Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Having Your Credentialed Cake and Eating it Too

For Thanksgiving, the Education Gadfly offered up a great little gem on the debate between the local autonomy of principals to hire teachers and the apparent need for teacher credentials regulations, namely subject matter expertise. At the end of it all, Mike Petrilli argues that it must be a one or the other option. I am not so sure.

I am all for flexibility and accountability at every level, including the principal level. But unless principals are given the power to hire, and more importantly fire, teachers, I find it difficult to hold principals fully accountable for every failure at their school. True, no matter what the circumstance, they are responsbile, but how can you blame a principal for the failings of a staff he cannot select or selectively reduce? No teachers' union is ever going to agree to allow school principals to fire a teacher.

Teacher credentialing sounds like a good idea. After all, they have to have a license and most are required to get a master's degree and are rewarded for such things. But the current "credentialing" regime does little guarantee quality teachers. We get well-educated men and women leading classrooms, but not necessarily "highly qualified" teachers as NCLB puts it.

But highly qualified is a subjective term given an objective definition that does not fit the real world. As Mike Petrilli points out in a hypothetical:

Imagine a school leader in Appalachia who employs a dynamic, inspiring math teacher who gets great results in the classroom and helps all her students reach proficiency. Should the state or federal government care if that teacher majored in chemistry instead of math? How should that principal feel when told that this fine math teacher must jump through a bunch of hoops to meet the "subject matter competency" requirement? It makes you want to yell: "Cut the red tape! Peel back the bureaucrats! Trust the results!"

This point is important, K-12 education is largely about basics. Students learn the basics of math, English, History, Science, Arts, and other large general fields with many subareas. K-12 students generally don't learn engineering, advanced physical sciences, or focus solely on early American History or Romance Language literature. All of these general areas lend themselves to specialization, with a great deal of cross-discipline learning in college.

The chemistry major-math teacher in Mike's example, probably had to do well in advanced mathematics, including advanced calculus in order to get their chemistry degree. Why is that not considered highly qualified? If an English Lit major was teaching math, perhaps you have a case, a little common sense goes a long way. But regulators and lawmakers don't do well with common sense, because common sense cannot be written down with enough specificity.

All of this leads to my thought about why can't we have both local level flexibility and real professional credentials. Mike, like many Americans, views this as an either/or situation, a zero sum game. But it really is a matter of sequencing. If we can get a more highly qualified teacher corps--subject matter scholars with an advanced, professional degree in teaching, we can then work on making sure local school officials have more flexibility to hire and fire.

We as a nation need to begin thinking of teacher training like we think of legal or medical training. It needs to be very high level, focused on potential teachers who are scholars in their field, whether it be chemistry or literature. Those potential teachers need to be throughly screened at multiple levels, extensively trained and constantly re-trained, both as teachers and as scholars. Lest you think this impossible,perhaps we ought to look closely at the Teach for America selection process:

Consider the experience of Teach for America. TFA recruits more teachers every year than all but the largest districts, and it seems to have cracked the code on identifying teachers who succeed in challenging classrooms. While the program is well-known for attracting Ivy League grads with lofty test scores, its unheralded genius is its extensive selection process (essays, interviews, practice lessons, etc.) that pinpoints subtle differences among candidates, differences that seem to predict classroom success.

I (and others) have argued before that we need to have a professional development of teachers, real development. Then the principals will have a pool of highly qualified teachers from which to hire.

Mike sees it as an either or problem, I see it as a sequence problem.

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