Can We Call 70 Percent of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents a Consensus?

Why Not? It May Be as Close as We Get

It sometimes feels as if our country is so polarized these days that a poll broken out by Democrats, Republicans, and Independents would find partisan disagreement on the color of the sky.

But there is a commonsensical notion about education that seems to have broad agreement among all these groups. A recent poll, conducted by Gallup on behalf of Phi Delta Kappa International, shows that a little more than 70 percent of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents -- public school parents and non-public school parents -- agree that teachers should have at least a year of training in which they are supervised by a certified teacher before being responsible for their own classrooms.

With all the caveats that go along with poll results -- they are a snapshot of public opinion often based on limited information -- to me this demonstrates that most people know that teaching is a complex profession, requiring a great deal of knowledge and skill. And yet, far too many 22-year-olds are still taking charge of classrooms without having had much experience in classrooms. The tradition of brand-new teachers being thrown into classrooms to sink or swim is a long tradition in education, in part because recent college graduates can be hired relatively inexpensively. But there is also a sense that teaching comes naturally to some people -- "a born teacher" is a common phrase -- and thus doesn't require any specialized knowledge or skill.

But it is time to count up the cost of hiring and replacing new teachers, one-third of whom leave the profession within three years. Forget for a minute the difficulties of creating a stable learning environment for children in which they develop enough trust in their teachers to learn from them.

Forget the need for teachers to learn to trust each other enough to collaborate on instruction. Just count up the sheer dollars that districts spend recruiting, hiring, and providing orientation on payroll systems and health care benefits.

If a district really looked at those costs they might be quicker to invest in one of the interesting practices that are developing around the country to ensure that new teachers understand what the job entails before they start and that seem to help retain a long-term teaching staff.

Here are a few that spring to mind:
  • Denver has a residency program where it assigns aspiring teachers to work under the direction of a mentor teacher four days a week and attend graduate classesone day a week and another weekend day a month. After a year, they are hired as a classroom teacher.
  • Baltimore is working with the Urban Teacher Center to provide aspiring teachers a year of working under a mentor teacher before being given their own classroom.
  • Brooke Charter School in Boston hires aspiring teachers as teacher aides for one or two years before hiring them as teachers -- both to train them and to assess whether they should be full classroom teachers.
  • Decades ago New York City began offering tuition help to para-educators (teaching assistants) to go to college and earn certification to become full-fledged teachers under the theory that they were familiar with the classroom rhythms and understood the job's requirements.

School board members and superintendents who are considering making an investment up front to ensure that new teachers understand the job they are taking on can take heart from this poll that the public understands the need for such efforts.