Friday, February 3, 2012

Is A Degree in Teaching Becoming Obselete?

In my last blog I proposed significant changes to the graduation test used by the State of New Jersey and the Core Curriculum Content Standards that are the putative foundation on which the HSPA is built. In making my case the issue of teachers came up, specifically the need for our State to attract “the best and the brightest” among or college graduates. It was then that I realized that some potentially divisive issues may arise if we treat collegians with education majors differently from those with degrees in disciplines like math, economics, and engineering for example. Now the more I think about it, the more I realize that a possible solution, albeit a controversial one, would be to eliminate the undergraduate degree in teaching. It is time to open up discussion on whether college students interested in a career in teaching should be required to earn a degree in a “specialized” major, and more importantly, if we should eliminate the B.S. in Education for the purposes of teaching.

A WestEd study by Frederick Hess titled “Finding the Teachers We Need,” which drew on studies by the author, the US Department of Education, McKinsey, and several other reputable sources, noted that “Undergraduate education majors typically have lower SAT scores than students who hold other kinds of majors and who consider teaching, and those who leave the profession in their first few years have higher scores than those who remain in teaching. Some estimates find that 44 percent of middle school students take at least one class with a teacher who doesn’t have even a minor in the subject being taught, and almost a quarter of secondary school students take at least one class with a teacher who doesn’t have even a college minor in the subject, a figure that climbs to 32 percent in high-poverty schools.”  According to the NCES (National Council on Education Statistics) study, which surveyed high school teachers during the 2007-2008 school year, “fewer than half of chemistry and physics teachers majored in those subjects, and a quarter of math teachers don't hold math degrees. The problem extends to history, where less than two thirds of teachers hold a history degree.” These statistics are even worse in our inner city schools where the need for knowledgeable, passionate, and resourceful educators is even more profound.

Compounding matters is the fact that public education is doing a poor job retaining college graduates that do enter the profession with “specialized” degrees. A recent study in the Scientific American noted that 25,000 STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) teachers left the profession last year, citing inadequate pay, a lack of professionalism, and poor supervisory support.

The problem, as I see it, is that if we as a nation are committed to getting and retaining “the best and brightest” in the classroom, especially in our inner cities, then we are going to have to incentivize the hiring process through a combination of merit pay, loan forbearance, improved clinical supervision, and greater freedom for teachers to design curriculum and have a say in establishing the culture of learning at school. To do this we are going to be targeting those college students NOT in undergraduate teaching programs, and older professionals interested in career change. We would be effectively creating two classes of prospective teachers. This could have long term consequences in the schools as the potential for disparate treatment by stakeholders, and disparate outcomes in merit pay become evident.

Moreover, there is no evidence that new teachers entering the profession with degrees in Education perform better, or are more likely to stay in teaching, than those entering the profession through non-traditional paths and with non-teaching degrees. There is simply no strong rationale for drawing teachers from those who went to college to receive a degree in teaching rather than those with degrees in accounting, economics, statistics, botany, or anything else.

Now this doesn’t mean that we should just be throwing new teachers into the classroom completely unprepared. Maybe we can explore the idea of requiring all college students anticipating a career in teaching earn a minor in education and receive support through an intensive program combining observation, mentoring, clinical supervision, and opportunities for collaboration. For those entering teaching without any background in education, existing alternate certification paths are in place to provide those aforementioned needs in addition to providing supplementary college coursework.

Most teachers learn what works “on the job,” through a combination of trial and error, professional development, and effective support from supervisors and peers. I will admit to a certain bias in this debate, as I was part of New Jersey’s first “class” of alternate route teachers in 1987. I enjoyed what I believe to be a wonderful support network, from my classes at Glassboro State, to my mentor teachers, to my supervisor Walt Belfield, who “Madeline Huntered” me every day for a month and provided exceptional directional supervision.  There is no reason that all new teachers can’t have a similar experience.

If our goal is to attract an “army” of high quality teachers, then we must be open to discussing the way in which we select, prepare, and retain them. I think there is a pretty strong consensus for what is needed to build a high quality professional corps of teachers, and it does not include increasing the number of college students with teaching degrees. It is time to discuss whether a degree in teaching has become obsolete.

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