Who’s Running Our Schools (Part Two)

I hope what you took away from Part One was that I was generally optimistic about our educational system while also recognizing that everyone involved has a role to play in its success.  If you didn’t, then I missed my mark when I wrote it.  I still feel that way, but there is a sinkhole on the path that threatens to keep us from achieving that success.  That sinkhole is the apparent acceleration in the practice of staffing the classrooms with people who have alternative teaching certifications.

Nearly every state has programs that allow for alternative or emergency certifications for teachers.  These programs started to surface in the 1980’s and were initially aimed at easing the shortage of teachers in low income and inter-city school districts.  Applicants typically had four year degrees in a subject but didn’t have either a bachelor’s or master’s degree in education.  States waived or modified the certification requirements for alternative programs, usually giving the teachers three to five years to catch up on the necessary educational training before passing the required tests.

As a concept, this one has merit.  Most of the applicants had real world experience in their subjects and brought that with them into the classroom.  Who better to explain to a classroom of students why studying chemistry was necessary than a chemist who had been working in the field for years.  That’s the easy part for these alternative teachers.  The challenge for them is transferring their knowledge to a classroom of students.

Even early on, when the programs were being developed and very closely scrutinized, there were problems because the teachers were taking their educational training concurrently with teaching a class.  Effectively, it was, and still is, on the job training.  Proponents argued that it wasn’t much different from a traditional student teacher working with a mentor and that the added maturity of the typical alternative teacher made the on the job training viable.  They also pointed out that mentor teachers who frequently monitored the classrooms were still involved.

That’s not really an apple to apple comparison.  Traditional student teachers follow lesson plans substantially created by the mentor teacher.  Moreover, until they show competency, the mentor teacher stays in the classroom continuously monitoring their performance and acting as a safety net if they falter.  The safety net for teachers with alternative certifications is no where near that strong.  They write their own lesson plans with cursory assistance and have minimal supervision from administrators or other teachers as they learn their classroom skills.

Teach for America, arguably the most well known, demanding and successful coordinating organization, gives its participants a several week long boot camp of instruction in educational methods in the summer and then unleashes them on the students in September.  In 2011 TFA boasted that 7,000 of their 24,000 alumni were still teaching.  That’s about a 30% success rate, poor performance for anyone other than a Major League Baseball player.

So what is the draw to expand these programs, especially since thousands of teachers lost their jobs during cutbacks during the recession?  One reason is contractual obligation.  Many school districts have contracts with Teach for America and other similar organizations that require them to maintain a certain number of alternatively certified teachers in their classes.  For example, in 2009 the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School district in North Carolina laid off hundreds of teachers; one hundred Teach for America educators with less seniority and experience were retained.

Another often cited but difficult to prove reason is pure and simple economics.  New teachers with alternative certifications come in at the low end of the pay scale.  It’s not hard to envision a strapped school district making the decision that it is more economical to hire these teachers instead of an experienced one that would require a higher salary.  Regardless of whether that’s the case, it’s a specter that looms over the entire process.

If everything goes as planned, a student will be in a particular grade or take a particular class once in his academic career.  That leaves very little opportunity to make up for a teacher whose skills are either just developing or insufficient to meet the need.  Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens in all too many cases with alternative certifications.  Here’s a short list of problems that I personally know about.  The list spans two states and several school districts.

  • An American history teacher who, when asked during a parent conference, couldn’t list the ten amendments in the Bill of Rights.
  • A math teacher who relied on YouTube to explain how to solve problems.  I’m all for utilizing technology and I could easily justify YouTube under the proper set of circumstances.  But using it for solving a math problem…really?
  • A middle school teacher who found it necessary to ask for administrative help in controlling her students nine times in one month.  Obviously there are other issues here, but clearly she wasn’t ready for the challenge.  Do you wonder about the quality of instruction the students got on the other days of the month?
  • A Chinese language teacher who came from mainland China (actually a super idea) who was given minimal to no instruction on how American schools function and no cultural orientation.  She once dropped a student’s grade because, after being told to be quiet in class, he said “Yes Ma’am.”  She thought he was being disrespectful when he replied.  The same teacher calculated her grades for an entire semester on the wrong scale.
  • A math instructor teaching calculus who, when asked by a parent, couldn’t correctly solve a simple algebraic cubic equation and had only a vague understanding of special integration.

As I said in Part One of this post, the vast majority of teachers are talented, motivated and focused on providing the best education possible to our children given the resources they have.  Unfortunately, it only takes a few sub-standard teachers to undo all of that good effort.  Recruiting teachers from the real world is a good and viable concept, but we cannot send them into the classroom to practice on our kids while they learn on the job.  That’s a disservice to the teachers and, more importantly, a massive injustice to our most precious resource—our children.

Alternative certification was an experiment that needed to be tried but now needs to be re-examined.  Educators should be required to meet all of the certification requirements before they jump into the deep end of the classroom.  If a true emergency situation exists for a school district, they should be required to submit a special request to the State before an uncertified teacher can take over a class.  If that request is based on expediency or economics, it should be rejected.  If it is approved, it should be accompanied by a corrective action plan that will prevent the need from reoccurring.  Instead of no child left behind, we are building an educational system mired in mediocrity.  In a competitive world economy, mediocrity is not acceptable.

See ya

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