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Anyone Can Teach? Stop Political Attacks On Professionalism

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If we accept the time-honored and common-sense proposition that an educated citizenry is a vital necessity in a democratic society, then it would seem to risk tautology to suggest that a highly skilled and well-trained teaching profession is also a necessity. And, if we accept for the sake of argument, that our schools are not doing as well as they should, then one would expect demands for better preparation and training of our teachers. And yet, for a growing number of politicians, it appears that just the opposite is true.

Certainly it will be nigh impossible to find a politician who will not extol the virtues of universal public education. And while there may be significant disagreement regarding what that education should comprise, there will be unanimous affirmation of the importance of providing schools and schooling for our children. But when the discussion turns to the qualifications of those who will conduct such schooling, politicians as philosophically estranged as Gov. Pete Wilson of California and President Clinton share some common (and low) ground.

Governor Wilson, in several recent statements clearly linked to his Presidential aspirations, has basically taken the stance that "anyone can teach." He has suggested that obtaining a California teaching credential should be made much easier and much faster for those rendered unemployed by the general economic malaise that has struck California, and particularly for those affected by cutbacks in defense-related industries.

The fact that none of those individuals, by definition, were desirous of pursuing a teaching career before their layoffs and current hard times apparently carries little weight with the Governor. Nor does the fact that being trained as a scientist, an engineer, or a technician is no guarantee of teaching ability (just ask university students who take courses from researchers). Mr. Wilson obviously sees this situation as an opportunity to show, at once, his concern for the unemployed and his commitment to "doing something about the schools."

On the surface, those seem to be worthy goals. And they would be, were the means espoused to meet them sincere attempts that also made sense. But, in reality, they represent a thinly disguised attack on the teaching profession, a profession which, because of its growing union orientation is anathema to many conservative Republicans. (This growth in teachers' unions has been brought about in large part by the state's abysmal failure to adequately fund and support public education.) The tactic is also a rather clumsy attempt to gloss over the blunders and lack of foresight of California's political and business leaders, who were unprepared for the end of the Cold War and the concomitant downsizing of the state's huge cadre of defense workers.

President Clinton, for his part, has provided support for the notion that "anyone can teach"--though perhaps more unwittingly--through his Administration's naïve endorsement of the ill-conceived Teach For America, a group that believes any idealistic young Ivy League graduate can overcome lack of educational knowledge or aptitude with eagerness and a willingness to give a couple of years of service. Teach For America is a grant beneficiary of Mr. Clinton's AmeriCorps national-service program, an initiative loosely linked by some to the Kennedy era's Peace Corps.

But effective classroom teaching, especially in an urban setting, is not the same as Peace Corps-style activities like building a bridge in Ecuador or showing indigenous peoples how to irrigate their fields. One of the few similarities between the two programs in fact may be a short tenure and the disillusionment of many of these altruistic and undertrained volunteers.

We are well aware that most politicians will not adopt a particular stance unless they believe it will play well with the voting public. Thus, what is perhaps most frightening about Mr. Wilson's and Mr. Clinton's endorsements of the "anyone can teach" mythology is that they must have cause to believe that many Americans are sympathetic to the notion.

There is a sad irony in this movement toward deprofessionalizing teaching and providing easy access to the classroom. It is occurring at the same time we are discovering more and more about the subtle, complex processes that take place in learning, and how decisions that teachers make can enhance or retard those processes. We also are accumulating compelling evidence about the fragility and vulnerability many children bring with them to school. If they are to overcome these barriers to learning, such children need the very best professional care possible. They, and indeed all children, deserve teachers who look upon the profession as a calling that demands both commitment and expertise.

Our schools should not be looked upon as a halfway house or a recycling center for workers displaced from other fields. To meet the future need for more teachers by lowering entry standards is not the answer; rather, we should focus on creating the inducements related to salaries and working conditions that will attract first-rate job candidates. The profession~~al preparation of teachers, if anything, should be made more rigorous and demanding than it currently is. In California, a four-year college degree and one year of pre-service training qualifies anyone for a teaching credential. To lower those standards even further for political or economic reasons is to do a terrible disservice to our children and to our society.

Political leaders who, in their modern-day version of Know-Nothingism~, conceive of teaching as a relatively simple, readily mastered task diminish the importance of a rigorous profession~~al-preparation program for prospective teachers. They are not only wrong but are dangerously wrong. They are wrong in that effective, high-quality teaching does not happen easily or magically: It results from the confluence of personal dedication, subject-matter and pedagogical competencies, high standards for self and students, motivational skills, and the ability to reflect on and benefit from experience.

They are dangerously wrong in that their "bully pulpit" espousal of the "anyone can teach" mythology will make it much easier for the American public and its elected officials to duck the responsibility for finding ways to support and finance high professional standards for those who would teach our children.

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