Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tougher Teacher Preparation: The Most Essential Step Toward Better Schools

“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.

Really want to improve American schooling? Here is the first and most essential step. Recognize that better teachers are the key ingredient for improving our schools; and wake up to the fact that nothing, or at least nothing good, will happen until we strengthen their preparation.

How can this be done? Most undergraduates are too immature, ignorant and unmotivated for serious teacher preparation. What is required is thorough professional preparation in a post-graduate professional school similar to that required of lawyers, medical doctors, veterinarians, opticians, and podiatrists. In other words, make teacher preparation similar to that of trades we really care about.

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 opportunity, state and federal officials have been fostering lax, disempowering short cuts into teaching.

Not content with the already slap dash preparation offered in undergraduate schools of education, thirty-eight states also offer so-called alternative certification programs as well. Most of these programs are so undemanding they do little or nothing to eliminate incompetence. Despite public rhetoric to the contrary, these short cuts are set up to license “teachers” on the cheap.

If our politicos were really serious about improving the nation’s schools, they would forget about quickie teacher preparation alternatives; close marginal teacher preparation programs at profiteering colleges who specialize in cut-rate certification; and simultaneously set up graduate level professional schools of pedagogy that feature demanding entrance and graduation requirements.

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, as politicians do with teaching, to try their hand at stained glass or stone carving. They were unrelenting in their apprenticeship requirements and the results speak for themselves. We need a similar approach in teacher preparation.

Sadly, too many public officials have a hidden agenda that is inimical to quality teacher preparation. They want to increase the supply of teachers by cheapening certification requirements. That drives down salaries and cuts the cost of government.

Anyone with an ounce of sense knows that higher salaries would have to be paid for highly trained, deeply committed teachers who really command the skills of their trade. And the average American simply isn’t willing to dig deep enough into their pocket to pay this tab. So there is little political benefit in supporting more rigorous requirements.

What is more, if the people entering teaching are less knowledgeable and less committed to the profession, it weakens teacher unions — a prime goal of Republican politicians whose election bids are routinely opposed by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

What needs to be done is obvious. What is equally obvious is that this is not going to happen any time soon. So, in the meantime, our politicians will keep messing about with high stakes tests, charter schools and any other 'remedy' that can be accomplished on the cheap.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

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