My time has been monopolized lately by school. I don’t just mean the substitute teaching gig, but also various debates about education going on over at The League and elsewhere. I don’t generally go on to rants about education policy because (a) this isn’t a policy blog and (b) it’s one of those subjects where people share neither opinions nor the same set of facts (and, since education is something that everybody has some experience in if only as a student, everyone knows that what they think is factual in nature). But there are exceptions to every rule.

A number of folks think that one of the solutions to improving education is “raising teacher standards.*” I have lately begun to wonder the degree to which teacher quality actually matters outside the extremes, but I’m going to let that go for now. Let’s say that it does. The notion that we should raise teacher standards sounds like a no-brainer. Who doesn’t want raised standards? All other things being equal, who doesn’t want teachers that are more qualified rather than less qualified?

The problem comes in when we talk about what we mean by increased standards. And I have to confess, when I hear about calls for raising teacher standards, I inwardly cringe. Because what I figure they mean, more often than not, is a more rigorous certification process requiring an MA in education rather than a BA and to cut back on alternative forms of certification. In other words, take the walls we have now and just build them higher.

I think this view is flawed for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it assumes that the current barriers are effective. I think that most of the people here know about the reputation that Colleges of Education have in terms of recruiting the worst students at any given university. Now, maybe we could change this if we paid teachers more or whatnot, but I’m not sure how much that would actually drive people into CoE’s. By and large, I actually think that the vocational nature of it is one of the things that keeps a lot of the smarter kids out. Get a degree in education and there’s mainly one thing you can do with it. An often stressful and thankless position at that. But even more than that, it’s a job that you will have no idea if you’re well-suited for until you’ve spent 4 or 5 years and $40k or $50k training for it. And if it turns out that you don’t like doing it, what then?

If you get a degree in computers, you will get a decent idea of whether it’s something you want to do or not well before you graduate. You will be given assignments that will look at least somewhat like future work. Learning how to program and programming are not nearly as different as learning how to teach and actually teaching. Further, if you have an IT degree, there are a lot of things within the field you can do with it. If you don’t like doing one thing, you can try to transition into another. If you’re a teacher, the primary part of the job (standing and directing a class of 20-40 kids) is going to be relatively similar from one place to the next. If it turns out that it was nothing like you had envisioned… again, what then? Even something as specialized as aeronautical engineering, which my brother and father both have degrees in, provide some flexibility (both stopped actually engineering by the time they were 35). The more you specialize teaching, the more you isolate would-be teachers from other career options.

And – this is important – the more you attract people who just want to make a living. People who say to themselves, “Well, I guess I’ll teach.” A lot of people go into teaching because they have a passion for it. A lot of others go into it because it’s perceived to be a relatively safe career choice**. This leaves out a lot of smart and thoughtful people who think that they might want to teach, and might be good at it, but don’t want to bet their entire future on it because they want to get more from their job than a paycheck and no better options. By far, the worst teachers I had growing up were ones that weren’t dumb, but were obviously in the wrong field. A couple that flat-out didn’t like kids (anymore). These are people that needed to move on to something else. But with that education degree, what precisely could they move on to.

Of course, I also look at this from the other side. From the outside looking in. If my experiences substituting are any indication, I think that teaching is something that I would enjoy. Despite having taken the coursework a minor in education, I would have to go back to school for three full years before I could be certified (to teach the subject in which I already have a degree). In the state of Arapaho, I would have to re-take a portion of the classes I’ve already taken because I took “Honors Political Science” rather than “Government in Education”. My father looked into teaching math after he retired. He figured that since he had a degree in engineering and a master’s degree in accounting and economics, that he might be able to do it. The local community college thought so, but the school district said he would need to go back to school for two years.

In Dad’s case, we’re talking about Delosa, which actually has looser standards than many other states. You could, for instance, go with alternative certification. In that case, you start teaching right away (though you still have to go back to school at night). Unless a certified teacher applies for your job, in which case, even if you’ve spent the last year taking night classes, as “emergency personnel” you’re out of the job.

