Monday, November 16, 2015


“If police officers were trained like teachers, cadets would take a test one day and be out walking the streets with a loaded weapon the next.”

If you haven’t heard, there’s a teacher shortage right now…caused by a perfect storm of disrespect, poor salaries, lousy support for public schools, legislative mandates, and a drop in enrollment at teacher preparation colleges and universities.

Instead of addressing any of these needs and issues, reformers and policy makers have doubled down on the attacks, marginalizing our concerns and opening up the floodgates to alternatively-certified teachers. NO other country in the industrialized world has gone in this direction. In fact, high-test-scoring countries have no alternate routes to teaching. So…all those countries who kick our butts on those tests than mean so much to policy makers have chosen to go a totally different direction in teacher preparation and certification. Maybe they don’t want the improvement they say they want.

In Oklahoma this school year, there are 1,000 teachers teaching with emergency certificates. A large number of them are probably alternatively-certified: people who decided to take the tests and pay the fee, and  become a teacher. Some will be very successful. Most will not. These teachers will teach students whose educational lives will be ruled by high-stakes tests. We give kids teachers with little to no preparation for their jobs, and then we fail the student or refuse to give her a diploma. Takes the breath away if you think about it for too long.

Here is where Lawrence Baines’ book, The Teachers We Need vs. The Teachers We Have comes into the conversation. I used to think Teach for America, with its five weeks of ‘boot camp’ was about as dismal a way to get into the classroom there was. Baines shows us the folly of that thinking. Compared to other fly-by-night programs, TFA is downright rigorous. Because “Increasingly in the United States today, the sole requirement for entering the teaching profession has become a passing score on a content-area exam.”

He begins with a discussion of testing for teachers…tests designed to predict a candidate’s effectiveness in the classroom, as measured by tests kids take. He states, “In fact, what a teacher scores on a test has little correlation to their effectiveness in the classroom.” Two testing giants have a lot riding on states continuing these tests, whether they’re useful or not. ETS and Pearson are sitting pretty. Again. Still.

Baines investigates programs from around the country and categorizes them according to the levels of quality of preparation. He looks at course work (if any), duration and rigor, and uses four descriptions: Zilch, Cram, Minimal, and Adequate.

A Zilch program is “… little to no preparation (may include a test required by the state).”  Just that test. “…more and more states are replacing high expectations for teacher preparation with nothing more than a passing score on content-area tests – tests that have shown no correlation to student performance.”

The American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence provides an example of a zilch program. What a high-sounding name, huh? They’re a business, not a Board. They sell candidates CD-ROMs to prepare for the certification test, that they prepared, and they grade. Sweet deal for candidates. Not so sweet for their students. In Idaho, ABCTE candidates are exempt from other teacher testing. In New Hampshire, ABCTE candidates are placed in the same category as teachers who are National Board Certified Teachers. Because, you know, “Board.”

Cram Level programs provide course work for candidates. Most course work is in content areas, not in pedagogy. Usually no field experience or intern teaching is required. In fact, one program, iteachTEXAS, counts a teacher’s first year of experience, with pay, as his or her internship.

Minimal Level is just that…minimal coursework and minimal (but at least some) field experiences. Baines points out in New Jersey, their alternative program undercuts the ‘rigor’ of TFA, making TFA look unattractive. What the heck? TFA is too hard??

In my mind, there is a disquieting trend in all these programs…the eager support of state departments of education and state lawmakers. Everyone, it seems, is happy to fast-track unprepared candidates into the classroom with no preparation, no support, and no experience. I wonder is it because these teachers cost less, since they have no experience, and will probably never invest enough in teacher retirement to draw a pension? s it because they’re easier to intimidate, evaluate with test scores, demand long hours, keep their mouths shut about harmful reforms? Do what they’re told and shut up?

Why the eagerness to marginalize traditionally-prepared teachers? Why take a completely different direction than those countries whose scores we are chasing? I am perplexed. And reading of all the programs and businesses trying to cash in, I get frustrated for my profession.

Back to Baines’ descriptions of programs. The last level is Adequate – course, different field experiences, and student teaching. They are out there. And they are…adequate.

In self defense, many universities and colleges are offering a hybrid alternative certification program, and my home state of Indiana, actually has a law on the books that requires all higher education institutions to provide alternative certification programs, because, “..with the surge of alternative certification, many universities now educate fewer teachers than do businesses, school districts, and governmental agencies.”

Baines makes the connection to alternative programs and new laws about mentoring, putting the burden of supporting poorly-prepared novice teachers on the shoulders of already-burdened veterans for little or no compensation.

Exactly the opposite of high-scoring countries. Baines describes teacher preparation in Singapore and in Finland, and the US suffers in comparison. High standards, tests to be admitted into school, and interviews are all part of the admissions programs. In Singapore, only 20% of applicants are admitted, and in Finland, only about 13% are. Teacher preparation is centralized in both countries, as is certification. In Singapore, there is only one teacher preparation university…granted, it’s tiny a tiny country, but still. Only one. Both countries have rigorous expectations for their candidates, but with support. Singapore actually pays tuition for students, with the understanding that if they drop the program, or quit teaching within 5 years, they will be required to pay back the country’s investment. In Finland, teacher preparation programs result in a master’s degree with extensive course work and field experiences. Quality is controlled because quality is planned from the beginning, and conditions are created for success.

Contrast that commitment to teacher preparation with the US – where “more than 1,200 institutions prepare teachers….Add to this number the burgeoning industries in alternative certification represented by businesses, state agencies, and K-12 schools, and the number of places where a teacher might be prepared approaches 2,000.”

Where other countries -- high-scoring countries -- approached education reform by revolutionizing teacher preparation, centralizing the process to control the quality, the US ignored teacher quality, and in fact undermined teacher quality by encouraging the alternative certification industry to thrive. The US chose to make everything rise or fall on student test scores, “certifying teachers willing to play by these rules.” A revolving door of ill-prepared teachers teaching our children.

Baines concludes his book by comparing teaching with other professions – he gives a fascinating history of the American Medical Association and its work to promote the profession. He describes the preparation, both academic and practical, for lawyers, plumbers, and funeral directors. There are no short cuts, no fast tracks for these professions, nor should there be. But for teaching? He’s written this book showing us how little regard (my words) our policy makers feel for educators and education.

I must ask ‘why?’ Why do our kids mean so little to our policy makers that they send unprepared teachers into the classroom? Why are our children being compared with students in these high-scoring countries whose teachers have been nurtured and supported and respected…and paid a living wage? What are our policy makers telling us about their values?

Yes, we have a teacher shortage…so that probably means  more, not fewer, alternatively-certified teachers. But if we want to be great, we must wean ourselves off the quick fix and elevate my profession – my family’s business.

This book begins the conversation. We NEED better-prepared teacher. We deserve better-prepared teachers.

If you care about teaching and education, this short book is one you need to read. I think I’ll buy copies for my own Legislators. Maybe the words of a respected professor will mean more than mine do.

I hope so.


  1. I have a copy of this book as well. I read it a few years ago as I was finishing graduate school. It's almost as if the policy-makers have driven would-be teacher candidates out of the pipeline so that we have to accept the reality of makeshift, temporary labor.

    1. In my most cynical days, I absolutely believe that...create an army of temp workers, run them into the ground and make conditions so awful that they quit, allowing the next wave of temps to be hired. Salaries will be low, no buy-in to retirement plans...

      It's nuts. We are so wrong in this policy. All the higher-scoring countries have gone the complete different direction.

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