To Strengthen Education, Strengthen Teacher Education Programs

I can only imagine the reaction I will receive for this commentary. Speaking out negatively about teachers, when you are a teacher, is unpopular; however, sometimes it is necessary. Our education system has become a hot topic in the last few days as President Obama unveiled his plans to revamp No Child Left Behind. While his ideas are good, and a long time coming, they may focus too late in the timeline of the educational process. If we want to create an educational system that works for our young people, we have to start in the places that provide us with the heads of our classrooms and schools - teacher education programs.

If you picked up last week's Newsweek, you would believe that tenure is the problem that has lead to the failure of the educational system. If you listen to skeptics, you would believe that our children are to blame. They are spoiled, lazy, incapable of meeting high standards, etc. Another perspective would have you think that parents are to blame; so many of our young people are from broken homes, drug-addicted parents, parents who would rather buy them things instead of being involved in their lives, and parents who believe that it is the school's job to teach their children everything they need to know. Isn't that what they pay taxes for? Others would blame No Child Left Behind for its focus on testing and standards-based education, which hinders a student's abilities to develop critical thinking skills. I can't say that I disagree with a mixture of all these problems, but what I have witnessed in my career tells me that many of these things can be overcome when we have the smartest, most determined, most creative, and most challenging teachers in the classroom.

My son's first-grade teacher is an example of that. Mr. Shank is a young teacher, three or four years out of his bachelor's degree program. My son has blossomed in his class. Mr. Shank mixes fun with instruction in a way that fosters life-long-learning (that is what we really want from our educational system, not just for our young people to pass a test by the time they leave high school that has no real meaning for the rest of their lives). It is down to business in Mr. Shank's room, and the boys and girls know it. He provides structure and boundaries while challenging them to follow their own learning path. He is quick to see learning gaps and in tune to the various learning styles and ways to use those learning styles to close those gaps. The bottom line is Mr. Shank gets it. He gets it because teaching is what he was born to do.

If we want more teachers who are born to teach, we have to weed out the people who are taking up space in our already overcrowded teacher education programs to free up resources for those who are capable of doing the job. I see no reason why we should not raise the G.P.A requirements for entrance and implement psychological evaluations. A 'C' average is far too low for entry into teacher education, and anyone who has been through a teacher education program can tell you why psychological evaluations would help drastically. Prospective teachers should be in the K-12 classrooms, working with experienced teachers, from the first year of study. Student teaching as the last requirement is foolish. Why would we want to wait until the end of a degree program to give people a chance to realize that this career isn't for them? We also need to bring in more scholarships for the best and the brightest to go into teacher education programs; and last, and certainly not least, we need to raise teacher pay. We expect that lawyers and doctors will come from the top of their high school classes, and no one thinks twice when they make hundreds of thousands of dollars. But when we suggest that the people that helped them make it to the top of their class be paid decently, it is looked at as ridiculous. It seems so simple to me. If we want the best, we must recruit and graduate the best.

What I have said above about Mr. Shank may have sounded more like a letter of recommendation than a critique of teacher education programs, and it may well be a letter of recommendation, a letter of recommendation not for Mr. Shank, but for every teacher that steps into a classroom in America. We can no longer allow teaching to be a job that people get into because colleges of education are among the easiest degree programs to get into in many of the colleges and universities across the country. Teacher education programs can't be the places where coaches go to get the credentials to teach so they can coach - the job they really want. We have to raise the bar on the people we are letting into teacher education programs, if we expect to have great teachers.