There is a strong counterargument to all of this. Namely, that teachers need not only know their subject, but ought to know a thing or two about educating young people, too. I am sympathetic to this line of argument, but not too sympathetic. While having the educational background helps, I think that a lot of teaching ability is temperamental and innate. Either you’ve got it or you don’t. Going back to school may help you get better at it, but it neither assures competence nor is required for competence. Given the lack of formal training, I think it would be entirely reasonable to give non-certified personnel less in the way of job protections than the average teacher gets. Not so little protection that they are out of the job the minute someone certified applies for it, but serving at the pleasure of the principal.

You can read over the last few paragraphs and say “So we should lower teacher standards?!” Which is why my teeth grit when I hear that we should be raising them. I don’t think we should lower standards at all. I don’t think that requiring that they have a degree in the subject they teach, rather than in education, is a step down.

I am not one of those people arguing that should abolish colleges of education. If nothing else, I think that they would be required for primary school where learning about human development is probably more important than having a degree in a specific subject. I also see use for them in coordinating certification as I would do it, which is to allow people to major in something else but get a minor in education and maybe even another in human development in order to get certified.

I am not unsympathetic to the notion that we want teaching to be viewed as a profession rather than a job, and it would seem that specialized degrees would be an extension of that. However, given the peculiarities of the job, I’m not sure it works in this case. I think that there is more to be gained by allowing people to view it as a professional option rather than to committing to it at 18 or having huge barriers erected to prevent them from trying it later.

-{NOTE: Education, teaching, and teachers have been getting a lot of press lately. This post is not about Wisconsin or teacher’s unions. Let’s also avoid comments derogatory of teachers more generally. Despite what the statistics say about CoE, a lot of very intelligent and capable people become teachers.}-

* – At this point, you may be thinking, “No, the solution to improving education is X.” If you write about it on your blog, I will link to it. But as I mentioned, education is something that everyone has experience in and everyone is cocksure that they have the solution for. I am no different. But I’m limiting my comments to teacher standards and certifications, so I ask that you do the same.

** – By which I mean that there is generally a steady – though sometimes unimpressive depending on your point of view – paycheck involved. There’s usually (at the moment) a good pension plan. And there is the perception that there is a teacher shortage and so finding a job won’t be difficult. That last part isn’t exactly true, but it is the perception.


Category: School

About the Author


20 Responses to Teaching Certification & Segregation

  1. web says:

    So to boil down the tl;dr version (yes I did read it, but hey):

    – Simply raising the “standards” we have now won’t get better teachers into the field. Retooling the standards from the ground up is needed.

    – Teachers spend far too much time “learning to teach” before they ever get a taste of what it’s like being in front of a class, unless they substitute-teach before deciding to go into the field full time.

    These two points I agree with wholeheartedly.

    And there is the perception that there is a teacher shortage and so finding a job won’t be difficult. That last part isn’t exactly true, but it is the perception.

    The trick is (speaking from what is related from people I know recently graduated): in certain markets, most notably markets where nobody really wants to teach except for the young-idealist types, there is most definitely a teacher shortage.

    However, this shortage has mostly to do with the fact that the schools involved have an overabundance of “destined for problems” children, a reputation for not standing up for their teachers in the event of classroom discipline problems or arguments with parents over grades and social promotion, and systemic other issues. In other words, young (non-idealist) teachers or middle-aged, “I went into teaching as a second career” types get the word quite quickly: don’t take a job here unless (a) you can’t find anything else or (b) you don’t mind your career dying on the vine if you stay here more than a year or two.

  2. trumwill says:

    The trick is (speaking from what is related from people I know recently graduated): in certain markets, most notably markets where nobody really wants to teach except for the young-idealist types, there is most definitely a teacher shortage.

    I don’t disagree with this. I would expand it to say “in certain markets and fields.” My understanding is that it’s difficult to get good science and math teachers even if the school itself is something other than dreadful. As I’ve moved around, there also seems to be a good market for certified special ed teachers.

