Teaching Profession Commentary

Teacher Quality Is a New National-Security Issue

By William J. Sims — April 01, 2014 5 min read

Years ago, when I first started to teach in a northern New Hampshire town, I had a class of seniors whose body language clearly communicated that they didn’t want to be in school. By outward appearances, their only aspirations were to join their parents working at the Brown Paper Co., a mill on the Androscoggin River.

Fresh out of a secondary “methods” class, I was ill equipped to teach kids who came to class to gaze at the ceiling, trade notes, and draw on their desks. One boy’s math book got smaller day by day, and I eventually discovered that he entertained himself and his peers by eating all the assigned pages.

One girl who never had her books, to say nothing of her homework, was so doleful I decided to stop by her home one evening to talk with her parents. What I found was a house with broken windows, children living in the kitchen with the stove for a heater, and missing parents who lived in the local bars. Here was my “underachieving” young girl taking care of all her siblings—and I had issues with her homework.

Joe Nocera wrote in The New York Times late last year about a National Council on Teacher Quality report on preparing prospective educators to teach: “The question the group asked was a simple one: Do education schools teach classroom management? The answer was: not very much,” Nocera wrote.

Training teachers to be effective has always been a difficult task, as my long-ago experience reveals. But training teachers to be effective in a 21st-century environment is more complex still.

What if we were to repurpose 1 percent of our defense budget (about $5.75 billion) and use it to pay for prospective teachers' educations?"

It’s more than just traditional classroom management and preparing to be effective in classrooms with a mix of students in language, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and learning styles. Today, transformational technologies are bombarding classrooms faster than schools of education can absorb and evaluate them. Then there is the challenging mix of new, uncertain teacher-evaluation systems, high-stakes tests, and the Common Core State Standards and related assessments, all of which will have a commanding influence in today’s classrooms and teaching practice.

One way to reframe the complex preparation conversation is to view public education as a national-security issue.

The Obama administration’s proposed fiscal 2015 defense budget comes in at about $575 billion. Meanwhile, the president’s fiscal 2015 budget request for discretionary education spending is about $69 billion.

According to data from the federal Digest of Education Statistics, more than 100,000 students graduate from colleges of education each year. What if we were to repurpose 1 percent of our defense budget (about $5.75 billion) and use it to pay for prospective teachers’ educations, at a cost of about $55,000 per student? This certainly could help attract the best and the brightest to America’s teaching corps, including those who might otherwise consider careers on Wall Street or in medicine, law, or the high-tech sector. Additionally, federal subsidies of teachers’ salaries could become part of the calculus to attract and retain the best and most effective teachers.

Since the United States now spends as much on defense as China, Russia, the United Kingdom, Japan, and the next 10 countries in order of expenditures combined, would it not be reasonable from the standpoint of national security to make such a modest reallocation in federal spending?

Of the global distribution of military expenditures in 2012, the United States accounted for 39 percent. The next closest was China at 9.5 percent, then Russia at 5.2 percent. How about a 1 percent transfer to our nation’s education future?

Teaching today is arguably one of the hardest jobs in America. Think for a second about technology’s impact on the classroom. Beyond smartboards, consider smartphones, electronic tablets, games, apps, blogs, and social media. Pundits tell parents, teachers, and administrators that kids are learning more (never mind what) out of school than in school. They tell us that kids “power down” when they get to school and “power up” when they leave school. Should educators be doing more with digital blended learning? Reformers ask, is school really a “place” anymore? Should we abandon rote learning, and embrace creative thinking, problem-solving, and project-based learning? Do colleges of education have the answers to any of these questions?

What’s more, teachers routinely are compared on assessment results with peers in other countries with better working conditions and culturally homogeneous classrooms.

The right response is for America to entice its strongest candidates into the teaching profession. Nothing less will do in this Internet-permeated, globally competitive economic environment, where soft power may be as important as coercive power was during the Cold War era. And here is a place where the United States needs to respectfully appropriate lessons from abroad.

In countries such as Finland and Singapore, teaching’s allure builds from an amalgam of substantial incentives, from college scholarships to the promise of respectable salaries. And, coincidentally, these benefits come with a level of social and professional respect that trumps most other occupations.

What prevents us from making the defense-budget switch? Entrenched interests, for one. Change threatens. We are also a nation with an aging population that is most comfortable with the way things were and perhaps less able to pitch in on the investments necessary to keep our public education system first-rate.

But, lest we forget, our public education system is the best investment we make in our progeny and posterity. Today’s elementary and secondary school students will lead our nation in this formidable age of information technology.

How do we solve all the challenges and complexities this country faces in educating our future workforce for this new millennium? There is no simple answer. But if America’s education reformers had to pick one sure bet to move the needle across the arc, luring top candidates into our classrooms would absolutely have the desired effect. Imagine what the potential economic and educational effect would be of this 1 percent shift in expenditure priorities on the performance of our kids in their schools, our global competitiveness in potential human capital, and, yes, on our national security.

Schools of education will always be behind the curve of transformational technologies and social media. But our best college students will always be at the cusp. These are the folks who will push teacher training in our 21st-century schools of education.

Could I have been better prepared to deal with my math-book gourmet from New Hampshire? Probably. But these times are tenfold more challenging and will require an uber-reform effort. We need the best and brightest in America’s educational trenches fighting for us.

It’s time for transformational change. Who among us is ready to make this happen?

A version of this article appeared in the April 02, 2014 edition of Education Week as Teacher Quality Is a National-Security Issue


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