Poverty. Physical and mental abuse. Drug use. Traumatic home life.
As a teacher, I have seen everything. Yet I have seen many kids from horrible backgrounds succeed. Why?
It’s the teachers, stupid.
The single greatest in-school factor affecting student success is teacher competency. My personal experience in the classroom aside, the data support this. As a teacher, I have worked with colleagues who were astonishingly good and others who were barely mediocre. Good teachers go to work. They nudge, inspire, challenge, and get the best out of their kids. Given the same kids, lesser teachers grumble about kids and administration and parents and technology. Set up for failure by our current teacher education model, many of these good people were never taught the pedagogical skills necessary to reach their students.
It is time to create a system that creates a foundation for master teachers before, not after; they are placed in a classroom. It is far too easy to become certified as a teacher. Certification is not mastery.
Raise the bar. Raise student performance.
If we examine another profession, we see that while some doctors are less competent than others, even less-competent physicians are still pretty darn qualified. Why? It is very difficult to become a physician.
Harvard’s Office of Career Services estimates that just 17% of their freshmen who self-identified as ‘pre-med’ will actually apply to medical school. Of those, nearly 93% will be accepted.
The qualifying medical exam, the MCAT, is very difficult. The highest possible score on the MCAT is forty-five. The average score, in 2010, for acceptance at the University of Michigan Medical School was thirty-four. That’s 5 points above the national average. The higher the average score, the more competitive the school.
Regardless of one’s MCAT exam score, you have little chance to enter medical school if your GPA is less than 2.75. In 2005, of 18,000 students admitted to allopathic (M.D.) schools, just 155 applicants had a GPA of less than 2.75.
The process starts anew with residencies. The competition for residencies at top-shelf hospitals in competitive fields is often tougher than medical school acceptance. Nearly 30% of applying residents were left out in the cold in 2012. (Additional supporting documents here).
Medicine sets a high bar.
Ed schools too easy
On the other hand, education has long been the biggest puff major on campus. Get accepted into an undergraduate education program with a 2.75 GPA and watch your GPA soar by 0.5 to 1.0 points. (Additional supporting documents here)
After eight years of school, and five years of residency, a surgeon is allowed to operate without supervision. After three years of undergraduate work and several weeks of classroom observation, a student teacher is set free to ride herd on 150 highly energized young people eager to push the limits of teenage behavior. Is it any wonder that 10 percent of all teachers quit after one year, and another 40 percent quit within four years? Victims of poor training, and their own academic shortcomings, those newbies should never have made it into the classroom in the first place. Our current system is a set up for failure.
Here are five common-sense steps to improve education:
1. Raise the bar. The fact that student GPAs soar once in an education program, yet only 8% of recent UM-Flint education students passed the new, more rigorous Professional Readiness Exam (PRE) tells us that the bar is set much too low. Mere content competency is not enough. As undergraduates, classroom management skills must begin to take root. The latest in neuroscience and educational research must be incorporated into a quality teaching practice. Teachers must master the complex technology at their disposal. The foundations of good teaching must be laid in the classroom, and refined during supervised training. When one begins a full-time, professional teaching career, one should have seven years of education and training, plus a meaningful master’s degree to one’s credit. For all the talk of “teacher accountability,” it is time to hold Colleges of Education equally accountable.
2. Require lengthy supervised teacher-training by trained instructors. In teacher education today, a teacher trainee might receive instruction in lesson planning, coupled with a few minutes of videotaped lessons given in front of one’s teacher trainee cohort. Too frequently, trainees receive scant training in the most mission critical area: classroom management. Nothing a teacher does in class is as paramount as the ability to create and maintain a positive classroom atmosphere. Yet, personal experience suggests this skill is taught “on the fly” and learned “by the seat of the pants.”
Unprepared for the true test of the classroom, the trainee is turned loose on a school. A more experienced teacher ‘supervises’ the introduction to teaching. There is often no curriculum for the trainer to follow. There is rarely a realistic training curriculum for the new teacher to master. Far too many young teachers are left to fend for themselves, as the supervisory teachers leave them to learn on their own.
The solution? Require a well-vetted curriculum for both trainer and trainee. Require the trainer to complete teacher-trainer coursework before she or he is entrusted with training a new teacher. Pay the trainer appropriately for his/her time.
3. Lengthen the training period. Whether or not you buy into Malcom Gladwell’s idea of “10,000 hours to mastery,” one semester of supervised training is clearly inadequate. New teachers need one full-time year of supervised teaching included in their three full years of postgraduate education.
4. Pay teacher trainees a living wage. When a teacher trainee begins the supervised teaching period, she or he should be paid. The ‘unpaid internship” marginalizes the trainees’ skills and minimizes their standing with students, supervising teachers, and administration.
5. Pay full-time teachers accordingly. Let us significantly raise the barriers to a truly professional teaching career. Let us advance only those who have proven themselves as undergraduate students; those who have demonstrated content and pedagogical competency. Let us grant a master’s degree to those who have been well-trained, and are now truly masters’ of education. Let us reward them commensurate with their dedication and talent and mastery.
In 1998, I sat in a lecture hall at the University of Michigan, a 40-year-old man who decided to finally put his bachelor of science in zoology to use. Weeks away from certification as a high school science and English teacher, I had recently taken the Michigan Test for Teacher Competency (MTTC). The test was less than challenging. Among the multiple choice arithmetic questions featured: If a right triangle has one side of 3 cm and another of 4 cm, how long is the hypotenuse? The biology questions were no more difficult: The monk _________ _________ is widely regarded as the father of modern genetics.
Next to me sat a woman in her early thirties. Brow furrowed, she was studying the prep manual for the MTTC. Never one to avoid putting my foot into my mouth, I said, “Takin’ the test this Saturday? No worries. It’s easy.”
She glared at me. “I’ve failed it twice.”
I blushed and shrugged in apology. She moved her seat.
I asked around on the student grapevine. She passed the test on her third try.
For a useful debate on the value of education degrees, click on this link to the NY Times “Room for Debate.”
David Stanley has been a teacher, coach, and corporate executive. He is now a freelance writer and the owner of My Voiceover Masters. His writing can be found at Dads Roundtable and his own blog Rants and Mutters.