    My main point was that, contrary to what I was told growing up (and was more the case then than now), getting a teaching certification is not the road to a certain job. At the very least, if you’re going to get an ed degree, you need to choose your specialty wisely and (unless you’re going to work for an absolutely atrocious school) find a way to make yourself marketable beyond the degree itself.

  3. Nanani says:

    I’d have to recheck with my sister, but I think what you propose is already the case in our country.

    To teach a subject, the teacher needs to study -that subject- in the university at the bachelor’s level, then go to a teacher’s college for a couple of years after that. The latter involves teaching real classes as a component.

    Specializing in a certain age range or type of education (such as teaching disabled children) is possible at the teacher’s college level, too.

    It seems insane to have teachers that study only -how- to teach and not the content of -what- they’ll teach.

  4. stone says:

    My cock is not sure about anything, except that teaching requires a hell of a lot of patience. I have to grit my teeth through homework and phonics for my own kid; I can only imagine what it takes to deal with handfuls of them. Highly intelligent people tend not to be patient people, in my opinion (not that that’s necessarily my own excuse, just pointing out that some things are more important than expertise in a subject).

  5. stone says:

    Oh my god, it’s torture. Like, I would make a terrible English teacher, because I never had to *learn* any of this crap, I just naturally KNEW IT. I never had to stumble through ” B goes ‘buh!’ A goes ‘ah!'” I never needed to diagram a sentence, I JUST KNEW how it was supposed to go. Why was that not heritable!? But alas, it was not, so now I have to break it down bit by quantum bit for a 4-year-old.

  6. web says:

    Nanani – The counterargument to what you say is that, at least at the lower grade levels (1-6 especially), the teacher’s own pre-college education should have been more than sufficient. And I don’t entirely disagree there. If anything, that’s what makes the “certification” process so bizarre; an immense amount of educational requirements is put on people who are expected to teach the K-6 grades, when classroom specialization doesn’t even begin in most US schools before grade 12.

    Will – My understanding is that it’s difficult to get good science and math teachers even if the school itself is something other than dreadful.

    At least in the area where I am, it’s so difficult that there is an entire program here devoted specifically to trying to find/nurture/track/guide/whatever math majors into the teaching field.

    On the other side, one part of the teaching environment that’s only going to get worse as classroom size expansion continues (and let’s face it, it can’t do anything but: districts here are currently laying off teachers but have the same number of students, 2nd grade division will tell you that class sizes MUST therefore increase) is the “class moves at the pace of the slowest idiot” problem. Which leads into Stone’s point:

    I have to grit my teeth through homework and phonics for my own kid; I can only imagine what it takes to deal with handfuls of them. Highly intelligent people tend not to be patient people, in my opinion (not that that’s necessarily my own excuse, just pointing out that some things are more important than expertise in a subject).

    Meanwhile, try being:

    – The kid who’s already read the entire English textbook cover to cover, including the novella in the back 1/4 of the textbook that the class will never manage to actually read, while the class spent the first 1-2 weeks of the school year waiting for the slow half to sound out each word in “open reading” sessions where each kid is supposed to read one line and then pass to the next kid.

    – The kid who’s sitting in 5th grade math doodling in his notebook because he finished the “assigned homework” half an hour ago and the teacher is wasting the class’s time trying to explain Fractions to the dunces who ought to have been held back twice except that their parents threatened to sue if their kid’s “self esteem” was damaged because they didn’t advance with their equally retarded friends.

    – The kid who’s just been told by another teacher that the “computer science” teacher (actually an overglorified re-assigned math teacher who is halfway decent at teaching math but has delusions of adequacy on the computer front) doesn’t want you in the lab any more because she is “afraid you’ll change something and she won’t know how to change it back.”

    Sum total: it’s as grating for kids to have to sit there while the teacher’s time is wasted on disparate classroom ability as it is for the teacher to face the frustration of dealing with a similar situation.

