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As Long as We Remember...

March 1, 2011

A New Path for Teachers?

Nick Diaz

Amid the debates about bargaining rights for public employees’ and teachers’ unions, this question remains: What is the best way to improve teacher quality?


Some take the position that the rules for entering the profession should be raised and made more rigorous. On the other hand, others believe that the barriers for entering the profession should be lowered, while emphasizing results – in other words, judging teachers by how much their students learn, as opposed to the number of education courses the teachers complete.


As old fogeys like me are retiring and quitting the education game and moving on to fishing and riding motorcycles all day, a teacher shortage is being felt in various locations in our country already. In the next decade or two, we're going to have to hire a couple of million new teachers to replace people like me and my fellow baby boomers. Predictably, the things that matter to us old-timers may be quite different from the priorities of these potential new replacements.


Getting back to the original question: High regulations are not, in fact, going to create a large enough supply of teachers to staff the schools effectively. We know historically from the last time large numbers of teachers were hired that no school district will allow a class to remain uncovered. There has to be a teacher in every classroom. In the '50s and '60s, there were a lot of warm bodies hired, many of them are the teachers in my generation, those with whom school districts cannot figure out what to do.


We know that people will be hired, and it is important that good people be hired. There are alternative pathways being developed that wouldn't go through the very long teacher education program, which probably is ideal for preparing people to do the job well. What we're going to have to develop is a strategy that's going to have training, high level training, for teachers who plan to stay in teaching for a long time and can provide leadership within the school and school system.


We're also going to have to provide very well structured alternative pathways that provide induction for people in a shorter term way, so that those who are hired to cover the classrooms really know what they're doing and have support. It's a mistake to see this as “either/or,” yet I suspect that's how it's being played out.


Those teachers, who have been recruited by using large bonuses and quick routes, have no idea what to do, even though they are supposedly the ones that we want to recruit – the highly qualified, the ones who have big science/math and business backgrounds, and have invested time and energy in private industry before their career entrance. Without a really strong induction program and on-going support for teachers, those kinds of programs are going to leave us with what we already have – teachers who don't know what to do.


It’s a given that most everyone agrees that if we need better teachers, then what we need to do is train people more intensively to be teachers. So, if they're now spending a year in education schools, they should spend more than a year, and we should really beef up those programs.


The downside of this argument is that it restricts the supply of teachers; it makes it a very daunting and unattractive thing for a lot of people who would like to go into teaching, who would like to try it, and who may be very creative and enthusiastic. These people may be thinking, “Wow, maybe I'd like to do this!”


They won't do it. They won't do it if they have to go to education school for even a year, or two years, as there are many other opportunities. The smarter they are, the more creative and the more enthusiastic they are, and the more trained they are in various fields, the larger the number of opportunities they are going to have in those other fields.


It seems as if the way to do this is to adopt the opposite track. We should start by stating that there should be no special qualifications besides a bachelor's degree; beyond that, the schools should be able to choose anyone they want.


For instance, right now many professionals are not allowed to teach high school physics or chemistry because they are not qualified; they do not have a teaching certificate! They only have an undergraduate or graduate degree in a hard science or engineering – yet that's not good enough for public schools. There are lots of people in this great land who are retired engineers, or chemists, yet they are not allowed to teach in the schools, simply because they haven't attended a school of education.


What we as a nation must do to free up the whole system is to get away from this “education school” business. There's no evidence that people who go to education schools are better teachers. We're spending lots of money putting people through education schools, and turning away all kinds of people who could be teachers. There's no evidence that we should be doing this.


Lastly, public school systems must have an incentive to hire the best people. Under the current system, the schools really don't have a strong incentive to do that. After all, if the schools do a lousy job, they still get children, and they still get money. They're not competing with anybody. If they hire lousy teachers, or their friends, then the school still gets money and students.


So, I firmly believe that what we need to do is free up licensing and accreditation. We need to introduce more choice and competition, thus giving school systems the incentives to hire the best people. Schools would then be allowed to have access to a much larger pool of people, those who are enthusiastic and interested. These may well end up becoming great teachers and educational leaders, but now are just screened out entirely.


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