“Our most glaring problem is still recruitment/preparation of good teachers & principals and that’s no closer to being solved.”
So tweeted Seth Lavin (@SethLavin), a teacher in Chicago, in reaction to the recent settlement of the high-profile teachers strike in that same city (a strike he supported). Not only do I wholeheartedly agree with Seth, but I believe the entire political-spectacle-slash-debacle we just watched unfold in the Windy City illustrates everything, and I mean everything, that is wrong with education politics in America today. We saw otherwise rational grownups behave like tempestuous children as they fought over minor, incremental changes (at best) to a fundamentally broken system , all while ignoring the needs of actual children – and managing to destroy any semblance of trust and collaboration between school officials, union leaders, teachers, and parents in the process.
What is truly remarkable about the Chicago teachers strike is how utterly oblivious all sides seem to be to the problem that Seth, and for that matter anyone who’s been inside a classroom lately, so easily identifies. We need good teachers, particularly to teach our poorest children. This is the biggest education-related problem facing Chicago. This is the biggest problem facing California. Long term, I think it’s the biggest problem facing the nation. Yet, we pay woefully inadequate attention to attracting bright young people into the teaching profession, or properly training them to become effective when they enter the classroom.
First, as to attracting talent, just imagine for a moment the offer we’re making to prospective teaching candidates today. No one in their right mind truly thinks that anyone wants to enter the profession because of the take-home pay. The combination of imploding budgets and seniority-based layoff policies has destroyed any notion of job security in the early part of a teacher’s career. And creativity and experimentation at the school and classroom level are stifled through a confluence of rigid workplace rules and inflexible accountability systems. In a related story, the number of credentials issued to new teachers in California dropped by 40% in the past seven years.
Second, as to teacher training, our system is a complete mess. We have somewhere around 1,300 teacher-preparation programs in the U.S. embedded in institutes of higher education. Most of these programs happily accept anyone who applies, offer coursework that’s irrelevant to actual classroom instruction, and then kiss the teachers they train goodbye at graduation, without any effort to track their graduates’ effectiveness at improving student learning. This isn’t just my opinion, either – Katherine Merseth, the director of the teacher education program at Harvard, estimates that 100 programs are adequately training teachers but the other 1,200 “could be shut down tomorrow.”
The good news is that we’re starting to wake up to the problem. For example, the “Greatness by Design” report on California teacher preparation, issued by the Task Force on Educator Excellence and commissioned by Superintendent Torlakson, contains a few good suggestions. These include requiring all school leadership programs to reapply for approval based on new, higher standards (good idea) and infusing the Common Core state standards into teacher preparation (even better). At the federal level, I’m partial to Senator Bennet’s GREAT Teachers and Principals Act, which would support new teacher training programs similar to those we see at High Tech High in San Diego, or the Aspire Teacher Residency program.
But neither these nor any other policies are likely to have any meaningful effect unless the adults that purport to care about education stop behaving like ninnies. Reformers need to stop assuming union leaders are all retrograde, lazy-teacher-protecting bureaucrats, just as union leaders need to stop spinning conspiracy theories suggesting that all reformers are privileged hedge fund managers hell-bent on school privatization. These stereotypes serve no one, least of all kids, and prevent any meaningful overtures toward collaboration.
Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, recently wrote in a short paper, Teachers, Their Unions and the American Education Reform Agenda, that if education reform:
… consists in the main of forcing the unions to the wall, that is a policy that is almost certain to lead to no improvement in the qualifications of teachers as well as a broad decline in the morale of teachers we already have. In fact, further eroding the morale of our current teaching workforce will prove a very effective deterrent to recruiting young people to teach in our schools….Getting to a place where these issues can be productively addressed requires first a relationship of trust between government and labor. Building that trust ought to be the first order of business.
Let’s start building.
Benjamin Riley is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit organization that supports education entrepreneurs. Previously, Ben worked as a deputy attorney general for the California Department of Justice, where he worked primarily on education-related matters. He currently lives in Washington, D.C. but will one day return to the Golden State.