Lowering the Bar for Teachers?

When one of your majors is History, a frequent assumption of the people you talk to is that you want to teach, as though being a professional historian is a fictitious career that no one actually does. Teaching was never really my plan, but I did think it would be fun to try my hand in the classroom for a year at my high school alma mater. I also fell in love with the idea of Teach For America in the 90s and was an evangelist for the program whenever the subject of education reform came up.

My issue with teaching programs is that there seems to be more emphasis on the skill of teaching than on actual knowledge of the subject being taught. I recall a lot of stories about someone majoring in something like Business, getting their Masters of Education, and then teaching Social Studies or high school History. It was a bit infuriating to me that even with a Masters in History I would not be qualified to teach the subject in many districts because I didn’t have a teaching certificate.

Today there are many alternative paths to teaching, but nearly all of them still require some type of certification. A recent change in Kentucky law aims to bring more people into the classroom by removing this requirement. From Insider Louisville:

Kentucky’s Education Professional Standards Board waived a requirement that teachers must obtain Rank II on Monday. Most teachers got to that rank by earning a master’s degree, and were required to do so in their first 10 years of teaching.

The obvious objections are fairly obvious here. A watering-down of professional standards. There are also concerned that this move is designed to help charter schools:

High school administrator and candidate for lieutenant governor Jacqueline Coleman tweeted that Kentucky is “moving in the wrong direction” with the decision.

“At a time when we should be supporting the professional learning of our teachers to improve teaching and learning, the focus is instead on making it easier for charters to find teachers,” Coleman tweeted.

I see both sides of this argument and, going back to the Teach for America model, maybe the solution should have been to create more provisional positions with a structured mentoring program that would grant course credits for time teaching under the guidance of a veteran educator. What I always found appealing with the Teach for America program was the idea of someone putting their career on hold for a couple of years to do some real good, bring new passion to the classroom and then take that experience back to their profession. One could easily imagine a day when there were thousands of TFA alumni around the country, helping their companies make good choices as they relate to society and charitable giving.

The more concerning complaints about the decision come from the actions of our current governor, Matt Bevin. He has shown himself to be openly hostile to most of the educational bodies in the state. He disbanded the Board of Directors for the University of Louisville and put his own choices in places (arguably necessary due to alleged corruption from the old board). A member of his administration is also indicating the need for a takeover of Louisville schools. Governor Bevin is a vocal proponent of charter schools and aggressive austerity programs for state employees.

The move could also depress teacher salaries, as fewer teachers with Rank II would mean fewer teachers earning Rank II pay raises, he said. When asked if lower teacher salaries could be used as a reason to reduce state funding, McKim said:

“That may well be part of the long-term strategy … cut state costs at the expense of the quality of education students receive. And if public education quality diminishes, that helps promote privatization through charter schools, vouchers, and tuition tax credits.

Like nearly every conversation related to education, this one is also complicated. If it brings some new teachers to the classroom, there is good to be had, but it’s also too hard to ignore the warning signs coming from the governor’s mansion.


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Mike Dwyer writes about culture and the outdoors for Ordinary Times. He is also one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky. Mike serves on the Board of Directors for the Kentucky chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and you can also find him on Instagram here. He lives with his wife in the suburbs of Louisville, KY.

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12 thoughts on “Lowering the Bar for Teachers?

  1. In my state, we have a very high number of “emergency certifications” – that is, teachers who don’t have a degree or much coursework (sometimes any coursework) in education. Depending on whom you ask, it’s either a complete scandal (*) or kind of okay, actually.

    I don’t know. I am of a divided mind. Some pedagogy classes are perhaps not that helpful but some of the stuff on dealing with human psychology doubtless is helpful, especially in the lower grades. And I’ve often said anyone becoming a college faculty member should PROBABLY have some basic human psychology or at least some coursework in dealing with human problems because oh man, do I have people coming to me with problems. In some cases it’s as simple (for me) as going “Whoa, I’m not qualified here, we have a campus counselor” but for other things – like calming down someone who is angry so you can speak productively with them- well, sometimes I’m at a loss because I know I have a hard time dealing with other humans.

    For high school, meh, maybe having someone with solid subject-matter background is good enough? (I will say it increases the ranks of my discipline’s majors, if people can major in Biology still knowing they can teach at many schools without ed classes).

