Tuesday, October 29, 2013
Raise Standards for Aspiring Teachers?
I often agree with New York Times columnist Bill Keller. But not last week. Not entirely. In a piece called "An Industry of Mediocrity" (link) Keller went after the education of America's teachers. He said it's been "a subject of dismay for many years"; he quoted the National Council on Teacher Quality's judgment that it is "an industry of mediocrity." I can't really disagree with those judgments--but not for the same reasons. (Hang on; I'll tell you why in a bit.)
Keller blamed universities, calling schools of education "a contented cartel." And then he began suggesting remedies--and it was there that we diverged in a yellow wood.
His first idea? We should "make teacher colleges much more selective." I can't think of a more certain way to create a teacher shortage, by the way. Here's why: You can make teacher education programs as selective as the Navy Seals and Harvard and Princeton and Stanford and the NBA combined, and it won't make a bit of difference for a simple reason: Teacher pay and working conditions are, well, far below what other selective programs--e.g., medicine, engineering, law, professional basketball, etc.--can offer. So, sure, there will always be (even as there have always been) idealistic, bright, talented, creative young people who will enter teaching simply because they want to make the world a better place. But not nearly enough to staff the nation's public schools. Probably not enough to staff the schools of Toledo, Ohio.
Whatever it is--if you want to attract people, you have to make your enterprise attractive. And teaching, right now (in most places), is highly unattractive. Yes, salaries are better than what you'd earn in a McJob, but benefits have leveled off, unions have weakened, status is low, and the determination to standardize the curriculum--the profession itself--teachers themselves--has made teaching so unappealing that I would not even consider entering the profession today.
For virtually all of my forty-five year career as a secondary-school English teacher (middle and high school), I had tremendous academic freedom. Within the general confines of the curriculum I could teach what I wanted in the ways I wanted. Please do not confuse "academic freedom," however, with "anything goes." What I mean is that I was able--with the advice and consent of my principal, my department chair, my department, and the demands of the English discipline itself--to develop themes and lessons that I believed would benefit kids--and would fit with my personality and talents and skills and knowledge. That situation was tremendous for my morale--and for my colleagues' morale, as well, for they were enjoying the same freedom. (And high teacher morale often translates into a happier, more productive classroom.)
I realized, too--very early in my career--that there was no single best way to teach. All around me I saw very successful colleagues teaching in ways that I could not--ways, even, that I very much disagreed with. But, somehow, most of it worked.
What I did generally worked, too--but not always. Many kids related well to me--liked my classes, learned; other kids didn't. But the schools where I taught recognized that a variety of teaching styles in the building was a strength, not a problem. Sometime during the day it was likely (probable? certain?) that a kid was going to find a teacher to connect with. It might happen in my class; it might not. But it was likely to happen somewhere if the school sought to cultivate varieties of excellence. This, sadly, will no longer be true when we invite Procrustes to be in charge of teacher education.
So ... to Keller's first point: If salaries and working conditions remain troublesome, if schools discourage innovation and creativity and individualism, then all the elevated standards in the world will do nothing. Bright, talented people do not want to work somewhere where their brightness and talents are irrelevant--or, worse, a problem.
Keller also argues that teachers need more rigorous courses--both in the art and science of teaching and in individual subject areas. No argument from me on that. All I would suggest is that there be an emphasis, as I've said, on innovation and creativity. Kids get turned on when teachers are turned on, and no one gets turned on when we're all doing the same thing on the same day at the same time in the same way. Again--only Procrustes smiles at such a prospect. Creative types run the other way.
Finally, Keller declares that "too much student teaching is too superficial--less a serious apprenticeship than a drive-by." Can't argue with that, either. Though I will say that young teaching candidates today have far more experiences in schools and classrooms than I did back in the winter of 1965-1966 when I did my student teaching. Prior to that I had had no experiences in classrooms; at age 21 I had no idea until I walked into that classroom if I would like what I was doing--or would be any good at it. That was a disaster movie waiting to be filmed. Fortunately, I found I did love the life. I wept when I retired--and for all the right reasons.
So--my suggestions? Greatly improve teacher salaries and benefits and working conditions (e.g., class sizes, non-teaching duties) and academic freedom. Raise standards for admission to the profession. Reform teacher education courses. All pretty much simultaneously.