On Teacher Training

I’ve been doing some work recently on national and regional qualifications frameworks. A big thing, for me, is what I’m calling “horizontal mobility.” I see nearly all around me, and in my own life, people trying moving between careers as much as they’re trying to move up careers. How we frame “qualifications”, in my mind, is deeply flawed and often serve as pointless barriers. In a few months, I’ll be qualified to teach and develop teacher training courses but not qualified to teach in my school system. 

Second, I’m increasingly of the belief that problems we see in work performance are related to the systems themselves far more than a lack of specific skills. Does the US have an shortage of engineers or a shortage of engineers willing to work for a low price? Are service sector employees rude because they’re not paid well and their managers are rude to them or because they simply don’t know how to be empathetic? Is there an entrepreneurialism crises because people don’t know how to start businesses or because competing with Wal Mart is impossible and the police would chase most unlicensed, unregistered vendors off the street?

Getting back to teacher education specifically, I found myself mostly agreeing with the claim by Bill Keller in today’s New York Times that teacher training programs in most universities “have treated education programs as ‘cash cows.'” Why? 

 … they have plenty of applicants willing to pay full tuition, the programs are relatively cheap to run, and they are accountable to no one except accrediting agencies run by, you guessed it, education schools. It’s a contented cartel. 

The primary difference is that Keller is using this as a twist for reform. The problem for him is that these schools aren’t good enough, that they’re not exclusive enough, and thus produce produce poor quality teachers that produce quality students. Despite acknowledging that there little to no statistical proof that teacher qualifications do anything accept make it more difficult to become a teacher, he nonetheless says that there is “there is a fair amount of consensus about what it would take to fix things.” Well, “among reformers,” anyways.

The first step is to make teacher colleges much more selective. According to one respected study, only 23 percent of American teachers — and only 14 percent in high-poverty schools — come from the top third of college graduates. The importance of selectivity comes through vividly in “The Smartest Kids in the World,” Amanda Ripley’s engrossing new diagnosis of why American education lags behind the likes of Finland and Singapore. Ripley says she was initially skeptical, since most research shows little correlation between a teacher’s grade point average and classroom results. Then she went to Finland, where only top students get into teacher-training programs.


I’ll wrap-up with three notes. I will, for now, ignore how the term “reformers” increasingly means “people who liked No Child Left Behind.”

The first is that one can summarize most of what goes on in an education courses as, “here’s all this stuff that we know is great,” followed by, “here’s how we actually run schools.” Good teaching, by and large, isn’t happening because our school systems are often designed to reward bad practices like teaching to tests. In China, for example, nearly every local English teacher I’ve met has been their own worst critic. They hate teaching to the test, but that’s what parents and administrators often expect of them. Teaching becomes highly technical when teachers and students are forced to navigate broken systems.

Second, I think Keller has a strange vision of change. We we to start making waste management a highly selective degree program – or, in fact, require a degree – would that suddenly make it a prestigious job? This is blaming teachers for their own deprofessionalization and low wages. It’s as if to say, “if we trusted you more, we might pay you more.”I think he has it exactly backwards.

I explicitly decided against pursuing an education degree as an undergraduate because (a) it required more work than other degrees, (b) it would have taken focus off the subject areas I actually wanted to teach, and (c) I knew there was something like a 50% turnover rate for new teachers in my state. There was no education minor (as I think there should be) that led to certification, so education was a “take it or leave it” proposition. Why would I “take it” when there was such a high burnout rate, such low pay, and many schools would hire people like me [which they ultimately did: I had two job offers after graduating] and pay for certification later – if I actually stayed?

Third, I’m a  fan of teacher’s continuing education, but think how we usually run teacher qualification programs is the racket that Keller is describing. My wife entered teaching through the private sector in China, and when we came to Hong Kong, no “real” school would even interview her. She applied for a part-time PGDE programmes, but was rejected because she wasn’t already a teacher. The only way to get in would have been to quit her job and study full-time. She accepted an offer to study a Master of Education too. She was only offered a job after we paid for a more “credible” TESOL certificate. I’m not sure how much she learned, as she already had five years experience in the classroom, but she had one of the highest marks of any student they’d had. 

She was finally offered a job a month ago at one of the most prestigious schools in Hong Kong. For me, it shows all the contradictions and paradoxes of our qualification systems. First, she wasn’t even allowed to get the right qualifications through the public sector (HKU) to become a professional and was forced to get a private certificate that, to me, is of negligible value to someone with the kind of experience she already had. She was further denied the opportunity to work at even the lowest ranked schools in Hong Kong. Ultimately, the only school that actually wanted her was a school with enough standing and reputation to make an independent judgment call.





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