May 13, 2019
The saying “everything old is new again” is common in education — stay in the classroom long enough and old ideas reappear. Never has that been more true than this year in the 86th Texas Legislative Session when legislators are considering HB 3217. If it passes, students may once again major in education.
It may come as a surprise to some but students in public institutions may not graduate with an undergraduate degree in education. For the past 40 years, elementary educators, special educators or even bilingual educators had to apply for a bachelor’s in interdisciplinary studies — a degree perceived as general studies. Other professions are designated by degree — nursing, engineering, business — all of these are so named. Why not education?
So, what happened to the education degree? In September of 1979, Texas Monthly’s cover story “Why Teachers Can’t Teach” blasted teacher education, calling it a “massive fraud” that “drives out dedicated people, rewards incompetence and wastes millions of dollars.” Urban legend purports that a staffer garnered support for eliminating education degrees. Instead of majoring in education, students major in content, such as mathematics, science, English, history and art. Add a few courses on classroom management, lesson planning and curriculum development, and a teacher is created. For secondary teachers, this plan makes sense. But, what about the elementary education teacher? He or she must understand many subjects and demonstrate mastery of pedagogical concepts; hence, the “general studies” degree emerged.
Since that fateful decision in 1979, education has experienced nothing if not continued change in the name of innovation. In the early 80s, schools suffered shortages in critical areas of science, mathematics, special education and bilingual education. To address this, states supported alternative routes to certify teachers, whereby individuals with degrees in mathematics or science could become certified to teach and fill high-need positions. Rather than return to college, approved entities provide certification alternatives which allow these mature adults into the classroom and, through intensive mentorship, teach them “how to teach,” manage a classroom, plan lessons, understand the complexities of students with learning disabilities, and teach the content on the job.
Soon, alternatively certified educators outpaced traditionally prepared elementary and secondary educators. Most recent figures from the Texas Education Agency report that approximately 51% of new teachers in 2017 are alternatively certified, compared to 36.6% who are trained in baccalaureate or post-baccalaureate programs.
Sadly, getting and keeping qualified educators continues to be a challenge. Proponents of HB 3217 believe that reinstating education might be a first step in reclaiming educator preparation for traditional baccalaureate students. I agree. Given the challenges of getting and keeping qualified educators, it certainly cannot hurt.
The challenges to retain teachers increase every year. No one knows if reestablishing a degree in education will change anything. However, there are three benefits of establishing a degree in education. One, prospective teachers may locate programs for educator preparation more easily. Additionally, a degree in education will elevate the profession’s purposeful intent to impact the lives of PK-12 students in a meaningful way.
Sadly, public perception of teaching today is “Those who cannot do, teach.” To change the shortage of educators in the nation, we have to elevate the profession again.
Lastly, in a day of accountability, a degree holds institutions of higher education to a standard, thus creating a stronger pipeline.
If HB 3217 passes and an education degree becomes new again, it’s more than a name change. It clears the way for universities and colleges to recruit the best future educators for Texas. And some “old things” may be the best way to address a critical issue — that of educating children. If this bill meets acceptance by both the House and the Senate, we will find out.
A version of this article by Glenda Ballard, Dean of the School of Human Development and Education at St. Edward’s University, appeared in the Austin American Statesman.