Teacher Preparation Opinion

Assistance for Underqualified Teachers: Differentiated Responsibilities

By Dennis L. Evans — February 03, 1999 5 min read
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Problems associated with underqualified teachers cannot be wished away. Indeed, as the need for new teachers continues to grow, it is predictable that issues related to the lack of qualification of many of those new teachers will also grow and will eventually come to be viewed as a national crisis. Certainly the ultimate solution (if there is one) to such problems will involve monumental challenges and complexities related to changes in society’s commitment to schooling, perceptions of teaching as a career, levels of teachers’ salaries, and the rigor of preparatory and continuing teacher training. Equally certain is the fact that any long-term solution will require sustained and bipartisan effort.

But what about now and the near future? What can be done in the short term to protect this current generation of students from the consequences of being “taught” by underqualified teachers? The following ideas are in large part based on my 21 years as a high school principal and my eight years as director of a university teacher education program.

Regardless of the school and the general quality of the teachers therein, there will always be some teachers who are simply better than others. That is not a terribly profound insight; in any professional organization involved with a purposeful activity, and wherein practitioner quality is a function of developmental growth, some individuals will always be more experienced and more successful than others. That is true for law firms, hospitals, newspapers, police departments, and our schools.

That there is a hierarchy of experience and competency is a fact of organizational life. But there is a profound difference between how the education profession handles that hierarchy and how it is handled in the other professions. In no profession other than teaching are inexperienced and untried beginners left to their own devices and allowed to have autonomous responsibility to make substantive professional decisions. In law, the approach to a complex legal issue is either devised or carefully reviewed by a senior partner; in medicine, the treatment of a puzzling medical condition directly involves the consultation and judgment of the chief of staff; in journalism, an editor reviews and refines the work of reporters; and in police work, the rookie cop is paired with an experienced, streetwise officer. In each of those organizational settings, less experienced individuals are under the direct daily guidance, tutelage, and supervision of more experienced and successful mentors. Differentiated levels of decisionmaking authority based on experience and success are taken for granted. This is the case even when the new practitioner has completed a formal preservice training program.

Such is not the common practice in K-12 education. Indeed, teaching is often (and accurately) portrayed as a “lonely” profession. The first-year teacher, whether trained or not, is stationed alone in his or her classroom, totally responsible for the myriad educational decisions that must be made on a daily basis. Certainly there are school principals, but their administrative responsibilities preclude daily and direct supervision of new teachers. In fact, the culture of most schools is that the individual teacher, first-year or experienced, is expected to handle all of his or her own classroom problems. It is considered a weakness to need or to ask for advice or assistance.

Exacerbating this sink-or-swim mentality is the practice in far too many schools of giving the “rookie” teacher the most demanding and difficult assignments. (In California, a majority of the approximately 25,000 emergency-permit teachers in 1997 were assigned to 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade classrooms, wherein children are trying to learn to read.) Given those circumstances, it is no wonder that 30 percent or more of beginning teachers leave the profession during their first three years. That figure is even higher for emergency-permit teachers and in urban school districts.

Beginning teachers must be linked on a daily basis with successful, experienced teachers.

Education must learn from other professions. Beginning teachers, whether trained or not, must be linked on a daily basis with successful, experienced teachers. There is no reason that two or three classrooms, each with 25 students and one teacher, cannot be treated as a group of 50 to 75 students with two or three teachers. The ideal physical setup would allow for the class groups to come together on a regular or periodic basis, but where that is not possible the classes could remain physically separate and the involved teachers could still function as a team. The experienced teacher would take the lead in instructional planning, lesson design and implementation, and other areas of substantive decisionmaking. Volunteer or paid classroom aides or periodic substitute coverage could allow the teachers involved the opportunity to observe one another in action. The beginning teacher would follow the lead of the experienced, successful teacher. In California, a statewide Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment program is providing a major impetus to initiate some of these ideas, including the provision of stipends for successful, experienced teachers who serve as mentors and support-providers for the novices.

The logistics of such strategies or the excuses that will be proffered by naysayers about the problems of implementation are not important. What is important is that education must eliminate the nonsensical but common practice promulgated by union philosophy and supported by district policy that treats all teachers as absolute equals regardless of experience and demonstrated competency. We know that excellence in teaching is a developmental process, and that even the best-prepared of our beginning teachers benefit from the direct, daily support of experienced and successful teachers. It is imperative that we act on that knowledge, since we are now confronted with the need to employ thousands upon thousands of beginning teachers who have had little or no prior training. Each mistake that such teachers make is multiplied many times over by its impact on children.

In their book Learning Organizations for Sustainable Education Reform, Lauren Resnick and Megan Hall write: “To honor every child’s right to expert instruction, it will be necessary to create enhanced instructional expertise throughout the teaching force, so there is enough expertise to go around.” Such expertise in teaching is out there; we only need to reconfigure our organizations along the lines of the differing responsibilities in other professions in order to capitalize on it.

Dennis L. Evans is the director of credential programs in the department of education at the University of California, Irvine.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 03, 1999 edition of Education Week as Assistance for Underqualified Teachers: Differentiated Responsibilities


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