    I know much is made in some circles of people with “real world” experience (e.g., retired businesspeople) coming back to teach special subject matter. Again, part of the issue is that at least for very young kids, you have to know how to work with them. I won’t work with under-10s or so because I know I have a hard time relating to small children. I have taught high school youth groups and that seemed to be well-received but I know I was uncomfortable some of the time. (Then again, sometimes I am uncomfortable in front of some of my college classes….)

    (*) My state is one of the ones that pays teachers poorly and we had an extended teacher walkout this spring. There’s a plan in place to somewhat increase teacher pay but it doesn’t really deal with the fact that schools themselves are poorly funded and I suspect some of that pay raise is going to go towards teachers buying basic supplies – like they always do. In some districts you probably couldn’t make a go of it teaching – at least as a beginner teacher – if you did not have a spouse pulling in a decent salary.

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  2. I am really torn about this. On the one hand, I am reluctant to diss professional training. I too am in a field (philosophy) which everyone thinks they can do competently regardless of training. Some of the things that really smart non-philosophers (or for that matter philosophers who are way out of their depth in areas outside of their specialisation) say is cringeworthy. Take, for instance, people like Eliezer Yudkowsky and his contention that there are no universally compelling arguments (depending on what you mean by universally compelling, this is either trivial but true or interesting but false). Conceptual confusion between motivation and normativity is, in this day and age, a really basic error (but not necessarily so obvious 100 or 200 years ago) if you have any decent philosophical training.

    At the same time I have TA-d my share of undergraduate courses. I wasn’t really great at first, but as I received feedback and suggestions from senior tutors, I have improved a lot. Now, I think that I’m a more than decent tutor. At least my student feedback forms tell me so.

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    • I think it comes down to the intent of the course. If it’s something like Social Studies, which touches on several different disciplines in the course of a 9-month school year, I could see an argument for teaching expertise being more important than subject-specific knowledge (i.e. how to put together a tight lesson plan and to transition between each topic). As you point out, things get much different in college, where classes typically cover a very specific topic. If I had any professors at the 300 and 400 level that were not actually degreed in the field they were teaching I would have been very concerned.

      I think I’d ultimately like to see the opportunity for more folks to teach specialized classes at the high school level. For example, how cool would it be to see an art professional being able to teach a very specific art class a few days a week, in a partnership between their employer and a school?

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    • At the same time I have TA-d my share of undergraduate courses. I wasn’t really great at first, but as I received feedback and suggestions from senior tutors, I have improved a lot. Now, I think that I’m a more than decent tutor. At least my student feedback forms tell me so.

      Teaching college is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. You’re teaching either almost-adults, or outright adults, often highly motivated. I had plenty of teachers in college who couldn’t teach their way out of a paper bag, and were utterly unable to convey knowledge to someone who wasn’t already expert in their field.

      Thank god I was an adult and had access to good books, because I wasn’t learning crap from those professors — no matter how expert they are. And I was an adult, with a fully functioning adult brain, and by that point knew where my strengths as a student lay and could work around my own problems.

      K-12, on the other hand, is a whole different issue. Prior to high school, you’re dealing with kids who have a variety of learning styles (and issues, and often undiagnosed problems, and home life issues, and everything in between), and you’re riding heard on 20 to 35 of them every class, trying to make sure they actually learn (and on average, if they don’t understand, they won’t tell you, or often anyone).

      Junior high to high school you run into similar problems, but also hormones from hell.

      And of course, no matter how much we want to believe it — a child is not a miniature adult. Their brains don’t work like adult brains, which compounds the problem.

      Now down here, we have emergency cert classes (or alternative cert classes) that jam entire fields of pedagogy into three months (one summer, 50 hours-ish a week) and one year of heavily supervised teaching, to get you to be able to apply the theory to practice without
      totally screwing over 150 or so kids out of a year of education because you have skilled backup monitoring everything from your lesson plan designs to regularly sitting in on your classrooms.

      My experience has been that, other than the rare person that has an innate ability to read children, those teachers generally end up like people who pick up coding in boot camps or engineers who “taught themselves” pre-internet (and pre good canned online tutorials to feed you theory and background in addition to how to declare an int). Give them the same problem, over and over, and they can solve it. Not elegantly, but they’ll get it to work.

