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Testing surge has states on hunt for tutors

Massachusetts may bring in volunteers to prep students for the critical MCAS test.

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As school starts this year, Massachusetts teachers have more to worry about than lesson plans and seating charts. This year, the MCAS counts.

If 10th-graders don't pass a key standardized test - the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System - by the time they reach the end of 12th grade, they don't graduate.

To help the 30,000 sophomores expected to fail on their first try, state officials are planning to assemble an army of volunteers to tutor these students. The plan would put Massachusetts in the forefront of efforts to involve the larger community in education reform, but it also is provoking hot debate - echoed across the nation - over who is qualified to teach.

In these times of teacher shortages, that question is paramount. In addition to relying on a greater number of volunteers, some school districts have been easing the requirements for teacher certification, trying to induce professionals in other fields to switch to education, and drawing on less-qualified candidates. New York, for instance, hired almost 600 uncertified teachers last year and is currently trying to speed up its certification process.

"We are raising standards for students while, at the same time, lowering standards for the people teaching them," says Stephen Gorrie, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. "As student standards get higher, we should be getting more-qualified teachers in the classroom."

The Massachusetts plan for a volunteer corps is, at this point, more rhetoric than reality. Key questions remain - such as how volunteers will be screened and who will train them. President Clinton's Americorps program includes volunteers who work in schools, but it doesn't approach in scale the tutoring endeavor planned for Massachusetts.

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