The current crop of education reformers claim that the crisis in our educational system is due to the lack of talented teachers. This view--that the solution to the “teacher problem” is almost purely one of talent and one not of education, experience, or other school-based conditions--is as wrong as it is disturbing. The architects of new school reform and Race to the Top are blindly focused on the qualities of people who become teachers and on the process of credentialing, hiring, and removing them while missing the boat almost entirely on the practices of these teachers and on the conditions that support (or discourage) those practices.
The questionable claims of Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, provide supposedly scientific foundation for these claims, finding that "the quality of the teaching is the most important factor in student achievement.” Hanushek and his supporters quickly make the leap that quality teaching springs forth from quality teachers, manifested in high scores on standardized tests. Their pedagogy is somehow mystically better than their "low quality" colleagues.
Under the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) legislation, schools are required to have a certain percentage of “highly qualified” teachers (I’ll return to this in a moment). One goal of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is the establishment of national standards. Under NCLB, schools’ making AYP (Annual Yearly Progress) includes meeting a certain benchmarks on standardized tests. This has been problematic because the rigor and content of those tests and their accompanying standards is up to each state and hence vary greatly. Likewise, “highly qualified” translates to “certified by the individual state." Certification requirements vary from state to state. In Washington, D.C., for example, there are three pieces to teacher certification: general knowledge and general education, which can be determined by Praxis I or SAT scores; content knowledge, which can be determined by Praxis II tests and content-area courses; and, pedagogy, which are either approved teacher training programs, such as found at universities or training done by programs like TFA (Teach for America) and NTP (New Teachers Project). Such programs provide only five weeks of training and viola! you’re certified to teach in a high-poverty school. The ideology behind this is that talent, talent, and talent matter.
"Building a Better Teacher," Elizabeth Green’s article in a March 2010 issue of The New York Times Magazine, takes a refreshing look at teaching strategies as opposed to “innate” teacher qualities. Green describes Michelle Rhee’s efforts as DCPS Chancellor to bring a "different caliber of person" into the profession, i.e., high achievers from selective colleges who arrive at teaching through TFA-like programs. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has reaped praise on such programs and ideas. Attracting individuals from top notch colleges who might otherwise go into business, finance, medicine, and law instead to teaching is a laudable goal. I don’t doubt that these kids are bright or that they have potential, but without adequate education, support, and relevant experience, despite their SAT scores and pedigree, they are likely to struggle and leave the profession.
Rhee, Duncan, and Bill Gates are certainly not alone in their beliefs. Again, according to Elizabeth Green’s report, on the topic of teacher quality there is a,
". . . belief in some people that good teaching must be purely instinctive, a kind of magic performed by born superstars. As Jane Hannaway, the director of the Education Policy Center at the Urban Institute and a former teacher, put it to me, successful teaching depends in part on a certain inimitable 'voodoo.' You either have it or you don’t. 'I think that there is an innate drive or innate ability for teaching,' Sylvia Gist, the dean of the college of education at Chicago State University, said when I visited her campus last year."I agree some dispositional qualities can lend themselves more easily to teaching than to other professions, for example, presence. Presence exudes and inspires confidence and it gets students’ attention. At the end of the day, though, the teacher who studies, practices, and employs the most effective ways to engage, instruct, manage, and assess their students will prevail, presence or no presence. Without some grounding in practice, without thoughtfulness about what students should know and to be able to do, how they best acquire information and skills, and how best to assess their learning, a teacher can have all the charisma and presence in the world, but she won't be a successful teacher.
Although teacher certification and education programs need revamping, the solution is more training and experience for aspiring teachers, not less. Teacher preparation programs, such as TFA and conventional ed school programs, would be much more effective and their teachers more likely to succeed and stay in the profession if they compelled candidates to commit to longer terms of service and required something akin to a two-year student teaching internship along with relevant courses and seminars BEFORE tossing their candidates in the deep end.
In short, the idea of magically talented teachers is a myth. Certainly gaining admission to an elite college does not automatically confer someone with quality teaching know-how or certify that they will be a great teacher. Good teachers are not born; rather, they are made with desire, education, knowledge, experience, support, and hard work. Michael Jordan may have some innate abilities that helped him to get where he was, but he was a superstar because he was driven, he practiced, and he was the hardest working guy on the court.
The idea that anyone with high SAT scores would inherently be a great teacher is silly and it's elitist. But I don't doubt that given adequate training, support, and experience, anyone with commitment, compassion, and perseverance can become a great teacher.