Sunday, April 30, 2006

What if Kristof Wanted To Teach Journalism?

Today, behind the NY Times firewall, Nicholas Kristof offers Teachers Without Pedigrees, a proposal that we should reduce or eliminate teacher certification requirements to increase the pool of candidates for public K-12 education. Kristof doesn't mention accelerated certification programs already available, perhaps because he deems an additional nine to fifteen months of schooling and student teaching to be too much of an impediment to somebody whose interest is more transitory.
Suppose Colin Powell tires of giving $100,000-a-pop speeches and wants to teach high school social studies. Suppose Meryl Streep has a hankering to teach drama.

Alas, they would be "unqualified" for a public school. Elite private schools would snap them up, of course, but public schools that are begging for teachers would have to turn them away because they don't have teacher certification.
Why are we dreaming up these hypotheticals, involving celebrities with no apparent interest in taking over a public school classroom? Why isn't Mr. Kristof describing his own desire to teach, and how he is unable to do so by virtue of his lack of a teaching certificate? Because that's the heart of the issue - the best teachers aren't people we wish were in the classroom due to their celebrity, but are people who want to be in the classroom. Kristof notes,
The other problem is that the quality of teachers is deteriorating, mostly because — fortunately! — women have more career options. A smart and ambitious woman graduating from college in 1970 often ended up as a third-grade teacher; today, she ends up as a surgeon or senator.
So the problem is that most people, given a choice between being a K-12 classroom teacher or a different career, choose a different career? And the solution to this is to make it easier for people who have chosen other career paths to dip their toes into the water of public education, without making any real commitment to that career path?

It's not that I'm enamored with teacher certification programs - I'm not. It's also not that I disagree with the idea that people who do not have teaching certificates should be able to experience what it is like to try to teach in a public school classroom - in fact, I've seen some people who wanted to be teachers find out during student teaching or their first year of teaching that they really don't want to be in a classroom or simply don't have the aptitude for classroom management. I wouldn't mind seeing more students get some classroom experience before they are accepted into public education programs, but suspect that such an initiative might in fact further reduce the pool of graduates from teaching colleges.

Kristof suggests giving principals the option of hiring highly qualified, thoroughly screened, but uncertified teachers:
That's the situation in some of America's most elite private high schools. Phillips Exeter Academy, for example, says that 85 percent of its faculty have advanced degrees but probably only a handful are certified. (Since it is private, it doesn't worry about certification or even keep track of which teachers are certified.)

At Exeter, for example, biology is taught by a former doctor. Japanese is taught by a former businessman who worked in Japan. And a history teacher arrived with no teaching experience but has published five books.
Hoo boy.... We're going to pretend that the experience of Phillips Exeter Academy, with day tuition and fees approaching $30,000 per year, would be shared by public schools? Why not make a comparison to parochial schools, which are also at liberty to hire uncertified teachers, but which often pay less and offer fewer benefits than public schools? Who knows? Maybe somewhere in the Catholic school system there's a former doctor teaching biology classes.

I have some personal experience from "way back when" working as a substitute teacher. (In most public school districts you can serve as a substitute teacher if you have a bachelor's degree, or possibly if you have completed certain undergraduate coursework.) I recall a subsequent law day when I gave a number of presentations in public schools (something that is, by the way, much easier than teaching) followed by a presentation in a Catholic middle school. The difference was striking - well-behaved, well-groomed kids, sitting quietly in their desks? It isn't that their teachers are paid more or are better qualified. It is that the kids' parents have a different attitude toward education, with different overall attitudes both to the teachers and to their own kids, and their school can decline to accept them back (or even expel them) if they fail to comport to expected standards of conduct.

Kick that same concept up to a level where the tuition is higher than most of those Catholic schoolkids' parents were taking home on an annual basis, and you're going to not only have a much more enjoyable teaching environment, but one which can pay teachers very well. Public school teachers aren't lining up to take a cut in pay or benefits to work in a private school, just as Meryl Streep, Colin Powell, and Nicholas Kristof aren't lining up to teach in public school, but I doubt that Exeter has any shortage of highly qualified applicants.

