Opinion
Teacher Preparation Opinion

Shortcuts to the Classroom

By David Haselkorn — November 14, 2001 9 min read
The knowledge and skills necessary to help struggling learners don't always come with an undergraduate credential or a track record of success in another career.

In an effort to cope with teacher shortages, a number of states and school districts are recruiting candidates directly into the classroom, often armed with only a bachelor’s degree and as little as five weeks (or less) of “boot camp” preparation. Such shortcuts are not the answer to a chronic and growing supply problem. They shortchange kids, sell teacher quality short, and obscure the real nature of the nation’s teaching challenge.

As the argument goes, there are plenty of bright graduates of liberal arts colleges and midcareer professionals who might answer the call of the classroom. But too often unnecessary bureaucratic hoops deter them, for instance, the so-called “Mickey Mouse” methods courses in graduate education that teacher licensure requires. The prospect that, if freed from such trivial pursuits, graduates from academe’s elite institutions might forsake more lucrative career options for a crusade to save America’s inner-city schools may, at first blush, seem appealing. Likewise, the image of lawyers, scientists, and business professionals abandoning their careers for a chance to make a difference in hard-to-staff schools is equally beguiling. So what’s wrong with these pictures?

Teaching is not just about command of subject matter. It’s also about understanding how children learn, being able to connect with them, and knowing how to organize curriculum, instruction, and the classroom so that children can learn. Having been a successful learner is no doubt an important trait for aspiring teachers, but more important still is having the repertoire of knowledge and skills necessary to help struggling learners make the grade. And that doesn’t always come with an undergraduate credential or a track record of success in another career.

Moreover, by falling back on an “officer candidacy” approach to teacher training (instead of, say, a “service academy” one, to continue the military metaphor), states and districts are perpetuating the myth that good teachers are born and not made. And if good teachers are born and not made, then why invest money in their education and development? At the very time when brain research, cognitive and developmental science, and technology are giving us powerful new tools for helping all kinds of learners master challenging subjects, proponents of educational quick fixes offer the magic elixir of noblesse oblige in the teaching corps. But that is a weak substitute for the knowledge of what works, the skill to apply it, and the ability to reflect on teaching practice in light of theory, research, and life experience.

Such approaches also obscure the real causes of teacher shortages and many of the legitimate complaints that have been raised about teacher quality. To put it bluntly, it’s not so much a question of bodies as of bucks. We must make changes in the status, conditions, and compensation within the profession. Teaching shouldn’t have to be pursued as a quasi-philanthropic act.

The gap between teacher salaries and those of other professionals needs to be closed. It’s widening. The deplorable conditions that make so many urban schools hard to staff shouldn’t be tolerated in a country as wealthy as ours. And the demeaning infantilization that too many teachers endure day in and day out because of some schools’ mind-numbing, sclerotic bureaucracies is often as powerful a deterrent to teacher recruitment as any other factor.

Effective teachers need to be recognized and rewarded; poor teaching needs to be dealt with effectively. Added support and opportunities to improve should be provided for teachers found wanting, but removal from the classroom should come swiftly if adequate progress doesn’t follow. Fixing these conditions will do more to ensure a qualified teacher in every classroom than all the recruitment efforts in the nation can accomplish.

In the meantime, the quick fix that seems so attractive in the short run will, over the long haul, bear too high a cost. Higher attrition rates for candidates entering teaching via such shortcuts are one of their hidden costs. What’s more damaging, revolving-door recruitment will further destabilize schools that are already struggling. Attention and resources that could be targeted to fixing the root causes of the nation’s teacher shortages (compensation, conditions, and status) will be diverted.

The quick fix that seems so attractive in the short run will, over the long haul, bear too high a cost.

States that embrace the quick fix are settling for less when they should be demanding more. Ironically, this pitch for lowered standards for career entry into teaching is happening at a time when we are advocating higher standards for the academic performance of students these teachers will teach.

There are many more promising recruitment tools at states’ and districts’ disposal. Consider, for example, the Dewitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation’s Pathways to Teaching Program, and others like it. These programs take dedicated individuals working in school support positions and provide them with the preparation and training they need to become fully licensed teachers.

The new teachers who come through such programs already know the score when it comes to working in difficult neighborhoods and hard-to-staff schools, because most have been living and working in such environments for years. They also outscore their peers from conventional teacher-preparation programs on teacher-competence exams and have far lower rates of attrition from teacher education.

