Monday, July 05, 2004

Won't Someone Think of the Children?

Happy Independence Day everyone! And as much as I love this country, I was reminded today of the limits of my admiration for a country that claims to adore the miracle of the free market. During the local festivities my family attends, I ran into my old high school social studies teacher, Jeff, who now works at a local public school. After catching up a bit, I told him I’m interested in teaching, to which he reminded me of two huge problems with the public education system.

The first is the firing problem. Jeff pointed out that the public schools have bad teachers in them, preventing newbies like me positions to could fill. I have no idea how common they are but the real point is how hard they are to fire. Jeff referenced the old saying by Louisiana Governor Edwin Washington Edwards that they only way he’d lose a race (or in this case get fired) is if he was found in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy. (Though he later lost to Buddy Roemer in 1987.) I can think of two main reasons for this structural problem. The first is one that I hope Mike will provide more concrete evidence for as it is more of his area: teacher unions. From what he’s told me (and this doesn’t surprise me at all) is that the unions make it incredibly hard to fire teachers. The other obstacle is a supply problem. The fact of the matter is that there are few eligible teachers at the high school level, especially for disciplines including biology, economics, math, foreign languages, physics and so on. Schools don’t want to fire teachers if they don’t think they can replace them. (I wish I asked Jeff why he thought it was so hard to fire teachers and I hope that once I give him the address of LLL, he’ll lend support to one of these theories or provide a new insight best accessible to those with the local, tacit knowledge of a public school teacher.)

While the teacher shortage is a real problem and legitimate grounds for keeping less than good teachers, what defenders of our public school system tend to ignore is that they are an author of their own problem. The second obstacle I’d face is my lack of a teaching certificate. Because I decided to major in political science and economics, I didn’t have time to get a certificate, a perquisite to teach in any Iowa public school. I question that claim I need documentation to prove I can teach. I’ve tutored students at the college (with notable success), taught friends in my spare time (with their gratuitous thanks) and lead numerous undergraduate class discussions in the areas of my expertise. My mother teaches college-level math so I have an experienced resource to call upon if I ever run into a problem I don’t know how to solve. Next semester, I’ll be a TA to an undergraduate economics course, organizing study sessions and grading their tests and homework. And the bottom line is, I’m a personable person and have taught many people many different things with compliments all around, which is more than I can say for some teachers and professors I’d had in my educational career. Requiring a teaching certificate is not only insufficient insurance against poor teachers, it prevents good teachers without “proof” from having the opportunity to instruct.

The state of our public school system is the result of a vicious circle. Parents and other voters want to guarantee good teachers so they require a certificate, which puts a strain on available teachers. This shortage forces schools to keep the instructors that got the certificate despite being poor at their job, which only encourages more regulation. But if we were to remove the requirement (as Illinois schools are slowly doing), there would be potentially good teachers to replace the bad. Will it be enough? It’s hard to tell, but there will certainly be more than before, and, as the bad ones are rooted out, there will be better ones, too.


Erin said...

You're underestimating the difficulty of teaching a class of students. As I have taught, and mostly from the superficial position of full inclass TA, but other areas as well, I can testify to the challenge of teaching a group of people who don't want to be where they are and don't give a flying rat's ass about the subject.
The people you've taught are willing and able or not, in need of your service. As a tutor, they are in one way or another coming to you specifically for help. Those people are responsive and in even the most limited situations open.
Getting a teaching certificate isn't that hard of a process. It's just something you have to schedule in. It's still possible to get what you're looking for. However, if the mandate of certificate were laxed, which it is in places like Illinois you (and just look at our public education problem *shudder*) have an influx of people who are well-meaning or not, motivated or not, and as I and my cohorts from the class of 2000 saw people with great personality excellent ability in their subject, but zero ability to teach.
I agree with the problems you point out, and that something needs to be done, too many bad teachers, too little people, but also consider that teachers get paid pasly amounts for what they do, especially the good ones, and the government is pushing the 'value' of private school. These things too dry up the well of available teachers.

David said...

True, teaching is more than just standing in front of a classroom talking. I know that. And if I'm not that good at the other stuff, I should be fired. But by assuming anyone with certification is automatically a good teacher and anyone without it is incompentent obviously puts too much faith into a piece of paper. As for the certification itself, it DOES cost time and it DOES cost money. Otherwise, what would be the point of having it?