The First Best Thing We Can Do to Improve Public Education: Help Teachers to Bring Up Their Scholarly Game


I was teaching the novel Jane Eyre to honors sophomores about 28 years ago in one of New York City's top high schools when a student raised his hand: "Why are you a teacher? You seem smart enough to be a doctor or lawyer." He was being a smart-ass. But he was also being smart.

Something happened when highly intelligent women began to have a wider range of professional options--when women interested in medicine were not automatically consigned to nursing--something good!--but there can be no question that the teaching profession took a hit. Despite that more men now become teachers, teaching children is still seen, to some extent, as women's work, as we might expect in a culture which tends to undervalue women's contributions in general. In 2013, neither women, nor men being graduated at the top of their college classes are entering teaching in great numbers. It is doubtful that schools will improve until this changes.

What has not much varied even since Plato held a teaching job is that the best teachers tend to be those of high intelligence who are passionately engaged in rigorous enrichment outside of the classroom. I'm talking about thinkers and intellectuals, not city workers racking up junk scholarship credits in costly teacher education courses designed to help education professors peddle their fresh-off-the-press "publish or perish" projects on the school system's dime, while offering matriculants a boost as they ascend the pay scale ladder.

Everyone knows that the New York City Department of Education is notorious for wasting millions of dollars each academic year, but many do not know that much of that waste takes the form of graduate school tuition for teacher education programs that not only lack rigor, but which often interfere with innovative, inspiring teaching.

Certainly some study in such areas as psychology, classroom management, administration and instruction of students with special needs can be helpful to classroom teachers; certainly some is necessary for teachers working with very young children and students with "disability," but ironically enough, school systems' over-investment in teacher education programs often forecloses upon teachers' intellectual growth. A middle school social studies teacher should study political science, history, international relations or philosophy at a graduate level. Teachers should not be made to serving as pawns in the racket of keeping floundering education programs afloat.

One often hears about the preponderance of unemployed Ph.d's and the grim dearth of employment prospects with which they contend. Philosopher and Notre Dame professor Gary Gutting proposed, in a June 7, 2012 New York Times opinion piece that appointing some of these Doctors of Philosophy to teach children might be a good idea.

Some might argue that teachers should have teaching certifications, as physicians do. Not a bad argument--on the face. The most elite college-preparatory schools in the United States not only decline to require their teachers to have education credits, they actually discourage 5 through 12 teachers from obtaining them. These schools embrace a 'teacher as scholar' ethos. In New York City, teachers at the weakest schools have certification, and teachers at the strongest do not.

I spent a lot of time in my children's elementary school classrooms when they were younger, and for about eight years, I watched their fine teachers struggle with teaching writing. (It's writing, not rocket science, I often thought. Why don't schools just hire writers to teach writing?)

Teachers in my children's school were required to use a particular pedagogy which was not without merits--but it was cumbersome; teachers complained bitterly about it, and students found it tiresome in the extreme. Teachers were pretty much required to muddle through it and often they were "successful" in training their charges to churn out formulaic, standardized test-appropriate paragraphs.

The fifth-grade teacher who taught my oldest daughter to write a proper essay was near enough to retirement to brave teaching reading and writing imaginatively. He dispensed with the graphic organizers and templates and "just right" independent reading texts in favor of a methodology whereby he, a thinker, and an avid reader, taught his fifth grade students how to "read like writers," as he calls it, and write like readers.

There's an old NYC public school faculty room joke that's probably 50 years old: English teacher #1: "Have you read Tale of Two Cities?" English teacher #2: "Read it? I haven't even taught it!" It is difficult for a teacher who does not have an lively reading and cogitating life to teach children to read like writers and write like readers.

This tyranny of mediocrity was not limited to reading and writing either. It extended to "'rithmetic." I recall commiserating, one afternoon, with a schoolyard dad about the previous night's fourth grade math homework. I was a poet who stopped taking math half way through high school. I expected to struggle with fourth grade math homework. My co-complainant, a piano-playing licensed architect who had been teaching advanced math at one of New York City's most competitive public high schools for two decades couldn't figure out the fourth grade math homework either! We laughed, but it was sad. "They just make it harder on the kids," he said.

I know one school principal whose command of standard English was so weak she would have strained to pass one of my City University of New York Freshman English classes. Yet, she was somehow able to parlay a short term of undistinguished classroom teaching, weekend and summer school coursework (on the taxpayers' dime) into what she now refers to as "a Columbia University doctorate."

I'm sure some excellent work is done at Columbia University's Teachers College but these credit hours do not come cheap. One needs 32 credits for a Masters degree. These credits cost upwards of $1,200.00. I'd like to know who paid the $75,000 plus for that aforementioned Columbia doctorate? Who pays the upwards of $30,000 it costs to complete a Masters Degree at Teachers College? Certainly not the NYCDOE teachers themselves. I have a hunch it is the taxpayers.

Do we also bankroll the cost of furthering the education of teachers who would study Arabic, Particle Physics, Zoology, Constitutional Law, or Art History at Columbia? Probably not.

Why not?


Because private school educators teaching grades 5 through 12 eschew teacher education courses, the very survival of these programs--especially ones housed in private universities--depends upon public school teacher enrollment. A subtle quid pro quo arrangement underpins this alliance. Schools implement the education professors' methodologies, and, in return, education programs confer advanced degrees to candidates (who would not otherwise be "graduate school" material ). These advanced degrees make it possible for teachers to obtain pay increases. Everyone wins. Except the students.

By the time they get to middle school, students are smart, and they need smart teachers. Students at all levels respond well to educators who show signs of having vital intellectual lives outside of the classroom. Posting genuine scholars, scientists and artists in children's classrooms would expose public school students to a higher standard of academic rigor than they currently enjoy, while helping to infuse the teaching profession with the prestige it deserves.

Consider the virtuous circle aspect; if teaching in public schools were to become prestigious (again), a higher caliber of college graduates would be drawn to the profession. More intellectual rigor all around would bring up everybody's game.

By the way, I answered that kid in front row. For all teachers I got all up in his grill: "I am smart enough to be a doctor or lawyer. Teachers are smart."