Monday, May 26, 2008

The Future of Teaching

Another school year is coming to a close. As students fan-out to playgrounds and summer jobs the perennial challenge is raised anew – where will we find enough quality teachers to meet the needs of our next academic year?

The perennial answer is “pay they enough”. But this addresses the wrong part of the challenge. For decades local school boards, and politicians at all levels, have fixated on competing for young professionals, fresh from college, to populate the classrooms of America. This keeps the teacher debate mired in a no-win proposition. Even in this stagnant economy, the public education system cannot amass enough of money to outbid the private sector for top talent.

Every top graduate, save for a dwindling number of idealists who may opt for teaching or the Peace Corps, aspires to work for the highest bidder. This is the marketplace at its most efficient. But this results in teachers being those who are not the top talent. Worse, state certification systems require public school teachers to have in depth knowledge of “teaching methods” not of a particular topic. I have watched as teachers, even private school teachers, get basic facts wrong as they present history, English, and geography to my fifteen-year-old.

The solution is to shift the marketplace. Our society is aging, but our seniors are remaining healthy and active. Public school systems need to shift their teaching requirements so that these “greybeards” can be brought into the classroom. A retired or semi-retired professional is (1) going to be attracted by far less money than a twenty-something, (2) have far more knowledge to impart than a twenty-something, and (3) be far more interested in teaching young people than welcoming people to Wal-Mart or to a fast food counter.

To tap this large and growing labor pool teacher unions, and their political allies, need to place the future of education above union membership. State boards of education need to break free of their fixation with teachers needing to know “teaching methods” instead of knowing real subject matter.

It is easier and cheaper to teach a subject matter professional how to teach, than it is to teach a teacher a subject. I have yet to see any real results from having public school teachers acquire in depth knowledge of “education methods”. If anything, the fixation on teachers knowing methodology instead of content has “dumbed-down” generations of Americans.

This entire matter was addressed at the first “Quality in Education” Conference sponsored by the National Governors Association. Over 2,000 education professionals and officials convened in Houston, Texas in November 1992. One of the first recommendations from the breakout sessions was to adjust teacher certification and recruitment policies so that retirees could be tapped as a full-time or part-time classroom resource.

It has been sixteen years since that national recommendation surfaced. We are no closer to its reality.

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