The WSJ discusses improving teacher quality with three experts, one of whom is actually a teacher. It is with great interest that I read the comments of educators on their profession. The educator in this piece, Mr. Vilson, who is a frequent commentator, once again disappoints me. It always seems as if his comments, and those of many others, are sanitized for public consumption.
It is a rare thing to find many education commentators, Mr. Vilson among them, propose any real, concrete, specific, and insightful propositions. Instead, they tend to come out like this:
Continuous, constructive feedback, strong professional development, and chances to determine one’s own path while still in the classroom are just some of the recommendations I’d make.
Teachers should have a set of researched best practices, but we would do well to help educators learn how to be nimble as well.
It sounds too careful and sterile.
Without spending all day thinking about it, I can take a quick imaginary walk through my school and my own classroom and come up with my own very specific ways we could improve “teacher quality,” which is a phrase that turns me off.
Teachers are only as good as their support staff. We could invent numerous highly talented educators through adequate investment in paraprofessionals for every classroom, including careful thought on their credentialing and training. This would also include additional investment in the preparation of art, music, and PE teachers, for instance. My teaching would improve in marginal ways if I could count on a specialist teacher to manage my class properly so that I would not have to often return to chaos and disorder.
Hierarchical forms of school organization could be flattened, with very clear delineations of certain job tasks and responsibilities. Additionally, teachers can be offered stipends or salary upgrades for taking on instructional coaching and other specialist responsibilities. Flattened organization could also open up evaluation pathways. I’m not often able to evaluate my administration, or even my own paraprofessionals. I have more experience with some staff members than principals do. And, principals’ positions should depend on more than test scores. It should also include evaluations from teachers, which in my case, are not commonplace.
From a teacher preparation perspective, the larger accrediting bodies, like NCATE or AACTE, hinder innovation. Conformity is key, especially since school systems are trending toward common standards and assessments. The high stakes in schools rubs off on the high stakes of teacher preparation. Schools no longer look to institutions of higher education to improve or innovate their practice. Instead, the pressures that schools are under shape their priorities rather than it being a collaborative relationship. Thus, when student teachers seek to innovate or try new methods, they are often discouraged because a school needs to focus on its test scores.
Increased funding for higher education would improve teacher education because these schools would no longer need to admit any and everyone into their programs just to meet their bottom lines. They could afford to be more selective. Additionally, students should have the option to graduate with a degree in education science, for instance, if they find out that the practice of teaching is not for them. It has been my experience that students who may not be good at teaching realize they’ve spent so much time and money on the degree that they are reluctant to try another path. Schools prevent students from changing degree programs, or make it insanely difficult to find an offramp onto something else. They should be able to get a general education degree without certification if they find that teaching is not for them. That way, we preserve education as a discipline of study that can stand on its own without actual practice. Fewer untalented teachers are ultimately graduated from programs just because institutions simply don’t know what to do with them.
I could go on with this. Perhaps the WSJ did not provide a forum for substantive debate and a lot of detail. But with many education writers, I’ve been unimpressed with the general education knowledge of commentators and the specificity of their recommendations.