I hear a lot of talk these days about teacher quality. However, there doesn't seem to be much agreement on what good teaching is or how to develop excellent educators. Secretary of Education Rod Paige derides graduates of the nation's teacher education colleges as the benefactors of "bureaucratic ticket-punching" and then endorses efforts to let all sorts of folks become teachers through programs like Teach for America, Troops to Teachers and Former Baywatch Extras Looking for Summers Off.
No Child Left Behind mandates a qualified teacher in every classroom while declaring gifted veteran teachers unqualified retroactively. However, this, like every other problem facing education, can be solved with a test. Teachers can demonstrate their competence, not by teaching, but by passing a test.
As the teacher shortage becomes more acute, we seem to make teaching less attractive, less creative and less professional. Does anyone honestly believe it's a good idea to drop amateurs with just a few hours of instruction into the nation's toughest classrooms? Such practices are commonplace in urban districts. The odds are heavily stacked against such recruits making it to tenure, let alone becoming qualified to meet the countless needs of today's youngsters.
Formal teacher education programs in most colleges and universities are not very good. I agree with critics who accuse such programs of lacking rigor. The simplistic solution is to get rid of formal teacher education programs. We should be able to hold two thoughts simultaneously; teacher education is not rigorous enough, and we should make it more rigorous--not abandon it.
Without a conscious effort to improve teacher education programs and justify their value, we may soon see commercials touting how "You too can become a teacher" on the Jerry Springer Show. Teacher education needs to be about far more than classroom discipline and lesson plans.
While teaching is an art and a science, teacher education programs are increasingly vocational in nature. These programs kowtow to public schools demanding teachers who can read from a script, grunt phonemes or use a particular spelling book. Rather than the jewel of higher learning concerned with powerful ideas, best practice and the democratic ideals of an informed populace, teacher programs have become thoughtless tools of political whim.
Math teachers need to love math as well as understand it. They must have experience thinking mathematically. Teacher candidates must also understand a variety of learning theories, educational methodologies and intern in schools where innovation is modeled.
One of my fondest memories of teacher education was an early childhood methods class at Rutgers University around 1983. The course required us to understand the process of learning through tactile experiences. I remember making Pop-Tart box puppets and math manipulatives out of recycled materials. The professor, Lesley Mandel Morrow, was deadly serious in the way she treated cardboard puppetry and the use of contact paper as a poor man's laminating machine. The class may have inspired giggling, but it prepared young professionals for a lifetime of work with children. Basket-weaving indeed.
Pajama Party on Mars
I recently visited Australia's wonderful Spensley Street Primary School on the day Mars was the closest it had been to earth in 60,000 years. One area of this (K-6) multiage classroom studied Mars, space exploration and other related topics. Kids conducted research, wrote reports, read stories, painted pictures and sang songs. The students built a cardboard rocket ship large enough to hold 50 or 60 children during their day-long mission to Mars. They wore pajamas to school so they could have a slumber party on Mars before returning to earth. One little boy, about six years old, rushed up to me and spontaneously confessed, "This is the funnest day ever." I hope he enjoys many more like it.
I bet that six year old remembers his Mars pajama party as long as I remember how to make a Pop-Tart box puppet.
The near future will herald all sorts of new educational models, diverse learning venues and ways of knowing hardly imagined today. The draconian circumstances in which we now find ourselves are unsustainable and will be short-lived. An explosion of new educational opportunities and structures lie just over the horizon.
Gary Stager is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine Univ.