A frequent rationale policymakers use when adopting quick-fix recruitment paths is that they will attract more of the “best and brightest” into teaching. Yet the success of these programs suggests that the most able candidates for teaching’s toughest assignments may already be working in classrooms today as teacher aides and school paraprofessionals. Indeed, these programs exemplify the old adage that “it’s not how fast you get there, but how far you go.” They might also be telling us something important about the value of second chances in an era of high-stakes reform.

Or consider the urban-teacher-academy movement: school-to-career programs that get young people interested in teaching in their high school years. Participants take preteaching coursework in psychology, sociology, and the like, side by side with a college-preparatory curriculum. They get experience tutoring younger kids or peers. They learn what it’s like to make a difference in someone else’s life, boosting their own self-esteem and sense of purpose in the process. Dozens of these programs have sprung up around the country. They are working to build the teaching talent pool from its base and to motivate students toward academic success.

It is absolutely true that individuals from other careers can bring talent that should be put to use in our schools. But that doesn't mean we should relax standards. If anything, we need to raise them.

Then there are alternative routes to teaching that don’t sacrifice quality to expediency, but do provide time- shortened and innovative routes to meeting the very high standards we should expect of all teachers. Northwestern University’s Alternative Teacher Certification Program is a good example. It consists of an initial eight-week, intensive summer study period that focuses on educational theory, pedagogy, and practice teaching. During the year, interns work as full-time teachers in the Chicago public schools, while attending evening classes and being mentored by both university faculty members and public school teachers. A final phase of the preparation consists of a comprehensive evaluation of the interns’ academic work and teaching performance.

It is absolutely true that individuals from other careers can bring talent that should be put to use in our schools. So can liberal arts graduates, retired military personnel, and returning Peace Corps volunteers. But that doesn’t mean we should relax standards. If anything, we need to raise them, while also encouraging maximum innovation in the way these much more rigorous standards can be met.

One way to do that is through effective induction programs that link novice teachers with qualified classroom veterans who can serve as mentors, preferably in the schools (and the fields) of the novice teachers. To be effective, however, such programs need to pay close attention to mentor selection and training; ensure a reasonable mentor-to-novice ratio; compensate the mentor for the extra work involved; and set aside adequate time in the school week for mentor and novice to meet.

These kinds of programs have been shown to reduce new-teacher attrition significantly, while accelerating the acquisition of classroom confidence, competence, and effectiveness. All new teachers can benefit from them, but for alternative-route recruits they are a particular necessity.

Some states are also strengthening the community college connection, recognizing the role that improved articulation among two- and four-year colleges (and graduate schools of education) can play in strengthening the diversity of the prospective- teacher talent pool. More and more states are increasing loan-forgiveness programs to lower the opportunity costs of getting well-prepared to enter teaching.

Teaching shouldn't have to be pursued as a quasi-philanthropic act.

Other states and districts are working to improve the recruitment process itself, using online job listings, résumé reviews, and interviews to streamline the process and extend their reach through technology. The U.S. Department of Education has funded an online teacher-job-bank clearinghouse at www.recruitingteachers.org to help boost these efforts through a central teacher-recruitment portal on the Internet linking thousands of prospective teachers to hundreds of recruitment sites across the nation.

These and other developments are encouraging, but more must be done. And Americans seem to be willing to pay the price to do so.

Earlier this year, the pollster Louis Harris and I released results from a survey of public attitudes toward teaching, school reform, and equal opportunity. We asked a cross section of American voters a series of questions designed to explicitly gauge their support or opposition to a range of strategies to meet the twin demands of increasing recruitment and strengthening teacher quality. The answers showed unambiguously that the American people had a surer grasp of the stakes involved than many of their political leaders.

While 88 percent of the American public favored raising salaries to attract a larger pool of qualified teachers, for example, 75 percent opposed allowing liberal arts graduates to enter teaching without teacher education, and more than nine in 10 rejected the proposition that teacher education is a waste of time.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the current crop of quick-fix approaches to teacher recruitment garner press attention and policymaker interest. They make good copy in the way that any fairy tale would, and they offer reform on the cheap. But fairy-tale solutions won’t solve America’s teacher deficit. Targeted investments in teacher quality, higher standards, better preparation, more thoughtful and comprehensive recruitment efforts, improved working conditions, and better pay will.

David Haselkorn is the president of Recruiting New Teachers Inc., in Belmont, Mass., a national nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening the teaching profession. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of Recruiting New Teachers Inc.

A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Shortcuts to the Classroom

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