      On average they cannot, however, handle anything outside a narrow box. They often rely on other people’s lesson plans, they’re slow as heck to adapt, they can’t innovate when faced with problems (like new mandates, children outside, effectively, the first deviation of the average). Some pick up the missing information, come to really understand how kids learn (and how to tell they’re learning, and a bunch of other crap nobody really thinks about except teachers), mostly the really motivated ones.

      There’s a lot of skills that come into play, and frankly having two college degrees, the idea of “subject matter experts” just being tossed into a K-12 classroom is terrifying. Those poor kids don’t deserve that.

      Having said all that: The best teachers are those who are both subject matter experts and education experts. Plenty of folks with education degrees have a heavy focus on one subject matter or another — they wouldn’t qualify for, say, a BS In Chemistry — but only due to classes that don’t come up in K-12 education.

      I mean I have a CS degree (two of ’em). I don’t need about 70% of my subject matter classes to teach CS to high school computer science, even to AP kids. It’s just not relevant to the level they’re learning at in High School.

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  3. Seems there could be some kind of abbreviated path for people with the desired subject matter.

    If you want to teach HS, you need to take these seminars and spend a semester as a student teacher.
    If you want to teach MS, you need these other (or additional) classes and a semester student teaching.
    Elementary school requires these classes and a year as an apprentice.

    Etc.

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  4. In the state of North Carolina, I was rather shocked to learn that to get your licenser to substitute teach the required education was 35 hours of college credit. All well and good, I suppose, except when shortfalls happen existing and experienced substitutes are used to fill the gap, and I know of several folks who are waivered into full time positions (granted at lower pay scales and so forth) still operating off the substitute requirements.

    I do not think a degree is the end all be all, nor a particular measure of teaching ability. I would very much be in favor of more “life experience” folks to be brought into the educational system. DOD has the excellent “troops to teachers” program that has been very successful on that front, and other fields especially in hard to fill areas like math and science should be explored. There is no reason a retired accountant cannot teach math, or a medical professional instruct a basic science class. But that needs guidelines and managment, and till that is hashed out degree’s is what we have to work off of.

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  5. I’ve told this story before… My friend with the MS in applied math was urged to take a position teaching math at the charter high school her children attended. The administration’s implication, according to her, was that she would get to teach pre-calc and calc, be encouraged to occasionally bring in people she knew from her previous time in industry to talk about using math in the real world, etc. Once hired, though, the head of the math group said that as the most junior faculty member, my friend would be teaching the least desirable class — Algebra I for the kids who were only taking it because it was a graduation requirement.

    The math departments at the community college system in my state depend heavily on “volunteer” faculty. (They actually call it “volunteer”, because the pay is so low.) The regular faculty reserve the interesting classes — Calc I, II, and III, plus intro to differential equations — for themselves, and dump everything else including the remedial classes on the volunteers.

    I don’t know if other subjects have the same kind of problem.

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    • Anecdotally this is true of biology on some campuses. (Not mine: we are a small enough departments, and the only adjunct teaches online, so nearly all the senior faculty have at least one intro class).

      I actually like teaching the intro major’s class (it’s the cell/molec intro, outside of my field a bit, so it forces me to keep up with new findings). I’ve been told by students they can learn well from me, which is also nice.

      I will say dealing with first-semester freshmen can be EXHAUSTING because they don’t know how to “college” yet, but at the same time it can be gratifying when someone comes in with a problem they think they will have to quit school over, and you can make a phone call and clear it up in five minutes.

      They look at you like you’re an absolute WIZARD when you do that, and I don’t get to feel that enough in my life :)

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    • That’s one way for a profession to shoot itself in the foot.

      As I’ve mentioned before, The Lazy B had similar issues with junior engineers getting stuck with scut work because the senior engineers see that as ‘mentoring’, and don’t feel like sharing any of the interesting work until you’ve been there a decade or so.

      When it comes to the professional careers, seniority entitlement does serious damage to retention.

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  6. I often have dinner with Kathy Gornik (long time friend), one of the 12 members of the Kentucky Board of Education. There are a whole host of problems that need fixing. For one, the amount of requirements Frankfort generates is staggering.

    As an aside, my current work is providing engineering education for kids. An engineer from Lockheed-Martin loves what we do because they’re having problems finding people who know how to use tools. Most Univ of Kentucky engineering graduates haven’t actually done much with their hands.

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