The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Where mediocrity is the norm, it is not long before mediocrity becomes the ideal."... ...A.N. Wilson.

Commentary of the Day - July 14, 2003:  Who's Teaching Your Children? by Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles - A Review.

Who's Teaching your Children by Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles is an examination of the "teacher crisis" in the United States.  Troen and Boles both are experienced classroom teachers as well as university education school instructors; and, as such are in a good position to comment on this critical issue.  However, their book is best characterized as a "glass half full".  Their analysis of the problems that contribute to the undersupply of well qualified K-12 classroom teachers is incisive.  Unfortunately, the solution that they propose addresses only part of the problem and has -- in the opinion of the Irascible Professor -- serious problems of its own.

Basically, Troen and Boles identify the three principal factors that contribute to the shortage of well-qualified teachers, and show that these factors form a self-perpetuating cycle that will be difficult to break.  One factor in the cycle is the fact that "not enough academically able students are being drawn into teaching".  Another is that "teacher preparation programs need substantial improvement", and the third is that "the professional life of teachers is on the whole unacceptable".

Troen and Boles provide a brief history of K-12 education in the United States.  As the nation grew so did the schools.  The early one room schoolhouses with a single teacher who taught all levels were replaced by Horace Mann's graded schools in which each grade was taught by a different teacher.  The early schoolmasters most often were male.  But, by the mid-nineteenth century the growth of industry had provided greater opportunities for educated men.  The same opportunities were not available to educated women.  School teaching was one of the few careers open to relatively well educated young women; and, teaching quickly became a career dominated by women.  The growth of teacher training academies (the so-called "normal schools) ensured that most women who took teaching position had both a basic grounding in academic subjects and some training in pedagogy.  Over time competition for teaching positions helped to raise standards to the point where many teachers could boast at least a bachelor's degree in an academic subject as well as the pedagogical training required by state credentialing laws.

Although working conditions often were poor and opportunities for advancement almost nonexistent, the lack of other options ensured a steady supply of qualified teachers well into the twentieth century.  The situation did not change greatly until the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1960's.  The equal opportunity and affirmative action legislation of the early 1970's opened up a much wider range of careers for women, particularly women who were well-educated.  Many of these career options were far more lucrative than a teaching job.  The unfortunate consequence has been a serious decline in the quality of candidates for teaching credentials.  Today, students who enter college with the intention of becoming teachers rank near the bottom in SAT scores, and those who apply to graduate and credential programs in education rank near the bottom in GRE scores.

According to Troen and Boles, the decline in the quality of prospective K-12 teachers is made worse by the poor quality of teacher training programs.  Although both Troen and Boles now work in university level programs -- Boles is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Troen works at Brandeis University, their criticism of professional education programs is particularly stinging:

If, for example, the teacher preparation program into which the candidate is admitted were to compensate for academic insufficiency through academic rigor supplemented by excellent teacher preparation, that would be a first step.  If, when the candidate graduated, he or she were to be subjected to a rigid screening process that eliminated the less able and passed only well-qualified teachers into the classroom, that would be a good second step.  Then, if that well-prepared and fully qualified novice, once in the classroom, were to be inducted into a profession in which ongoing learning, growth, and development were part of the culture, that would be the ideal.  Then, and only then, would we have the assurance that we were putting the highest quality teachers into the classroom.

That never happens.  Not in preparation, not in certification, and not in professional development.

As if weak academic preparation and poor pedagogical training were not enough to ensure that the American K-12 effort is forever doomed to mediocrity at best, Troen and Boles show with great skill that the professional life of a teacher is "the pits".  They provide evidence that "teaching has become increasingly dangerous, unhealthy, and unpleasant"; that it is "an isolated, dead-end job with no career path"; that "teachers are kept at the bottom of the power structure"; and that "ineffective leadership compounds poor performance".  Poor working conditions combined with ineffective support for new teachers is the primary reason that new teachers leave the profession early.  As the IP has noted previously and as Troen and Boles agree, the teacher shortage is far more a retention problem than a recruitment problem.

The first four chapters of the book which outline these problems represent "the glass half full".  The last two chapters, in the IP's opinion, are not nearly as persuasive as the first four.  Chapter 5, which is devoted to the "myths and realities of 'education reform'", is all encompassing.  Nearly every education reform proposed or enacted in the last 25 years is considered by the authors and found wanting.  These range from more testing and class size reduction to school choice (vouchers and charter schools) and merit pay for teachers.  Unfortunately, Troen and Boles believe that they have developed the reform plan that trumps all the others; and, much of this chapter ends up being a broad-brushed trashing of everything else that has been tried.

The final chapter is a description of Boles and Troen's vision of "millennium schools" that, in their view, would solve the serious problems they outline in the first four chapters.  The IP can see some merit in many of their suggestions, which would restructure schools in a way that most likely would make the professional life of teachers better.  But, what is far from clear is whether these "millennium schools", which would be staffed by hierarchy of "chief instructors", professional teachers", "teachers", "teaching interns", and "instructional aides" all working in teams to educate students, could be implemented within the economic constraints facing most school districts.  In addition, there is no guarantee that improving working conditions and professional status for the teachers will have much effect on either the weaknesses in teacher training programs or on the societal problems that affect learning for too many of our children.

Even with its shortcomings, Who's Teaching Your Children? is a book that should be read by everyone who is involved in the academic or professional education of K-12 teachers.
Who's Teaching Your Children? by Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles (ISBN 0-300-09741-7) is published by Yale University Press (New Haven), and is available from your favorite book seller for about $25 plus tax.


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© 2003 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.