The Center for Public School Renewal
NOTE: Published in slightly different form as "Don't Blame Teachers for Low Standards" by The Detroit News, 10/10/96.
"State Teachers Underqualified" howled the front page headline (The Detroit News, 9/13/96). I can hear the thuds as teachers all over the state dive for cover from this most recent bombardment. Why don't newspapers fire a salvo or two in the direction of other responsible parties once in a while? For example, why didn't we see one of these equally appropriate headlines instead?
It must be that teachers--so visible in every community--are easy targets. Scoring hits on them while the real culprits stay safely out of sight is like shooting fish in a barrel--effective, but not very sporting.
Let me tell you something about teacher certification--let me tell you about my Grandma Lula. She started teaching near Ludington in 1906--at the age of 18, with an 8th grade education. She'd passed a teachers' test and the State said that was good enough for it to trust her with a one-room school. A few years later she left teaching to marry. My Dad was born, and a year later her young husband died of TB. She wanted to return to teaching, but the State now required teachers to have a year of "normal" school training. She left her infant son on the farm with his grandparents and moved into Ludington to attend County Normal. In the fall of 1913 she was back in the classroom. In 1917, at the age of 29, she got her high school diploma.
Throughout the '20's she took workshops in order to improve her teaching skills and keep her Second Grade Certificate current. During the summers she took college courses, and in the early 1930's completed the requirements for her Life Certificate. The State proclaimed her fully qualified to teach grades K-8 anywhere in the state for the rest of her life. Even so, she continued to improve her skills through workshops and other studies. She brought her 44-year career to a close in 1954, well-honored by colleagues, former students, and parents. I know, I was there. There's even a small scholarship fund in her name at the local community college.
While Grandma was a great character in our family, what she did to prepare herself as a teacher is no more than what thousands of Michigan teachers, past and present, have done and continue to do. Teachers, like most people, do what is expected of them. If the State sets inadequate certification standards are teachers to blame? If colleges offer inadequate training, where do teachers turn for something better? What can good teachers do when school administrators fail to properly evaluate and remove incompetent ones?
Having said all this, do teachers need to be better trained? Sure they do, just like everyone else in this increasingly technological global village. But it won't be cheap and it won't be easy. The average teacher in my former district is 45 years old and has been teaching for 20 years, with another 10 or more to go. She is right in the middle of her life--kids just starting college, elderly parents to cope with, maybe a husband who's on the verge of being down-sized from his corporation. How is such a person going to find the time and money to get more training on her own?
And who says it's just the teacher's own professional responsibility anyway? What about the responsibility of other culpable parties--state bureaucrats, administrators, and colleges? School district curriculum specialists--with little help from the state, colleges, or even some of their own colleagues--have offered this training for a number of years now. They will have to do more. Where will they get the money for it? How will they find time to train teachers in ways that don't disrupt the schooling process? There are no easy answers to these questions, and this is not a situation that will be fixed any time soon.
Not only is under-certification a problem that's been around since at least 1906, it's a problem the State vacillates on. For example, certification laws are still in effect, but Michigan's new charter school legislation allows such schools to hire non-certified teachers if they choose! So what does the State really think the connection between certification and competent teaching is after all?
If you figure it out, let me know.