on credentialing  “could create room for creative thinking.” Some schools of education may begin offering extra courses beyond one year, perhaps combined with a paid residency the second year, in which teacher candidates would spend a full year under the guidance of one teacher. Others might allow juniors or seniors in college to begin working through some of their basic credentialing requirements.

But others argue that bringing back education as a major, allowing them to get a credential with their undergraduate degree, would be a mistake. The proposed change would renew the argument that college departments of education would focus too much on how to teach, at the expense of providing content knowledge on what to teach. Phil Daro, who ran the California Mathematics Project for the University of California and has designed teaching training programs, is among the math experts who say that many elementary teachers lack a deep knowledge of math now and question whether they soon will be capable of teaching the new Common Core standards, requiring a more thorough understanding of math concepts. Unlike high-school teachers, who must pass a detailed test of their knowledge of the specific subject they plan to teach, aspiring elementary teachers must pass a broad test of their knowledge of the range of subjects they must teach in early grades.

California already permits one alternative model, “blended” programs that award dual degrees integrating a baccalaureate with a subject major and a preliminary teaching credential. Beside a few private colleges with four-year programs, some California State University campuses offer five-year blended programs.

Liberal Studies alternative

An example is the five-year Liberal Studies program at San Diego State, which prepares primarily elementary teachers (see introductory video). Phoebe Roeder, Liberal Studies coordinator, says that the program requires foundation courses in literature, history, math, science, visual arts, even physical education – subjects that multi-credential elementary teachers need to know. These are aligned with pedagogy courses on how to teach those subjects. The program also offers upper-division courses in math and literacy leading to a single-subject credential for middle school.

Of the roughly 100 colleges and universities that have accredited teacher preparation programs in California, two dozen, mainly CSU campuses, offered 38 “blended”  programs like these in 2004, the last time the credentialing commission conducted a survey of the field. Nearly all of the programs led to multi-subject credentials needed to teach elementary school.

There may be fewer blended programs today, because of declining enrollments in teacher preparation programs. Blended programs are tightly structured, sometimes requiring four-year cohorts of students taking the same course sequence. This can limit its potential because many students in CSU schools transfer from community colleges as juniors without having taken the tighly structured course sequence. And many CSU students hold part-time or full-time jobs, extending their undergraduate education beyond four years.

If SB 5 passes, teacher preparation programs could try different options. Some might offer credentials in 15 months, adding another summer session to space out internships and coursework; others might add a semester. There may be a proliferation of four- and five-year blended programs or new options, such as starting credentialing courses when teacher candidates are college seniors, followed by a full fifth year.

The credentialling commission’s challenge, in setting standards and accrediting credentialing programs, will remain finding the right balance between making sure that teachers know the subject content they’re expected to teach and being prepared to teach it effectively.

Mary Sandy, the commission’s executive director, said that her staff have had discussions with Padilla about his bill and will prepare an analysis of it for commissioners at their March meeting.

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