  7. trumwill says:

    Nanani, Until relatively recently, it was an article of faith among many in the education establishment that subject mastery wasn’t the point at all. School wasn’t for kids to learn about science, math, English, etc, but rather a place for kids to learn “thinking skills”. If one believes that, then understanding child and adolescent psychology is far more important than subject-mastery. The classes I took when I had my education minor very much had this perspective and was outright contemptuous of the model I refer to.
    The perspective was particularly influential in the 90’s, though I think that it’s recently lost quite a bit of its steam. On the other hand, there is a new wave of people who think that they’re going to outsource their memory to google. So it might be due for a comeback.

  8. trumwill says:

    Sheila,

    I had to mentally backtrack quite a bit when I was teaching third-graders math. Explaining the “why’s” for things that are so patently obvious to me were particularly difficult. They understood fully that 27 divided by three is nine, but it was kind of hard to explain – in a way that they could understand – why this meant that $2.70 divided equally among three people was 90c a piece.

  9. trumwill says:

    If anything, that’s what makes the “certification” process so bizarre; an immense amount of educational requirements is put on people who are expected to teach the K-6 grades, when classroom specialization doesn’t even begin in most US schools before grade 12.

    Is that supposed to be Grade 7?

    It actually started for us in grade three. We had our homeroom teacher (who also taught one of the subjects) and then science, social studies, English (sentence construction and the like – reading was done in homeroom), and math. I’m not sure whether the primary motivation was saving teachers time on lesson plans, getting us used to the concept of “switching classes”, or whether the teachers actually had more training in the areas that they taught.

    For us, middle school actually starts in 6th grade. Up here, it’s 7th. I think 6th is better. In fact, I think it might be best split K-4/5-8/9-12 if you can manage to keep the 5th and 6th graders away from the 7th and 8th, for the most part.

  10. Maria says:

    wasn’t for kids to learn about science, math, English, etc, but rather a place for kids to learn “thinking skills”. If one believes that, then understanding child and adolescent psychology is far more important than subject-mastery.

    Yes, I remember those days as well. Funny thing is, for myself, everything I learned by “rote” has tended to stick with me, but the “thinking skills” I was supposedly taught have been of no use to me whatsoever.

  11. Maria says:

    I have to grit my teeth through homework and phonics for my own kid; I can only imagine what it takes to deal with handfuls of them.

    Wait till you get to algebra and “fuzzy math” and “spiraling.”. In California schools they start throwing “algebraic concepts” out to kids when they hit the fourth grade, without giving them a secure grounding in basic math first. I had to deal with a textbook that started asking my kid to solve algebra word problems before she even learned her times tables (which they didn’t teach her–they figured she would pick them up by osmosis; she didn’t).

    Then they dumped the fourth-grade algebra word problem “teasers” and didn’t pick it up again until 7th grade. So what use was it to introduce it in the fourth grade?

    Totally nuts, and I almost lost my mind over that textbook. It wasn’t just me either–the DH also went nuts over it, and he’ an engineer for god’s sake.

    I’m told they’ve stopped using that particular fourth grade math book now; no wonder. They probably got hate mail from parents.

  12. trumwill says:

    I can *sort of* understand where the teachers are coming from on this. To use my third-grade math example, it seems as or more important that they know why $2.70/3 equals 90 cents as to know that it does. But I think that there’s something to be said for knowing the concrete answers and then picking up on the patterns once you see them.

    I mean, math (okay, after addition and subtraction) starts with the 1-9 multiplication tables, and it’s more important to “just know” that 7×6=42 than it is to draw seven rows of six dots and count them, which is how they tried to teach me.

  13. trumwill says:

    I just looked up spiraling. That, combined with Web’s observations about being “the smart kid” in a room full of slow kids, explains a good deal of what I hated about school. I was in school before this was apparently implemented, but it seems like they were already starting to do it. Either that or I was in the “before” of a true horror story of an “after”.

    My blood pressure rises just thinking about it.

