Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University

edited 11/2/16 

Really want to improve American schooling? Here is the first and most essential step. Recognize that good teaching requires special knowledge and skill. Teachers are the key participants in improving our schools: and nothing good will happen without strengthening their preparation and licensure.

This is no pipe dream. Advances in the teaching knowledge base make it possible to transform teacher preparation into a meaningfully rigorous and truly empowering process. But instead of exploiting this unprecedented opportunity, state and federal officials have been fostering lax, disempowering short cuts into teaching. For instance, thirty eight states now offer so-called alternative certification programs. And most of these alternatives are so undemanding they virtually insure incompetence. And depite rhetoric to the contrary, their sole purpose is to license “teachers” on the cheap.

This betrays a fundamental lack of genuine commitment to school improvement. Instead of weakening already anemic certification requirements, officials who really were serious about school improvement would trash quickie alternatives to meaningful preparation and decommision marginal teacher preparation programs at profiteering colleges specializing in cut-rate blue light certification programs.

Serious school reformers would also stop appointing pedagogical simpletons to educational positions of power and influence. When billionaire Ross Perot was appointed to head up school “reform” in Texas, for instance, he was totally, perhaps invincibly, ignorant of the teaching and learning knowledge base. He had no clue about the research that disproved his own blustering encyclicals. And, emboldened by this ignorance, Perot and his accomplices in the Texas legislature made sure that Lone Star state teacher preparation would be brief and superficial.

Sadly Perot isn’t unique. Invited by state and national chief executives, corporate types have long been meddling in teacher preparation. Consider, for example, the businessman-led 1996 National Education Summit (That so-called summit was co-chaired by IBM’s Louis Gerstner, Jr. and held at his firm’s facility.) The governors only invited their favorite businessmen. And what sort of teachers do you think these corporate types long for? Thoughtful teachers capable of developing tough, independent-minded critical thinkers; teachers capable of encouraging young persons to seek rich and fulfilling lives, or docile, rule-obeying teachers who train “team players” to perform circumscribed “practical” skills.

Sadly, public officials who have special interests inimical to quality teacher preparation. Increasing the supply of certified teachers by cheapening requirements, for example, drives down salaries and cuts the cost of government. Moreover, if the people entering teaching are less knowledgable and less committed to the profession, it weakens teacher unions — a prime goal of those Republican politicians whose election bids are routinely opposed by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

The liberal arts professoriate typified by former Secretary of Education William Bennett, a classic no-nothing so far as pedagogy is concerned, have also had great influence on teacher preparation. What did Bennett know about schooling, teaching or learning that qualified him to become the nation’s Secretary of Education? Virtually nothing; yet he was just brimming over with ideas about “reforming” teacher education.

Or how about Lynne Cheney, former Chairperson of the National Endowment for the Humanities. As Chair of the NEH, Cheney routinely supported alternative teacher certification while assuring us that an academic education was not only necessary but sufficient for teacher preparation. Research certainly doesn’t support that assertion, so how did she know? It must have been her years of practical experience. After all, she and her liberal arts colleagues “teach” in the nation’s colleges and universities without training in pedagogy. But these are the same folks who think teaching is lecturing and haven’t competently planned an actual lesson in their entire careers. Plus there is a mountain of difference between pre-sorted college students and the youngsters found in our public schools. The point here is not to attack these individuals personally, but to stress their complete lack of relevant expertise with respect to public school teaching.

Most scary of all are the big-city school district bosses that want to train their own teachers. The bulk of them were once classroom teachers themselves; but that was long ago and far, far away. Presently they are trying to govern the ungovernable, and manage the unmanageable, What sort of teacher do you think they long for? The same sort of coal miners, coal barons longed for ot the same sort of steel workers the steel barons longed for. Compliant, docile, predictable and exploitable. With big city school bosses in charge of preparing their own teachers you can be utterly certain that whatever else these aspirants are trained to do, it won’t be to disagree with what these schools are presently doing.

Those who care about teaching can be forgiven a certain indignation at the influential trifling of educational incompetents. As the famed philosopher Alfred North Whitehead puts it:

When one considers in its length and breadth the importance of a nation’s young, the broken lives, the defeated hopes, the national failures, which result from the frivolous inertia with which (education) is treated, it is difficult to restrain within oneself a savage rage. — Alfred North Whitehead The Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York: Macmillan, 1929) p.22.

Some respond that that is just a “special interest” of college based teacher educators who are merely “protecting their guild.” But are the interests of teacher educators more “special” than any other human being who cares about what they do. And remember, it took guilds, with their rigorous training, to build enduring masterpieces such as Europe’s great cathedrals. Master glass workers or stone masons certainly didn’t invite “creative, idealistic and enthusiastic” people in off the street to try their hand at stained glass or stone carving. They were unrelenting in their apprenticeship requirements and the results speak for themselves. And its similarly rigorous teacher preparation that can help improve our public schools.