The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"You don't have to be an education professor to have a dumb idea."... ...Peter Berger

Commentary of the Day - November 11, 2002:  No Experience Desired.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

Suppose for the sake of argument that you bought into the stock market when it seemed like prices would never go down.  Now suppose you're nervously watching your IBM stock plummet.  The board of directors takes action and hires a new CEO.  Their choice is a middle school computer teacher.  Do you feel relieved?

How about a guidance counselor for Secretary of State?  Or an English teacher as editor of The New York Times?  Or a school nurse as director of the DEA?

Finally, imagine yourself on the table, slipping under anesthesia.  You gaze up groggily into the face of your surgeon, except instead it's your daughter's biology teacher.  "Relax," he reassures you.  "I know a lot about organs."

I'd be nervous, too.  That's because even a mediocre surgeon knows more about surgery than an excellent biology teacher.

When it comes to teaching, some policy makers disagree.  They're eager to replace teachers with all sorts of people.  Who better to blame for the troubles at school than the teachers in the trenches and the administrators who've been calling the shots?

Well, let's see.  There's the breakdown of families, misguided social agendas, epidemic complacency, spurious lawsuits, ill-conceived mandates, crippling regulations, thirty years of pipe dream reforms...

Let's set the blaming aside for a moment.  The fact is some teachers really are lousy at their jobs.  Some of us simply don't have the right stuff.  Mediocrity is a reality in every profession.  If it weren't, we wouldn't have to contend with mediocre carpenters, lawyers, and physicians.  But sharing the problem with other professions doesn't solve the problem among teachers.

Much of the current criticism focuses on teacher training programs and licensing requirements.  If you've ever questioned the wisdom of the latest school "innovation," or shaken your head at the bandwagons that parade through our classrooms, or asked yourself, "What's going on at that school," consider the results of a recent Public Agenda study.  While parents and veteran teachers endorse "safe, orderly schools" with more emphasis on "mastering basic skills," "good work habits," and "values such as honesty and respect," four out of five education professors consider these goals "outmoded and mistaken."

Parents and working teachers rate discipline as a top priority, but the teachers of teachers rank it near the bottom of their list.  Barely one third of the professors believe that maintaining "discipline and order in the classroom" is an essential teaching skill.  Slightly more than half agree that teachers need to be "deeply knowledgeable" about the subject they teach.  This means that almost half the people training teachers think that knowing your subject isn't "absolutely essential."

No wonder we've got problems.

Secretary of Education Rod Paige has called for the elimination of the "burdensome education requirements" that characterize most teacher training programs.  He's looking for "smart teachers with solid content knowledge."  So is No Child Left Behind, which requires "highly qualified" teachers in every classroom by 2005.

Hang on a second.  Let me find my magic wand.

Aside from student teaching, I took three education courses to qualify for my high school license.  Elementary license requirements are more extensive, but the trouble with teacher training programs isn't that they're burdensome.  The trouble is they're appallingly unsound.  They turn out teachers weaned on bad ideas.

According to Secretary Paige, thousands of highly trained, intelligent professionals in other fields like engineering, accounting, and business management secretly long to be teachers.  They'd allegedly flock to the classroom if it weren't for the licensing requirements.

News flash: Most engineers, accountants, and business tycoons enjoy making more money than teachers.  They also prefer not spending their days immersed in adolescents.  That's why they're not in the classroom.

Think tankers propose luring these closet educators with "dramatic new pay scales for teachers" including "an increase of at least fifty percent."  Others suggest we keep salaries where they are and simply declare teaching a "prestige" profession.  Both proposals prove you don't have to be an education professor to have a dumb idea.

Remove every licensing requirement, and you won't see a flood of "real world" applicants for the classroom.  Of the few you do see, most won't be around two years from now.

Critics also advocate replacing principals and superintendents with "nontraditional" administrators drawn from the ranks of business and the military.  Chicago officials have initiated plans to license ex-soldiers as principals.  After three years of training, these non-teachers get to run schools.  At grant-funded "boot camps" across the country, business executives spend "a weekend" - yes, an entire weekend -- "training to become superintendents of urban school districts."  Meanwhile, New York City has placed its entire school system in the hands of the ex-CEO of a media conglomerate.

Boosters argue that inexperience doesn't matter because "leadership skills translate from one field to another."  Successful soldiers and executives make successful principals.

Terrific.  Let's commission our successful principals as generals and hand them each an army.

Program sponsors promise to produce administrators "with the stamina and capacity to lead."  Except how will these novice leaders know where they're going, never mind how to get there?  Supporters counter that "public school experience" isn't the proper "route to leadership" in a school system.

Wait a minute.  Public education already rests in the hands of bureaucrats, experts, and lawmakers who wouldn't know a real classroom if they tripped into one.  That's the fundamental problem.  When it comes to education policy and administration, it's been a long time, a disastrously long time, since schools were run by people with real school experience.  Replacing educators who have little or no classroom experience with non-educators who have little or no classroom experience doesn't make much sense or offer much hope.

Irrelevant requirements shouldn't be part of any licensing process.  And there's doubtless teaching talent out there in other fields.

But before you rush to bring in new blood and new faces, just remember your kid's teacher with a scalpel in his hand.  Or picture Poor Elijah commanding a battalion.

Working with kids and chalk isn't as simple as it looks.

©2002, Peter Berger

Peter Berger teaches language arts in Weathersfield, Vermont.  His "Poor Elijah's Almanack" articles have been published in a number of regional newspapers.  Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer messages addressed to him in care of the editor.

The IP comments:  Here in California we have a large number of K-12 teachers working on "emergency credentials" who have come into the profession with no formal experience or training.  These emergency credential teachers are given five years in which to earn their regular teaching credentials.  As Peter notes in his commentary, many of these people quickly become disillusioned and drop out.  However, some do make the transition successfully.

The IP agrees entirely with Berger's observations about those who actually run schools.  Too few have had enough enough actual classroom experience to give them the insight that they need to lead.

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