The decline and fall of the American mind is evident whether you flip on a TV sitcom, tune in a radio talk show, or listen to political rhetoric. It is also apparent when you walk through many of our schools. Educators and psychologists point to the curriculum, disparities in I.Q. as suggested in The Bell Curve, lack of parental involvement, and inequities in funding as causes of our intellectual demise. I believe the root cause lies in the way public school teachers are trained, certified, chosen, evaluated, and maintained in their careers.
Common sense tells us that if we want to learn something, anything, we seek an expert in the field, an experienced practitioner who has mastered all aspects of the subject and can convey that information with clarity and enthusiasm. We choose a working professional as instructor and mentor, and strive for as much attention to our individual progress as possible. Why, then, don’t we apply this simple logic to the education of children?
A look at the system is revealing: Higher education has two tracks, one for practitioners and one for teachers. The practitioners become the biologists, mathematicians, writers, architects, musicians, and other professionals of our society. They are typically immersed in their subjects, passionate about what they do, study and learn continually, and talk shop compulsively.
Stop right there. Why aren’t these our teachers? Because the teaching track is built on the premise that Education is a subject in itself, designed to enable the novice to teach. Would-be teachers take education courses instead of honing skills in a chosen field. Certification calls for generalized, not specialized, knowledge and the acquisition of education credits and student-teaching hours, as opposed to benchmark achievements in a specific discipline. Few serious practitioners persevere through the education mill.
Teachers thus trained work from a power base, rather than a knowledge base, and instead of forging a community of scholars with their students become authoritarian and repetitive. They in turn are evaluated by administrators who are products of the same system, and unlike corporate managers, they have not demonstrated mastery in a particular field themselves. The two groups relate to each other as political antagonists rather than as colleagues working toward a common goal. Protected by strong unions, the members of each are eligible for tenure within three years. Teacher renewal might be achieved through periodic evaluation by an outside professional group, but that is not part of the current institutional framework.
Education today has become a vast and self-serving industry, one that has ceased to meet the needs of its clients--the students. Yet students know what’s genuine. They engage with enthusiasm in music and sports, where they are most likely to be taught by working professionals, and reject instruction that does not originate from a teacher’s substantive knowledge of a subject. They may wish to work energetically as full participants, but all too often sit on the sidelines in class trying only to catch the code to pass the test.
The time has come for a new paradigm in education, one that makes achievement, excellence, mastery of the subject, and performance in the chosen field criteria for teaching. These are our hopes for our children, and they should be the requirements for our children’s teachers.
A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 1995 edition of Education Week as Certify ‘Those Who Can,’ Not Just Those Who Pass Education Courses