Should it be Harder to Become a Teacher? Harder How?

Amanda Ripley has a thoughtful piece at Slate on how states are passing regulations that raise the SAT score/GPA bar for getting accepted into teacher training programs. I thought a lot about this as I wrote The Teacher Wars, which is a history of teaching in America (out Sept. 2! Plug plug!). It became pretty obvious to me that one of the original sins of our public education system was the normal school, a special school for preparing teachers — segregated from other higher education — which originally accepted only women, because women were cheaper to employ en masse as teachers. These normal schools, which began opening in the 1830s, were, at first, a substitute for academic high school. They sometimes accepted students with the equivalent of only a sixth or seventh-grade education. Later, the normal schools evolved into many of today’s non-selective regional state colleges. These colleges continue to prepare the majority of American teachers, who enter the classroom with undergraduate degrees in education.

As early as the 1850s, smart people who cared about public schools began to critique the “normals.” Susan B. Anthony, who began her activist career organizing her fellow female teachers to demand higher pay, believed teachers would never be respected until they were educated alongside other white-collar professionals. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “It was not enough that the teachers of teachers should be trained in technical normal methods; they must also, so far as possible, be broad-minded, cultured men and women, to scatter civilization among a people whose ignorance was not simply of letters, but of life itself.”

Like Amanda (a friend and colleague, whose book I loved) I believe teaching is difficult, highly intellectual work. But here’s what I found in my research. First, while a teacher’s intellectual capacity — measured through the size of their vocabulary, for example, and their writing skill – seems to drive increased student achievement, there is a much more tenuous connection between teachers’ own standardized test scores, their grades, the selectivity of their colleges, and student learning. (High school level math seems to be an exception; there, the teacher’s own achievement matters more.) Research on highly-rated teachers who stay longterm in the profession, and who are willing to commit to work in high-poverty schools, has found that although they have deep content knowledge, they are actually more likely to have been educated at non-selective institutions. And although we are currently over-producing elementary school, English, and social studies teachers in some major cities, we still need a lot of teachers every year, especially because teacher turnover is increasing. In some recent years, as many as 200,000 new teachers have been hired. High-poverty schools hire about 70,000 teachers annually. So we have to prepare teachers on a very large scale. Currently, only about 10 percent of teachers are graduates of selective colleges.

There is lots of room to improve teacher prep. And yes, it should be harder to become a teacher. But harder how? Working on my book, I came to believe, like W.E.B. Du Bois, that a first step would be to provide teachers with a broad undergraduate education, one in which they are fully and deeply introduced to the disciplines (math, science, history) they will teach in the classroom later on. For example, an education major would select a subject-matter concentration, such as biology, and take a sequence of classes equally rigorous to those of a biology major (there are some teacher prep programs where this is already happening). Secondly, as Amanda writes, teacher-ed students need to observe and then practice their skills in real classrooms. In my book, I report on one interesting model for doing that, the teacher residency, and look closely at the residency program in Memphis.

My hesitation is of a definition of intellectual or rigorous or selective for teachers that is too narrowly focused on standardized test scores or the grades teachers earned, as opposed to what trainee teachers have learned and done during their preparation. In some parts of the United States, such as in rural areas, there are teacher shortages, and we still need to cast a wide net to attract enough people to the profession. But overall, I agree with Amanda that teaching is difficult and we must conceive of teachers as intellectuals if we truly want to improve our schools. Beyond admission standards and training programs, this also means structuring the teaching job as one in which there is real collaboration and autonomy — in which teachers have the opportunity to rise into higher-paid mentorship roles, and in which they are empowered to help craft the curriculum. If we want teachers to be intellectuals, we have to give them some measure of intellectual leadership.

Much more on all of this in the book.