Kristof also mentions a program which places college graduates in inner city classrooms,
One superb initiative for young college graduates is Teach for America, which last year had 17,000 applicants for 2,000 spots teaching in low-income schools. Among those who applied were 12 percent of Yale's senior class and 8 percent of Harvard's and Princeton's.
Sure. They make a two-year commitment to teach in the inner city. With the ability to reject 88% of the applicants the program should have no difficulty selecting applicants who have the necessary interest and aptitude to complete the program. Program participants come in with a new college graduate's energy and enthusiasm and are gone long before they burn out. Teach for America indicates that 60% of those who complete the program remain in education as "teachers, principals, education policy advisors and leaders and staff of education reform organizations", but provides no figure for how many remain in inner city schools.

For Kristof, the essence of teacher qualification isn't training or intelligence - "Maybe it helps to be brilliant and to have studied teaching, but mostly it is personality." So it is his own reflections on his personality which keeps "math geek" Kristof from teaching high school calculus?

You know what? We're not going to get a significantly increased pool of highly qualified teachers (with or without sparkling personalities) without making some changes to our attitudues toward teaching, without being willing to increase teacher pay, and while we continue to drive good teachers out of the profession with standardized testing requirements which drive the fun (and real learning) out of a good classroom.


  1. I'm baffled by his assertion that the teacher pool was better when it was filled with people who had no other career choice, and who could be forced out of their jobs on marrying or getting pregnant.

    The obvious conservative solution is to pay teachers more; that will attract qualified candidates to the profession. Funny how those who support capitalism and the market suddenly get brain freeze when it comes to the impact on teaching, though.

  2. Oh, and to add to my earlier comment: private schools also aren't required to take all comers, as public schools are. It's not so much a matter of expelling offender as not having to take them in the first place--or to take special-needs students.

  3. My late father was a high school and junior college teacher (in Chicago and Evanston public schools) for years until he finished his doctorate and went on to become a history professor.

    At MSU, given his experience in public education, he became involved in the teacher training program. He was chair of a national conference on high school advanced placement courses in 1968. For years, he taught Education 327J, "Methods of Teaching History", and basically saw every MSU student who planned on becoming a high school history teacher.

    But he had to constantly fight with the College of Education, and by the late 1970s, he became very discouraged with the low caliber of the students who aspired to teach in high school. Eventually, he gave up the teacher training stuff entirely.

    He made some of the same observations as Kristof: the best students in the teacher training program were usually women, but as other career options opened up for women, they were gone.

    He felt very strongly that the only education variable that made any difference was the quality of the teaching. In his Ed327J days, he was dealing with high schools all over the state, and he saw little correlation between the quality of education and the quantity of money spent on it.

    He also did sometimes opine that it would be good for schools if topnotch people could be persuaded to spend a few years teaching on the way to more lucrative and prestigious careers, and that the certification model made this impossible. But I think what he had in mind was a kind of national service requirement for new college grads rather than Meryl Streep stopping by to chat about drama.

  4. I understand your father's position, but I personally disagree that the only education variable that makes any difference was the quality of the teaching. That's not the experience of the educators in my family, nor was it mine when I was a substitute teacher.

    To take an obvious example, I spent some time substitute teaching in a resource room for emotionally disturbed kids. It was pretty good as resource rooms go - really, not a bad bunch of kids - and they did have a good teacher. But most were functioning significantly below grade level.

    To look at it another way, if the only variable that truly makes a difference is the quality of teaching, why would it matter what quality of student comes into a teaching school?

    I doagree that, past a certain basic threshold, increased school funding doesn't make much difference. At the same time, additional funding can potentially make school life more enjoyable and provide additional academic and extracurricular choices for students.

  5. And, if the only difference were the quality of the teaching, then teaching would be the only profession where what you pay has no correlation with the quality or dedication of the employee.

    It's true that money alone isn't a measure of quality, and that a sparkly new science lab doesn't make up for awful teachers; but money certainly insures that, for example, a school can meet the needs of special-education children, fix the holes in the roof, and have up-to-date reading materials.

  6. This sounds like it might be a good place for "the blueberry story"


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