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Published in Print: January 13, 1999, as MORE Teachers? What About the Ones We Have Now?

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MORE Teachers? What About the Ones We Have Now?

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The "more teachers = better education" equation is a flawed one. A key, but absent variable is the overall quality of the teaching corps.

When surveyed recently, nine out of 10 Americans identified "ensuring a well-qualified teacher in every classroom" as a priority. Second only to school safety, they said, teacher quality matters deeply. ("Public Prefers Competent Teachers to Other Reforms, Survey Finds," Nov. 25, 1998.) So what is the federal government doing to bring America closer to this goal? It's spending money ... and lots of it.

The current federal budget includes new funds of $1.2 billion for education. Yet the vast majority of these new funds are already earmarked for one thing: The monies must be used to hire new teachers to reduce class size. This stipulation is the result of political caterwauling about class size. On paper, $1.2 billion for new teachers sounds like a great idea. In the real world of public education, however, is it the best way to make use of education dollars? I would argue that it is not.

The "more teachers = better education" equation is a flawed one. A key, but absent, variable is the overall quality of the teaching corps. Like too many other so-called solutions to American public-policy challenges, increasing the number of teachers is just a quick-fix remedy to a problem that demands greater examination.

Teachers, especially at the elementary level, face many demands in the classroom, one of which is an expectation that they be experts in a wide variety of subjects. Imagine an 8th grade math teacher, struggling to teach 40 students the basics of algebra--a subject the teacher himself or herself hasn't been exposed to since the 8th grade. Imagine the difficulty he or she might encounter in trying to spark student interest in the material when the teacher's own experience, acquired long ago, did little to spark such interest.

Dedication to the teaching profession can't overcome the lack of subject-specific training and development. Particularly with subjects like mathematics and science, professional development for those teaching the basics is critical if students are going to excel. And too often, professional development as a means of improving the quality of education is overlooked in favor of measures like reducing class size.

The existence of more money does not magically create better-qualified teachers. Especially in rural and inner-city areas, it is already hard enough to attract strong applicants. By earmarking federal funds for hiring additional teachers as opposed to investing in the ones we have in place now, we are placing an even greater burden on those districts.

Sometimes the best lessons are the ones learned outside the classroom. When weighing options for improving our schools, it makes good sense to take a look at what other industries are doing the most with their most valuable resource--their employees. The business community is investing more and more each year in human-resource development. Why, then, are we limiting the amount we let school districts spend on the same process? Just like business professionals, teachers--especially those at the elementary level--need time to brush up on subject-area content, and catch up on "best practices" in their field. They need to be exposed to other professionals, to trade notes on what works and what doesn't work. Sometimes, we all just need to gain a fresh perspective and new excitement for the challenges of our respective careers. Teachers deserve that chance--even more than the rest of us, perhaps, because the ultimate consumers of their professional development are our children.

Limiting the amount of new federal funds that districts can put toward professional development may be politically expedient, but it is educationally shortsighted. The "more teachers = better education" equation has led us to make a questionable shifting of resources. In the current fiscal year, we'll be adding bodies rather than investing in the most valuable resource schools already have--the group of teachers they entrust to educate the district's children.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman founded Chicago's Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science in 1990. The academy was founded and operates to this day on the premise that we can improve the quality of instruction in our public schools through an intensive professional-development program for teachers. Teachers in schools that elect to participate in our program are immersed in an intensive, three-year process of professional development. They are instructed in science, math, and technology, as well as research-based teaching methods. They are supported, in their classrooms and out, by a network of academy staff members, parents, and community members. And when it's all over, they are better teachers, plain and simple. Not only do their students learn more--and test results of students in "academy" schools are rising at a pace more than double that of the Illinois average--but the teachers also are excited about what they can put into practice. In the space of just a few years, students are reaping measurable benefits.

Please don't misunderstand. Class size is a problem, a big problem. Studies show that children learn more and perform better in smaller classes. Certainly, Congress is to be commended for increasing its commitment to improving the quality of kids' education by reducing class size. But it's time for our policymakers to start paying more attention to making sure those doing the teaching are given the tools they need to excel in this very important profession. Otherwise, we're just spinning our wheels.


Lourdes Monteagudo is the executive director of Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science in Chicago.

Vol. 18, Issue 18, Page 72

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