Invert the paradigm

If you’re an educator, I don’t need to belabor the point that American teachers aren’t respected as much as they should be. In other high-performing countries, educators are revered. Why is this?

Amanda Ripley does an excellent job explaining this in her book The Smartest Kids in the World. Of course, there’s no way to pinpoint exactly how American teachers have become such a joke to many community members, but there are a lot of interesting theories, and teachers aren’t off the hook as to why it has come to this.

First, teaching credential programs in the U.S. are ubiquitous and hold very low standards for admittance. We need to shut down schools, many of which are for-profit, that churn out candidates without preparing them for the classroom.

Second, candidates should face the same rigor law and medical students experience. This will not only attract applicants who seek a challenge, it will also weed out the people who don’t have the true desire to teach. The teaching credential program will finally have a gatekeeper.

Third, if candidates face more “punitive” measures during the credential program, then there can be less draconian policies aimed at teachers (and students) once they’re in the classroom. Because teachers faced a rigorous process in college, they can handle more autonomy in the classroom. This will foster creative and interactive lesson plans that are designed by people who are truly qualified to teach.

Fourth, pay teachers more. I don’t mean pay all teacher more, at least at first. Just pay first year teachers more. I’m thinking $70,000 right off the bat.

How will we pay for this? Here are two ideas:

  • Stop wasting money on expensive gadgets. Instead of putting smart boards in every classroom, put in smart teachers.
  • Stop paying publishers for expensive curriculum–especially when qualified teachers can create the curriculum themselves.

The investment in people will yield rich dividends and doesn’t depreciate in value.

We’ve got it upside down

In her book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley discusses how Finland rearranged a critical portion of their education system, which made their students some of the highest scoring kids on an international test called the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

In America we have a lot of teacher training colleges that aren’t very rigorous in their enrollment process or their curriculum. As a result, these places of higher learning churn out a surplus of teachers who aren’t very well prepared to teach or well educated in their content area. In fact, the book states that most American teachers did not graduate in the top third of their high schools.

The high standards come once the teacher already has a job. The American system makes it really easy to become a teacher, and then schools are expected to work at very high standards with punitive measures taken if students don’t perform well.

Reading what Finland did was as refreshing as a cool drink for Tantalus, considering the fact that Ripley writes about ideas I’ve thought about for years. Finland does not create a surplus of teachers. They make getting into a teacher training college very difficult–about as difficult as medical or law school here. Then, the training  is extremely long and rigorous. As a result, teachers are well respected by the students and parents, teachers can be given more autonomy because they are well trained, and–since most Finland teachers faced a challenging enrollment process and curriculum/training in college–they don’t receive many of the punitive No Child Left Behind measures later in their careers.

In this way, teaching becomes a more professional career. All we have to do is flip the system.

We can’t just expect higher standards for our kids; we must also expect high standards for all our educators.