Teaching Profession Opinion

Will the Best and the Brightest Teach?

By Gary R. Galluzzo — May 05, 1999 12 min read
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If any current idea on school reform has gotten through to the general public, it is the unprecedented need for new teachers. The baby boomers are leaving the field in large numbers, and the country needs replacement teachers, as well as additional ones to accommodate class-size reductions, in unprecedented numbers. And it needs them soon.

As a supplier of teachers, I should welcome this shortage. After all, in the world of supply and demand, more news of teacher shortages translates into larger enrollments in teacher education programs. But unfortunately, I believe things could be a lot better.

Highly visible reports such as “What Matters Most,” from the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, and “The Numbers Game,” from the National Association of State Boards of Education, have anticipated with trepidation one obvious problem: Our nation’s traditional and inadequate solution to teacher shortages is lowering the standards to let virtually anyone into the classroom as a teacher.

The issue isn’t merely the number of teachers we need; the issue is the caliber of people we need, how we prepare them, how we support them, and how we keep them in the classroom. While we are looking for more people to enter teaching, we are obligated to break with tradition and look for the right people at the same time. The problem is that locating the right people to enter teaching is no one’s job. As in many other fields, we take those interested and try to make them into who we need. We virtually ignore whether they possess the aptitude and predispositions to learn to be the kind of people we need in front of children. While it may seem comparatively easy, as a profession we are not well-practiced at locating the people we want at the volume we need them.

In many ways, we know the attributes we want in the candidate pool. We have a fairly good idea of how they should be prepared, even if many of us do not practice it. What we lack is a good sense of how to support them, and we are just turning the corner on how to retain their talents in the classroom.

  • The attributes we need. The “right people” include those who have a firm grasp on the discipline they want to teach. They should be competent to begin teaching from day one and show a consistent disposition to learn to improve. Finally, they must want to work with children, many of whom will be difficult to teach. The first condition should be assessed prior to entry into a teacher education program. We should no longer be admitting students who have not excelled in a rigorous undergraduate education. Their transcripts should show convincing evidence that they worked hard to learn the discipline(s) they want to teach to those who have little idea what it includes.

While they should convince us upon entry that they are dedicated to helping all children learn, that is insufficient. They should also continue to convince us throughout their preparation that they remain dedicated to teaching all children and to solving the challenges posed by those who do not learn as quickly as we might like. One failure of teacher education is that too often the monitoring of candidate performance is focused on the academic portion. It is equally likely, however, that the dispositional dimensions of effective teaching may be missing, even while the content remains strong. As the national commission’s report implores, we need teachers who are smart, competent, and caring. We expect the first, emphasize the second, and seem paralyzed over what to do about the third.

Unfortunately in the way we practice higher education generally, none of these attributes is guaranteed upon either entry into or exit from a teacher education program, nor more generally from the typical university experience. Not all who aspire to teach are well-prepared in their academic disciplines. There is wide variability in the quality of academic majors, even within some larger departments on the same campus. Not all of the students who enter a professional education program deserve to graduate from it. Finally, some aspiring teachers simply don’t have the emotional security we need in teachers, regardless of their age.

While we know the attributes we need in beginning teachers, most assessment systems in place are inadequate for ensuring that our pipeline provides the qualities our children need.

  • The preparation we need. The beginning teacher must be ready to teach from the first day she or he is alone in the classroom. While mentoring programs are proliferating today, they may be a luxury of our healthy economy. Those who aspire to teach should be secure enough in their knowledge and skills to know what to do in the best interest of their students, whether or not they have the obvious benefit of a mentor.

One response from schools of education to this issue of preparation has been to raise the standards for entry and exit. A second involves giving candidates more time working with children in schools, to make sure they are disposed to teach those who don’t master content quickly. Yet even these reasonably responsible measures are unjustly labeled by our critics as nothing more than a protectionist call for more process at a time when the overwhelming demand for new teachers is reaching urgent proportions.

Accepting fewer weak students and providing those we accept with more “real world” experiences will improve the quality of the graduates who teach the next generation. But we also must ask ourselves how market-sensitive we are in helping talented people make the transition into teaching in a timely and efficient manner. The call for quality and the demand for process must be addressed head on.

  • The retention issue. Recent history reveals that higher standards will attract more, and better, people. But the jury is out on perhaps the most critical point: Are there 2 million very smart people who will thrive in the world of work in schools? Stated more fully, are there 2 million very smart people who possess the free will to choose other professions, but will instead devote themselves to learning to teach well; who will graduate from their programs disposed to helping all children reach the standards; and who will work in an environment as highly regulated as schools are, for a salary that may not support a family? If we cannot answer this question, then we face a major obstacle in replacing today’s teaching force with the people we need for the first quarter of the next century.

The brightest among us have always sought autonomy and the opportunity to create and advance in the workplace. The people we want teaching the next generation are precisely those people. But they will want more than the work culture most schools will afford them. They will want to exercise their creativity, and they will want to advance in the profession. It is often hard to find that climate of intellectual entrepreneurship among the ranks of teachers in schools. So much of what goes on in their daily lives is dictated by all levels of education bureaucracy, from the state capital to the school building.

The way we are practicing education today will not attract the type of teachers we need at the volume at which we need them. We need to make the work of teachers more appealing to the best and the brightest.

