There’s been a lot about teacher preparation in the news this past week. Since the flu has kept me largely unconscious the last few days, this entry is a brief summary of what’s been going on.
To begin with, the Texas Board for Educator Certification this week approved a plan for teacher certification intended to address the shortage of qualified teachers in middle and high school. Under the new rules, which must be approved by the State Board of Education, anyone could receive a two-year teaching certificate if they hold a college degree related to the classes they would teach and if they pass the state teacher exam.
There are any number of reasons why this is a bad plan and this editorial in the Houston Chronicle does a good job of laying out some of them. [A parent also weighs in on what makes a good teacher in the Chronicle.]
Supporters of the policy evidently make three assumptions:
(1) The teacher shortage can be corrected, with no loss of education quality, simply by lowering certification standards.
(2) Lowering teacher standards is better than correcting the real problems that drive teachers to other professions — low pay, poor benefits and bad working conditions — because more effective options would cost money.
(3) Anyone who has ever "met a payroll" or delivered a good speech can teach effectively.
In fact, teaching is extraordinarily hard work. Many teachers instruct their students all day and then grade papers for most of the evening. Teachers are counselors, who help their students grapple with all sorts of personal and academic problems; police officers, who look for signs of drug and alcohol abuse; and social workers, who look for indications of child abuse. Teachers must cope with students who have no inclination to learn, who suffer a variety of learning disabilities, who cannot resist disrupting classes and who can be violent. They must deal with parents who believe their children can do no wrong and are the brightest kids on Earth, and with parents who won’t support teacher efforts to make their children work, think and behave. Most individuals who would give the proposed certification alternative a shot have no clue what a classroom is like.
That last line says it all. And the more of these teachers who are placed in the classroom with absolutely no professional preparation, the more problems like this one we’ll be seeing.
On the other hand, college teacher preparation programs are not necessarily the best way to train new teachers. A researcher reviewed the teacher preparation programs at some of the "most prestigious" colleges of education and found them to be "at best uneven and at worst intellectually thin and ineffectual". Of course the study was met with both loud support and vocal derision but the basic findings outlined in the article are probably accurate. Too many education colleges exist in a vacuum, spending too much time on theory and philosophy and not enough on exposing their students to as many different teaching situations as possible.
So, where’s the middle ground in all this? The best way to train new teachers is a mixture of college-level courses and on-the-job training, supported by a strong, school-based mentoring program. The ideal would be an intern system similar to that used to complete the training of doctors. Of course, that approach is also much more expensive than dropping the standards for teacher certification.