Friday, August 15, 2008

First Rate Teachers: The Key to School Reform

Really want to improve American schooling? Here is the first and most essential step. Respect teaching and recognize that it requires special knowledge and skill. Teachers are the key participants in improving our schools: and nothing, or at least nothing good, will happen without strengthening their preparation and licensure. This is no pipe dream. Advances in the teaching knowledge base make it possible to transform teacher preparation into a meaningfully rigorous and truly empowering process. But instead of exploiting this unprecedented opportunity, state and federal officials have been fostering lax, disempowering short cuts into teaching. For instance, thirty eight states now offer so-called alternative certification programs. And most of these alternatives are so undemanding they virtually insure incompetence, indolence or both. And, depite deceptive rhetoric to the contrary, their sole purpose is to license “teachers” on the cheap. This lack of commitment to quality teacher preparatione betrays a lack of genuine commitment to school improvement. Instead of weakening already anemic certification requirements, officials who really were serious about school reform would forget about quickie alternatives to meaningful preparation and, while they were at it, decommision marginal teacher preparation programs at profiteering colleges who specialize in cut-rate certification programs. Serious school reformers would also stop appointing pedagogical simpletons to educational positions of power and influence. When billionaire Ross Perot was appointed to head up school “reform” in Texas, for instance, he was totally, perhaps invincibly, ignorant of the teaching and learning knowledge base. He had no clue about the research that disproved his own blustering encyclicals. And, emboldened by this ignorance, Perot and his accomplices in the Texas legislature made sure that Lone Star state teacher preparation would be brief and superficial. The liberal arts professoriate typified by former Secretary of Education William Bennett are another set of pedagogical ignoramuses who have great influence on teacher preparation. What did Bennett know about schooling, teaching or learning that qualified him to become the nation’s Secretary of Education? Or how about Lynne Cheney, former Chairperson of the National Endowment for the Humanities and wife of the Darth Vader of the Bush administration. As Chair of the NEH, Cheney routinely supported alternative teacher certification while assuring us that an academic education was not only necessary but sufficient for teacher preparation. A large body of research contradicts her assertion. Most scary of all are the big-city school district bosses that want to train their own teachers. What sort of teacher do you think they long for? The same sort of coal miners, coal barons longed for ot the same sort of steel workers the steel barons longed for. Compliant, docile and predictable. With big city school bosses in charge of preparing their own teachers you can be utterly certain that whatever else these aspirants are trained to do, it won’t be to disagree with what these schools are presently doing. Those who care about teaching can be forgiven a certain indignation at the influential trifling of educational incompetents. As the famed philosopher Alfred North Whitehead puts it: When one considers in its length and breadth the importance of a nation’s young, the broken lives, the defeated hopes, the national failures, which result from the frivolous inertia with which (education) is treated, it is difficult to restrain within oneself a savage rage” Alfred North Whitehead The Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York: Macmillan, 1929) p.22. Some say that that arguments of this sort are just a “special interest” of college based teacher educators who are merely “protecting their guild.” But are the interests of teacher educators more “special” than any other human being who cares about what they do. And remember, it took guilds, with their rigorous training, to build enduring masterpieces such as Europe’s great cathedrals. Master glass workers or stone masons certainly didn’t invite “creative, idealistic and enthusiastic” people in off the street to try their hand at stained glass or stone carving. They were unrelenting in their apprenticeship requirements and the results speak for themselves. Mos To examine these issues further, see articles at

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