Children are the Future–Let’s Start Acting Like It

frazzled-715510The most recent report from the American Federation of Teachers, Raising the Bar: Aligning and Elevating Teacher Preparation and The Teaching Professions, argues “We must do away with a common rite of passage, whereby newly minted teachers are tossed the keys to their classrooms, expected to figure things out, and left to see if they (and their students) sink or swim. Such a haphazard approach to the complex and crucial enterprise of educating children is wholly inadequate.” The report confirms what many of us already know: teaching is complicated and teacher preparation is relatively inadequate. There is, and this is from the “No duh” department, a significant gap between preparation and the reality of the classroom.

While I’m not a huge fan of the plan’s heavy reliance on a national “bar exam” for teachers, I do applaud the concept. If, we might argue, we want to really treat teaching like a profession, then we need to reform teacher education to reflect the professional aspect of the job. In other words, if we create an exam that is difficult and an exam that truly requires mastery of content, we increase the perception that teaching is a field attracting our best and brightest. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that teaching is still seen, stereo-typically, as a job of last resort. “Those who can do; those who can’t teach” the cliche says.

Since it’s the holiday season and lists are in, I’ll offer my five point plan to reform teacher education.

1. Restructure Teacher Education requirements, Part 1: Nothing replaces content knowledge, I tell my students. You can be a marginal writer, an average speaker, and even a relatively dull person, but if you know your primary material you will be okay. Currently, in Texas, teacher education students spend too little time in their field of interest and too much undergraduate time in teacher education classes discussing theories that may or may not work in the classroom. If you want to teach science, learn science at the undergraduate level. Knowing the theories of teaching simply means you know how to present information but if you don’t understand the information first and foremost you are just doing a song and dance. And the students know it. The net result in the classroom is twofold: teachers offer less and less complex information (because they don’t understand the subject) in an increasingly superficial way and they lose confidence each time a student asks a question they can’t answer, leading to poorly performing students and dissatisfied teachers.

2. Restructure Teacher Education requirements, Part 2: Teacher Education classes should come after the interested student completes the BA or BS degree, earning a minimum 3.0 in all required discipline specific courses. At the university level, we require that a student complete 18 hours of the Masters degree prior to entering the college classroom. These are students who have earned a discipline specific degree, have completed 18 hours of discipline specific classes, and they have spent one semester observing a faculty member. When they step into the classroom, they may be many things but unprepared isn’t one of them. Public school teachers, after earning the BA or BS, effectively, earns a masters degree in teacher education and/or curriculum and instruction. After a year in the college classroom post-undergraduate, they begin observation/internships at local schools. The concept is simple: now that they have facility with the material, we teach them how to convey that information in the most effective manner.

3. Pass the “Bar Exam.” See the American Federation of Teachers link above. In essence, this exam carries the weight of a CPA, Bar, and other professional exams. Passing the exam isn’t just about teachers showing knowledge. Passing the exam is about demonstrating to the world your status as a teacher warrants respect because it’s a rigorous process. I can’t overstate the relevance of such a thing–we might dislike lawyers (and tell great jokes about them) but we respect what they have to do to become lawyers. Perception, philosophically isn’t reality, but we also know that teachers are daily bombarded in the media, treated increasingly with disrespect, and that attitude leaks into the classroom environment. Let’s be honest, though, some of the criticism is valid. The current requirements in place for teachers lend themselves to a lack of respect. Too many college students see teaching as a default degree. We can change that attitude be increasing our standards.

4. Create a pay scale that offers incentives to stay in the profession. Teacher salaries aren’t bad. Certainly, one might argue that asking students to do 1-3 above would necessitate increasing the starting pay to a level that reflects the other types of professions. I’m not sold on that concept because I think we can create incentives that work just as well (see #5 below) with less burden on the taxpayer. But, we must create a system that allows the starting salaries to increase based on a performance-scale that considers the input in the evaluation of the output. If I’m teaching in a property-rich school filled with students from two-parent, college educated families (not only am I in teacher heaven), my output (the number of students who graduate, go to college, and get a job) will be high. If I’m teaching in a low income district where English is a second language, my students are hungry, and the parents are working two or three jobs just to reach the poverty-line, my output will be lower. That doesn’t mean I’m not doing a good job. I say that if we can put a space probe at the edge of the galaxy, we can come up with a metric that takes into account where the student starts and my impact on his learning. My pay needs to increase based on those metrics and it needs to increase on a regular basis.

5. Create alternative salary incentives. Publicly financed education is tough and we shouldn’t pretend it isn’t but we also need to start thinking differently about pay for some professions. Cities and states offer businesses tax abatements, reduced tax rates, and free loans/publicly financed buildings as incentives. The idea is that bringing a business into your town increases jobs and population stability. If you know X number of people will live here and they will make Y dollars, you can anticipate expenses and revenues. People with well-paying jobs buy houses, send kids to school, etc. Businesses that hire highly educated people receive the highest rebates. Cities and states view these tax incentives as long-term investments. I will state the obvious: good teachers create highly skilled workers who attract businesses, they buy houses, and provide economic stability. As we think about compensation, then, for our newly minted teachers who have undergone the new, rigorous certification, let’s offer publicly-funded, business-like incentives. The average student graduates with $24,000 in debt. For teachers who remain in the profession after three years, we can start to forgive a certain % of their student loan debt. We can offer low interest or no interest home loans after a teacher’s fifth year. For their first 5 years, we provide low cost housing. If we really want  to get ambitious, we can create school villages where housing is owned by the district and “rented” to teachers at cost for a certain number of years.

Admittedly, the above reforms would require massive changes and growing pains. Instituting the changes would have an immediate impact on the number of people qualified to teach and, in a system already struggling to keep teachers, but in the long term we would all benefit. Every politician out there will tell you they want to reform education because “our children are the future.” Agreed. Let’s start acting like it then.

 

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

One Response to Children are the Future–Let’s Start Acting Like It

  1. fred ogbanga says:

    ples i want 2 b an actor

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