  14. Mike Hunt says:

    stone: Highly intelligent people tend not to be patient people, in my opinion

    I think that is more than just your opinion. I would say that is true most of the time. This goes hand-in-hand with the theory in sports that the best managers and coaches tend to be mediocre players.

    At my college, you couldn’t major JUST in education if you wanted to teach sixth grade and up. You had to major in whatever you wanted to teach, in addition to taking the required education classes. The majors were legit, too; no watered down “math education” as a major.

    —–

    From sixth through eighth grades, we switched classrooms for subjects, but looking back at it, the academic subject teachers had no special training in what they taught. They did it for three reasons: 1) to get us used to switching classrooms in high school 2) to reduce teacher prep time 3) so kids and teachers didn’t get sick of each other being in the same classroom most of the day.

    I knew my 7th grade life science teacher was full of it on day one when she told us that the element with atomic number 87 was pronounced Frank-i-um, and was discovered by someone named Frank…

    The math teacher didn’t like my use of the word ratio. On a test, she asked us about the relationship between the circumference and diameter of a circle. I answered that the ratio between circumference and diameter was equal to pi. I got partial credit because the answer she was looking for was that the circumference was 3.14 times the diameter…. She then said to me, you used ratio without properly explaining what it meant, which is like deducting points from a paper for not citing your source that Lincoln was our 16th president.

  15. Maria says:

    trumwill: spiraling is totally insane. I’m sorry you had to experience something like it. Fight it with all your might if they try to inflict it on your as yet-unborn spawn.

  16. trumwill says:

    Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, it’s also a good way to thwart assessments. If you just touch on everything without the expectation of actually learning it, there’s no reason to get upset that they haven’t learned anything concrete {yet}.

  17. Maria says:

    trumwill: good point. I assumed it was just more mindless social engineering, but now you’ve made me think there was a more diabolical purpose behind it.

  18. trumwill says:

    Maria,

    When it comes to the educational establishment, I tend to have uncharitable views. Probably unfairly so. It’s just that the whole spiraling thing really seems like a great way to kick the can down the curb.

    That being said, I think that there are multiple motivations. I don’t know if social engineering is the term I would use, but rather a desire to be “innovative” with new ideas rather than all that stuff those old people did that you hated.

    And with math in particular, I think that most teachers hate the subject. Some probably blame their hatred on the subject on the way they were taught. So they try to come up with new ways to teach it. Ways that get rid of the stuff they didn’t like. The math part.

    I remember when I was taught the lattice method of multiplication, I thought to myself “this is for people that prefer to draw than to do math.” I mean, it works and so it’s not useless (it’s kind of neat, in its own way), but it’s a consciously roundabout way of going about it.

  19. trumwill says:

    Mike, sorry I missed your comment. I’m having trouble reconciling this:

    At my college, you couldn’t major JUST in education if you wanted to teach sixth grade and up.

    with this:

    From sixth through eighth grades, we switched classrooms for subjects, but looking back at it, the academic subject teachers had no special training in what they taught.

    Two different states? Or did your college just have a different plan than most state colleges?

    Otherwise, it sounds like the rationale for 6-8 was the same for you as it was for me in 3-5. I still maintain that by the time you get to the 6th grade, the specialization should really be starting.

    I don’t know if you were around when I posted on this, but I had a college professor dock me points for “erroneously” mentioning that Senator Chuck Robb was LBJ’s son-in-law. It wasn’t worth making a stink over since I got a 96 instead of a 98 (or something to that effect), but he was.

  20. Mike Hunt says:

    When I was in 6th-8th grades, the teachers I had were at least in their late 30s, and were grandfathered in. That’s why they met a lower standard. But yes, my college also has a higher standard for its teachers than the state does; that’s why it is so well-thought-of in the educational community.

    Yes, I remember your Robb/LBJ story. I think your case was worse since yours involved a college professor. Mine involved someone pretending to know math.

    I will say this though. Political Science is such a wide field that its practitioners can be quite ignorant outside of their specialities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

If you are interested in subscribing to new post notifications,
please enter your email address on this page.