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Why Should Education Courses for Certification Be Valued?

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by Johnny W. Lott, NCTM President 2002-2004
NCTM News Bulletin, March 2003

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act requires every classroom to be staffed by a "highly qualified" teacher by the end of the 2005–06 school year. According to the law, every highly qualified teacher must have a bachelor's degree, state certification, and different levels of mathematical content knowledge depending on the grades to be taught. The mathematics content required will be addressed later, but in this column, I'd like to focus on the education courses required for certification. An all too common statement is that "all education courses are a waste of time." This statement is simply not true. To consider this on a mathematics level, one needs only to find a single counterexample, and those are easy to find.

To refute the implication that content is all a teacher must know, let us consider a few aspects of required education courses and think about whether or not the material could be learned if mathematics content courses were all that were required.

  • Educational or developmental psychology. A highly qualified teacher needs to know something about how students learn, different styles of learning, developmental stages of students as they learn, and learning styles of different ethnic groups. Few professors who teach mathematics content have much knowledge of the theories of cognition or learning styles that are used in schools. For most of these professors, nothing in their formal education provides this knowledge, since few doctoral programs require them to have this type of knowledge. Thus, most content professors cannot adequately teach this information to prospective teachers.
  • Issues in teaching. Teachers must be able to handle the day-to-day challenges of the classroom, including disciplining students, working with parents, accommodating the learning disabilities of students, teaching exceptional children at all levels, using manipulatives, and managing multilingual classrooms. Few, if any, mathematics content courses ever address these issues. Again, there is nothing in the background of most content professors that adequately prepares them to teach prospective teachers to deal with these issues.
  • Field-based experiences. Prospective teachers must have experience integrating coursework and field experience to develop confidence and the ability to handle classroom challenges on their own. Well-designed mentoring programs for prospective and beginning teachers are components of good certification programs. However, most content professors are either not allowed to or not prepared to work with prospective teachers in field experiences and have little experience in coordinating such experiences. Yet, these experiences are vital to helping prospective teachers develop a realistic understanding of what lies ahead for them in their careers. Mentoring, especially in the field-based experiences and in early years, may be vital to keeping new teachers in the classroom, yet few content professors are prepared to be mentors of precollegiate teachers.
  • Reading and writing across curriculum. Teachers must be able to help students develop reading and writing skills no matter what subject matter they are teaching; however, this skill is rarely taught by content professors. Prospective teachers must learn about reading and writing elsewhere. (Note that teaching students how to read and write mathematics effectively is not an easy task.) A thorough teacher education program is one that ensures that reading and writing are addressed as integral parts of the curriculum as they typically are found only in certification courses.
  • Social issues in teaching. Social issues—including but not limited to drug abuse and ethics—have been added to certification programs, but again few content professors who teach certification courses can adequately present these subjects.

This list of certification concepts and issues is, in general, not addressed in content-area courses—probably for good reasons. Also, we haven't yet mentioned that the certification process includes methods of teaching and the uses of technology in teaching. For these to be taught effectively, they should be used by content professors and deeply integrated into students' content learning.

So why should education courses for certification be valued? The answer is because prospective teachers are not adequately prepared to lead a classroom by their preparation in content-area courses alone. The concepts listed here are as essential for teachers to know as the content itself. Neither can stand alone.

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