My “Ah-Ha” Moment about Teacher Preparation and Quality

imgres-1Anyone interested in education reform should be thinking about what makes a good, great teacher?  How does one train?  What is the ideal teacher preparation? What message are we sending to our children, along with adults and the rest of society, about teachers? We complain about the state of education and its quality and ability to ready children for the world to come. At the same time, what are we doing to get at the root of what creates a great teacher? Do we believe evaluating them in a rigorous fashion and removing those who don’t cut it will solve the problem? Who will replace those teachers?  How are we preparing new teachers to be better and more prepared to meet the needs of the world to come?  I realize that all the complaining about teachers is useless without a substitute or alternate plan to replace those who are not deemed qualified to teach.

So what is the “ah-ha” moment?  I am reading Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World–and How They Got That Way (NY TIMES BOOK REVIEW HERE).  The perspective of this book is important. It is not a formula that says do this and you get that. Ripley undertook a thorough study of education systems, who is successful and why, including the United States. By following three US exchange students in highly rated foreign programs, she tells their journey: the story of public education in Poland, Finland and South Korea, all highly touted for their current achievement in educating their masses. There are no silver bullets here, well almost none. Finland still gets the gold star for revamping their system with remarkable improvement that doesn’t seem to pay for itself with the students’ lives. You can read the book and find the revelations for yourself.

My realization or “ah-ha” moment came when she said this:

The more time I spent in Finland, the more I started to worry that the reforms sweeping across the United States had
the equation backwards.We were trying to reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture through
dazzlingly complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis.
It made sense to reward, train, and dismiss more teachers based on their performance,
but that approach assumed that the worst teachers would be replaced with much better ones,
and that the mediocre teachers would improve enough to give students the kind of education they deserved. 
However, there was not much evidence that either scenario was happening in reality. (From The Smartest Kids in the World., page 193 iBooks)

So what to do?  In the US, we have put countless dollars into “pay-for-performance” programs to weed out the bad teachers and/or motivate them to do better. They are evaluated and hopefully mentored in a nurturing way. My fear is that we don’t see evaluation and improvement or becoming a great teacher as a process. We don’t necessarily value what is of fundamental importance. There needs to be a serious effort to create a protocol of high standards to recruit and retain teachers. Why aren’t we doing this?

I have done a lot of teaching to groups of all ages and sizes. Still, I would find it hard to qualify and quantify what makes a good teacher. Of course there are the obvious: passion for the content and deep knowledge of that content; an understanding of the abilities and knowledge of your class; practice at appropriate delivery; not giving the answers but motivating the student to ask questions and find the answers;a connection to students; and yes here’s the tough one – an intangible people sense to know how to approach the huge variety of learning styles and the ability to equally reach all of those students. Perhaps our teacher training programs are getting it all wrong. First they vary in the qualifications needed. Some accept excellent students and have those expectations, others do not. They are often a fail-safe college degree for someone who either couldn’t maintain much academic rigor, doesn’t have adequate talent to “do,” or plain and simply doesn’t know what else to do and an education major is not too hard. Take a look at your state university’s education degree requirements. It is an eye-opener that will answer a lot of your questions.

There are some novel programs and excellent ones out there, but I am afraid they are the exception rather than the rule and again, how many of those people are teaching in today’s public schools? What is the percentage?

Instead of focusing any more on the negative. I want to focus on the possibility for the future. I believe in public education. I believe it is one of the things that makes our country great. We need to step up and analyze this situation and begin to make change that will matter. Consider all the voices and do the research. Evaluate all the possibilities. Support the foundations and local organizations that inform public education. Go to your school board meetings. Be an activist and speak out. Remember the students of today will be the professionals you deal with tomorrow. What could be more important that educating children? 

 Radio Program with Amanda Ripley is HERE.


Categories: Education reform, STEM education

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