When it comes to bragging rights, most parents would still prefer to announce, “My child the lawyer,” rather than, “My child the teacher.”
Would such attitudes change if the U.S. teaching corps became more selective?
The American Federation of Teachers is endorsing an entrance exam for new teachers similar to the bar exam that novice lawyers must pass and the medical boards that newly minted doctors must pass.
“It’s time to do away with a common rite of passage into the teaching profession — whereby newly minted teachers are tossed the keys to their classrooms, expected to figure things out, and left to see if they and their students sink or swim. This is unfair to both students and their teachers, who care so much but who want and need to feel competent and confident to teach from their first day on the job,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
The education debate in Georgia has skirted the question of improving teacher quality, focusing instead on offering escape routes from local public schools. When the topic even arises in the Legislature, the conversation is usually how to run off bad teachers rather than how to attract good ones.
Lawmakers pay little attention to the fact that the world’s highest-achieving education systems, including Finland and Singapore, improved their schools through concerted campaigns to entice the brightest high school graduates to teaching. And they invested in their training.
“The United States has for many years prized cheap teachers over good teachers,” wrote Marc Tucker, CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy, in his Education Week blog. “Whenever there is a shortage of teachers, we respond by lowering our already intolerably low standards. We are constantly assigning teachers trained in one subject to classes in a subject about which they know little or nothing. We not only invest very little in teacher training, but we have for a very long time expected our schools of education to produce budget surpluses for use in other parts of the university that we evidently care more about.”
In its new report, “Raising the Bar: Aligning and Elevating Teacher Preparation and the Teaching Profession,” the AFT calls for a “universal and rigorous bar that gauges mastery of subject-matter knowledge.”
“Teaching has always had a low bar and a wide gate,” said University of Pennsylvania researcher Richard Ingersoll, who studies teacher turnover, teacher shortages and the status of teaching as a profession.
“So, making this a less-easy line of work is all for the good. But it’s really only half the story,” he said in a telephone interview. “You also have to raise the reward.”
Ingersoll sees value in enhancing the stature of teaching because, he said, “The perception remains that anyone can teach, even dummies, which doesn’t make it an attractive choice for bright undergraduates.”
A sheen of selectivity will appeal to top college students, he said. “But those bright students are going to want to know that the rewards are there.”
Historically, raising the bar to enter teaching reduces the supply of teachers, especially males, said Ingersoll. “Everyone can do the calculus. If you make it harder, students are going to say, ‘I can go to law school and get a much higher salary than I can in teaching.”’
When Finland sought to improve the under-performance of its schools in the 1970s and 1980s, it not only upgraded standards and admissions for teacher candidates, it also raised salaries. It’s now more difficult to get into a teaching program than law or medicine.
After gaining its independence, Singapore resolved to produce the best-educated students in the world and began by elevating teaching into a highly paid, highly prestigious profession. Only top academic achievers are eligible for teacher education programs, and they earn salaries as they train, said Ingersoll.
Raising the salary scale in education posed less of a challenge in Finland and Singapore, where education is centralized, than it would in the United States, where nearly 15,000 school districts operate as independent fiefdoms and where local property taxes are a common — albeit inequitable — funding mechanism.
“Singapore could just decide that the whole nation was going to do it. Here, it is hard to have such systemic reform,” said Ingersoll. “You would have to go through one district at a time to raise the reward”
“Given the reward we offer now,” he said, “we actually get a higher quality teacher than we deserve.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog