Forever waiting for Superman

So there is a constant racket in the news about how we have a shortage of public school teachers, how most of the teachers are retiring, and how there are all sorts of programs to get people into teaching. But wait, we don’t want just any teachers, only ‘highly qualified’ ones. If we’re waiting for Superman to swoop in and magically save the system…good luck. We’ll be waiting forever.

To be ‘highly qualified’ under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), a teacher must have a bachelor’s degree (with a certain GPA in some states), be state-certified (requiring a Masters of Teaching in some states), and demonstrate competency in every subject area taught (as measured by tests). This is yet another quick fix that sounds good on paper but, in reality, reduces the supply of teachers without clearly increasing teaching quality. No clear connection exists between depth of knowledge and teaching quality. If it did, PhD holders would teach noticeably better than others as a whole, and this is simply not the case, as many tortured college students can attest. Think of how many promising prospects are immediately cut out without even a glance. Maybe their only sin was not having the money to finish college or not doing as well as they could have because they were working 3 jobs to pay their way through. Now we are asking them to shell out more money to 1) finish their degree, 2) get state-certified, and 3) pay for more testing. It’s not going to happen.

We need better ability and talent evaluators, not another quick fix. If anything, teaching ability is more a function of aptitude and motivation to improve, not knowledge. Knowledge can be learned’quickly even’however, motivation and aptitude cannot.

Obviously enough fresh meat makes it through the grinder to keep the system squeaking along. And what do these brave souls get as their reward? How about relatively low pay, long hours, disinterested students, domineering or absentee parents, and a nightmarish bureaucracy? Depending on what statistics you believe, maybe only half of them are still teaching public school after 5 years. If they had the ability and resources to make it through the grinder, they clearly have other options within the economy. Why stick around when they can make more money with less stress in another job or industry? I’m not so cynical as to question their desire to teach, but they are only human.

Everyone wants to talk about quality when it is more important to talk about retention. After all, what good is recruiting highly qualified teachers only to see them exit the field in a few years? There are many good ideas on the table–things like reducing the bureaucracy, providing better administrative support, creating an expeditiously process for removing bad teachers, and raising teacher pay. Are we implementing many of them? No, because it’s too hard. Our nation as a whole has opted for the easy way out by simply raising the standards for teachers and expecting them to be Supermen and Superwomen.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but we should have learned long ago that Superman only exists in comics and movies. Superman will not save us; we must save ourselves. The time for talk is over. The time to act is now. We must roll up our sleeves and do some honest hard work to fix the system. Let’s put our money with our mouth is. Let’s make hard choices. Let’s compromise. If we’re unwilling to do these things, then please, stop wasting air, bandwidth, and paper, talking about it.

Comments welcome!