Perhaps the mission of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to include high-quality assessments of teaching, promote board certification for virtually all practicing school-based educators, and use its five propositions as levers for education reform is on the right track. Its effects are yet to be felt deeply in the profession, however. Perhaps the proliferation of “action” research and viewing teachers as reflective practitioners and public intellectuals can eventually have an effect on the culture of the school as a workplace; but again, any such notions of success are utterly premature.

We are not making progress on changing the image our nation holds of working in a school, and unless we do, we may get the number of teachers we need, but not the quality we ought to ensure.

We are, of course, not alone. A parallel exists in the information-technology industry, where estimates of employment shortages abound. In the northern Virginia region where my university is located, high-tech industries are said to have about 20,000 unfilled jobs. The story must be similar in California’s Silicon Valley, the Route 128 corridor west of Boston, the Front Range in Colorado, and the other emerging high-technology centers throughout the country. My explanation for these shortages is the image of the workplace that many bright, young, talented computer programmers have. They consider the long hours in cubicles before screens, the windowless workstations, the pressures from employers worried over their companies’ sustainability, and then they choose to use their considerable talents in other ways to make a living. They want autonomy and a comfortable lifestyle.

A friend tells me the latest incentive sought by these smart, young programmers is to be able to bring their dogs to work. Another friend I have in the industry wants a recreation area as part of the employment package. And the industry is responding, trying to keep the skills and talents of these young people with incentives that promise a flexible workplace where they can invest their talents and enjoy psychic rewards.

In contrast, teaching historically has never offered anything of the sort. The conditions in which many teachers work will not attract the people we need.

An interesting coda to the high-tech industry’s shortage is its proposed solution. This year, Congress passed a bill that liberalizes visas so that workers from other countries can fill the vacancies. This action doesn’t necessarily lower the standards, but it doesn’t address the root of the problem either. And it is no different in teaching. We will be forced to let anyone in because the people we want probably don’t want us. The technology sector may be able to weather this “solution,” but can schools?

Mix together in equal parts (1) the fact that no one is really in charge of teacher recruitment, (2) that we have not created the kinds of preparation programs that attract the best and the brightest into teacher education, and (3) that we have not made schools into places that appeal to people who are searching for autonomy and psychic reward; then throw in a pinch of daily negative media coverage of teachers and teaching, and you can begin to see why the challenge to find the 2 million people we want may require Herculean efforts. Simply stated, the best and the brightest will not be attracted to teaching because of the quality of the local preparation program, and they will not find satisfaction working in places as highly regulated as today’s schools.

So the big fear is that the members of the state boards of education, who are really in control when it comes to the regulations, will not heed the exhortations of their colleagues in “The Numbers Game.” Instead, state by state, they will come up with the inadequate solutions that will have negative effects for another quarter of a century at a minimum. While their “solutions” are attractive, they are faulty and will not lead to the kinds of schools we need in the future.

One simple solution that is wrong is to let people into the classroom who have only preparation in the discipline they want to teach, and not in how to teach it. Imagine teachers who studied nothing but their discipline. They took courses in the foundations and facts of that academic discipline, and in the research methods that advance this chosen field of study. They also studied the edges of the discipline, out to where the explanatory power of its theories no longer sustain. Many would say these content experts sound like ideal teachers. On the face of it, this may be a very appealing solution.

Our schools need teachers who aspire and inspire.

The truth that cannot be ignored, however, is that we have thousands upon thousands of such people teaching in our institutions of higher education. Higher education is built on discipline-based expertise as a substitute for teaching effectiveness. Most professors are content experts in this traditional sense. The fallacy in this solution is found where content knowledge and pedagogy don’t intersect. If content knowledge is all that matters to effective teaching, then the teaching conducted in our colleges and universities should be the best there is. Sadly, it is not.

Another simple but wrong solution to the teacher shortage will be to license teachers who studied nothing but the methods of teaching, the foundations of education, the principles of how we learn, and the contemporary problems in the field. Surely this is not what we intend children to learn during their formative years in our schools. Professional education knowledge may be necessary for effective teaching, but like content knowledge, it too is insufficient in the preparation of a teacher.

If we use our shortage of workers as an opportunity to reconsider who we want teaching in our nation’s classrooms, then we might be able to consider what kinds of schools would attract them. Along the way, we can begin to think about new configurations of schools, including high-quality neighborhood schools, new grade-level options, improved and professional assessments of teachers and students, and perhaps choice in the public sector. This doesn’t mean we don’t hold the standards high for both students and teachers. It does mean that we address a host of questions we’ve been overlooking for decades that are now coming home to roost.

The time is right for us to expend energy trying to design professionally rewarding preparation programs, trying to find the right configuration of rewards, and trying to create the right climate in the workplace so that the best among us choose teaching as a career. Our schools need teachers who aspire and inspire.

The real teacher shortage is not in finding replacement teachers for the expected mass exodus. It is in attracting people we’ve not consistently attracted before, preparing them well in a professional culture, employing and supporting them, and then retaining them before they find that working in a school (of all places) smothers their intellect. Only then will we attract those who now choose other professions because of the tangible and intangible rewards they provide that teaching currently does not.

Gary R. Galluzzo is the dean of the graduate school of education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 05, 1999 edition of Education Week as Will the Best and the Brightest Teach?


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