Illinois' recent decision to drop passage of a basic skills test as a requirement for admission to a teacher-training program both sets back efforts to improve teacher quality and hurts prospective teachers. Other states would be wise to take a very different approach.
For 12 years, Illinois required students to pass a basic skills test in reading, writing and math before they could be admitted to a teacher-preparation program (usually prior to a student's junior year in college). Under the new law, students can begin taking teacher-preparation courses even if they keep flunking the skills test (though they still must pass it before they begin student teaching - usually in the second semester of senior year).
The law hurts students by continuing a failed approach that stresses pedagogy over academic-content knowledge. We've gotten exactly what we've encouraged: In 2010, the SAT scores of students intending to pursue undergraduate education degrees ranked 25th out of 29 majors generally associated with four-year degree programs.
It also hurts the teacher candidates themselves. Students who may not pass the skills test but take teacher-preparation courses rack up ever-higher tuition bills. As Brian Schultz, who chairs the education department at Northeastern Illinois University, told the Chicago Tribune, "We've set them up for increased debt."
State Rep. Monique Davis of Chicago says she sponsored the legislation after some higher-education officials told her they were losing students and that their education departments might have to shut down if too many failed the skills test. Her response is a chilling example of a culture in which too many priorities come before what is best for public-school students.
Those students are surely not well served by teachers who can't pass what is generally a high-school-level test with a few college-level reading passages and writing assignments. The math section only goes as far as algebra I and geometry, which most students complete by the end of 10th grade.
Experience endorses a far different approach to the problem of new and prospective teachers who can't pass required tests. It was chaos when 59 percent of the candidates failed the first time Massachusetts administered a new test for teacher licensure in 1998. But the state held its ground, and seven years later the Bay State's public-school students began a streak, still intact, of finishing first in every test and on every grade level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
It will take more than just tougher standards for new and prospective teachers to duplicate the kind of jump in student achievement that Massachusetts has seen. Even if we could wave a magic wand and improve teacher quality overnight, countless other problems would remain.
But research makes it clear that teacher quality affects student learning more than any other school-based variable (as opposed to external issues such as family income and parental education levels). Together with rewarding those who consistently improve student outcomes and creating an appealing career ladder for them, making standards for new and prospective educators more rigorous - not dialing them back - is the best route to improved teacher quality.